Tuesday, July 12, 2005

George Sanders

The Siren's favorite shot of George Sanders comes about midway through Rebecca, when he pops up suddenly in a window of Manderley. His handsome face eases into a smile, he charms with his silky baritone speaking voice, but there is something snake-like about the way he jumps into the room. Here is Joan Fontaine's deadliest adversary, smarter and much less obvious than Mrs. Danvers. Sanders' greatest roles often had him as the man too worldly, too intelligent for the milieu he's stuck in. Some say his life played out the same way.

He was born July 3, 1906 in St. Petersburg, Russia. He died of an overdose of sleeping tablets in Spain in 1972, and left a famous note: "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."

Sanders the witty misanthrope, killing himself because he could no longer stand the ennui--that would be a gesture Addison DeWitt, the critic he played in All About Eve, would have applauded. But reading about Sanders gives you little reason to think Addison was close to his personality, however brilliantly he may have played the part. Joseph Manckiewicz, for the record, always said Addison was a self-portrait. In Pictures Will Talk, Kenneth L. Geist's Mankiewicz biography, Celeste Holm recalls that Sanders was "a brilliant actor, but he wasn't much fun." Anne Baxter says his "energy was nil" and that the director had to prod him into a performance.

Particularly difficult to swallow is the idea of Sanders, always described as a man of intellect, marrying and then putting up with Zsa Zsa Gabor (for eight years, from 1949 to 1957). From Pictures:

Gary Merrill relates that when ... Zsa Zsa ... wandered on to the set beseeching that she 'must haff George to go shopping,' Mankiewicz politely informed her, 'We're making a fucking picture, honey.'

Who knows what was behind that marriage. Well, as the Siren's father once remarked about one of her ex-boyfriends, "I'd ask what the attraction is, but I guess there isn't much left." Sanders was also briefly married to another Gabor sister, Magda. Imagine Lydgate in Middlemarch, stuck with not one, but two Rosamonds.

The Siren loves Sanders in so many movies. He made more than 100, ranging from B-grade thrillers to masterpieces, and wasn't boring in a single one. With the aid of a beard obscuring that famous face, he dressed way down and was a believable pirate in The Black Swan (or as believable as any Hollywood pirate ever is). Sanders makes an indelible impression even in his briefest roles, like that of the classmate at a reunion who suspects Edward G. Robinson is not what he seems in Julien Duvivier's wonderful, underrated Tales of Manhattan. Give him a good line and Sanders' delivery would turn it into a classic, as in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, when his character looks at a rainstorm and drawls, "It's easy to understand why the most beautiful poems about England in the spring were written by poets living in Italy at the time." "Forgive me for the intelligence of my argument; I'd forgotten that you were a member of Parliament," he says in The Picture of Dorian Gray, with sang-froid Oscar Wilde himself might have envied.

He will be forever associated with his roles as a heel, even calling his autobiography Memoirs of a Professional Cad. But Sanders could do much more as an actor. In This Land Is Mine, directed by Jean Renoir, he plays the collaborator sympathetic to fascist politics, but appalled by the consequences when he betrays a resistance fighter to the Germans. And there is the end of Dorian Gray when, as Lord Henry Wotton, Sanders looks at the hideous corpse of Dorian and sees the result of the self-centered hedonism he preached so wittily to his friend. In his face you see horror, realization and the dawn of self-reproach, all in a matter of seconds.

As for the part that comes closest to Sanders himself--the Siren has her own candidate. It isn't Addison. It is the intelligent, unhappy Englishman in Roberto Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia. Sanders' character has gone to Naples with his wife, played by Ingrid Bergman. They know their marriage is dying, not from any dramatic cause, but from the thousand cuts life whittles into love every day. They separate, they go off alone, they have squabbles that trail off rather than end. Finally, during a religious parade, they reconcile. Sanders stills loves his wife. They choose one another, and the occasional dreariness of a shared life, over loneliness.

Sanders' final note doesn't strike the Siren as a cynical flourish. It leaves her instead with the sadness and anger that attach to all suicides, and the wish that Sanders could have found someone or something to choose for a little longer.

10 comments:

Diane said...

Oh, I love Rossellini's "Viaggio in Italia." He's wonderful in it and the movie stayed with me for days. But his first appearance in "Rebecca" is my favorite shot of him as well. His sudden yet very suave entrance is so well suited to the shape of his head (that must sound odd, but the physicality of the appearance is what strikes me).

One of the most remarkable and easy on the ears voices in the history of cinema, I think he's terribly underrated as a general leading actor, since he was typecast to a certain extent.

I think the next film of his that I am going to see is "That Strange Woman." It's directed by Edgar Ulmer, who made the absorbing "Detour" on a shoestring budget. It also costars the gorgeous Hedy Lamarr. Lamarr and Sanders -- I have got to see that!

Campaspe said...

I have seen Detour several times but never even heard of That Strange Woman. *scribbles on Sanders To See list*

George said...

Hate to think of a Best of Sanders without mention of "Foreign Correspondent," a Hitchcock from 1940 with his turn as Scott ffolliott (see it if only to catch his explanation of the double f and the non-capitalization, although there are many other reasons) and "Village of the Damned," an alien invasion movie of 1960 in which our man is pitted against a classroom full of terrifying kids with unusual eyes and powers.

Campaspe said...

I thought about discussing Foreign Correspondent, but it isn't really one of my favorites. I do like that he's a good guy in that one and gets to be dashing. Village of the Damned I haven't seen; I confess to having a prejudice against the genre. To me, sci-fi is generally the brussel sprouts of cinema; may be good for me, but I don't like it.

Exiled in NJ said...

I remember finding The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry one day at Movies Unlimited near Philly. Late wife loved Sanders so I rented it. I wonder if this film is still around, for Sanders and his possessive sister Geraldine Fitzgerald are both wonderful.

duMaurier's book goes downhill after we find out that Max killed Rebecca. It becomes his story, not the nameless heroine's, but in the film, Sanders reveals himself to be the more dangerous of the adversaries since he does not rely on witchcraft or magic spells.

Campaspe said...

Welcome Exiled, I recognize your name from Lance Mannion. I am putting the Sanders film on my want-to-see list but lately if I want a classic movie I have to buy it. If you think NJ is exile, try Toronto. Sigh. anyway, thank you for stopping by!

girish said...

Some great Sanders picks here.
I also like him a lot in two Douglas Sirks, "Summer Storm" (which I have the cramped memory of watching in a little carrel at the Film Reference Library in downtown Toronto) and "A Scandal In Paris" (which is on dvd).

Campaspe said...

Oy, my Sanders must-see list is becoming positively unwieldly! He made so many movies that I didn't even notice he worked with Sirk. I am intrigued by this Film Reference Library in downtown Toronto, must look that place up.

Orion said...

I agree with the poster's opinion on his character in Viaggio in Italia. That said, the 40's were Sanders's most productive decade. I'm referring in particular to what I call his two trilogies: one with Sirk, one with Albert Lewin. They are both good. The Sirk trilogy consists of "Summer Storm", "A Scandal in Paris" (a gem) and "Lured", with Lucille Ball (very enjoyable). The Lewin trilogy consists of "The Moon and Sixpence" (a thinly veiled biopic on Gauguin, with lines like: "Women are strange little beasts. You can treat them like dogs, you can beat them till your arm aches and still they love you. Of course it's an absurd illusion that they have souls"), "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Private Affairs of Bel-Ami", which features "the longest duel until 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'" (sorry, can't remember where I found this quote). Equally endowed with enjoyable dialogue. At the beginning of said duel, Sanders purrs:

"Might I offer my adversary a cigar? A good cigar puts the nerves in order and I have no wish to take an unfair advantage"
"I have no nerves"
"I suspected as much. Nevertheless I am distressed to see my adversary without an umbrella. Might we offer him one of our umbrellas?"
"I'm used to shooting in foul weather"
"In that case, perhaps I may be permitted to retain my umbrella? I do not wish to quit the field of honour with a bad case of sniffles..."

Campaspe said...

Orion, I am delighted you're perusing the archives, I often fear that no one does. Since I posted this I saw two of the Sirks you mention and agree on all points (still searching for Summer Storm). Bel-Ami hasn't turned up yet but I'm hoping and hunting. I am almost positive I saw Moon and Sixpence eons ago but that piece of dialogue passed right over my head. Sanders could say things like that and still make them palatable, it was his signature ability as an actor and a constant delight.

Last year I read Brian Aherne's reminiscences of him, which don't amount to much but do have a lot of Sanders' wonderful letters quoted at length. I want to read Memoirs of a Professional Cad but want a copy under $200, damned hard to find. They should reissue it. Sanders' cult is alive and thriving.