Thursday, March 05, 2009

George Sanders on the Kind of Thing to Give the Public

Honestly, the Siren wants to write something but it's like trying to dig an MG Midget out of a snowdrift. Just getting the time to watch anything has been a chore. Daylight is approaching, however.

In the meantime, the Siren turns to her beloved George Sanders, who had some decided ideas about how to keep a reading audience interested, as he here demonstrates in a letter to Brian Aherne.

In the late 1950s Aherne and Sanders, good friends for many years, were simultaneously writing their respective memoirs. Aherne assures us that both autobiographies were remaindered quickly, but Sanders' Memoirs of a Professional Cad is now an out-of-print cult item, commanding prices that start at about $80 to $100 for a battered second-hand copy. Some years after Sanders' suicide, Aherne collected his reminiscences of and correspondence with his friend (and Sanders' longtime wife Benita) into a book called A Dreadful Man, from which this letter is taken.

Weeks Farm

6th September 1959

Dear Brian,
I think you will find if you tell the truth in your autobiography nobody will be interested and you will find it difficult not to be pompous and dull. It doesn't matter if the title of the book is misleading, as long as it's eye-catching and intriguing, and it doesn't matter if its contents are silly if they are entertaining. As a suitable title for your book I suggest,

Chapter one.

"Take that you bastard!" said Joan Fontaine, her strong little fist connecting with my chin. Lightning exploded in my brain and I went down for the count of ten. As consciousness returned, my mind drifted back to my boyhood in Birmingham. I thought of the poignance of first love, the unforgettable spring when Birmingham's air, soft, richly thick and grey, and fragrant like an unwashed bedsock, made my heart beat faster. And she came running towards me, my little Beryl, her little fist outstretched and her high, childish voice crying to me, "Take that you bastard!"

My reverie was cut short by the emergence of Louis B. Mayer from the bathroom. I understood at once that my career was ruined. I had caught the great L.B. in a compromising situation with my wife! It was unforgivable. I knew then that my contract would be dropped and I would be relegated to spending the rest of my life on tour with Katharine Cornell.

End of Chapter one.

That's the kind of thing to give the public.



The Siren here adds that Aherne was married to Joan Fontaine at one time. As she hasn't read Aherne's autobiography, A Proper Job, she doesn't know how dear Joan comes off in it, but Fontaine's descriptions of Aherne in her own book seem to indicate a certain desire to settle scores.

British-born Aherne also spent part of his childhood in Birmingham. Aside from that, the only other bit of truth is that Aherne was, in fact, on tour with Katharine Cornell in 1959, which Sanders weaves into the narrative with characteristic tact.

Given Sanders' attitude toward memoir-writing, the Siren thinks that when she does get Memoirs of a Professional Cad, she will be setting it next to the salt-cellar, even as she eats up every word.

More on Sanders here.

James Wolcott weighs in with a delicious excerpt from Memoirs of a Professional Cad. Be warned, you will be defrosting the credit card to get your own copy.


Raquel Stecher said...

This is fascinating! Thanks for sharing. I share a fascination with George Sanders too.

Greg said...

Sanders is on a short list of my wife's favorite actors and we'll watch pretty much anything he's in. We especially love him in Foreign Correspondent, The Saint movies and of course, that little known movie about the theatre, All about something or other.

I love this letter. He would've been an extremely entertaining blogger in another time. I'm going to see if I can get a hold of his autobiography soon.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Being a film critic Addison DeWitt is one of my key role models.

In her amazing biography of her mother, Maria Riva declares that Brian Aherne was her favorite of all of Mom's boyfriends. He is the stta of two of my favorite films: Cukor's Sylvia Scarlet and Whale's The Great Garrick.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh and i am the proud owner of a bttered paperback copy of "Memoirs of a Professional Cad."

Peter Nellhaus said...

This makes me wish Sander's had written more chapters. Very funny.

The Siren said...

Raquelle and Jonathan, Sanders is one of those actors who always manages to fascinate, even in mediocre or outright bad movies.

David, I too love Maria Riva's book and I well remember her assessment of Aherne. Considering the number of lovers Marlene racked up, it's quite a compliment. He was quite charming and good-looking in Merrily We Live but somehow his career never quite took off.

Peter, "A Dreadful Man" actually contains more of Benita's correspondence than George's, but as she often writes of her husband you still get quite the picture of Sanders, doing things like irritably rejecting frankfurters and demanding pork sausage ("you know--PORK") in a Tel Aviv restaurant.

Gerard Jones said...

It's so nice to know that Sanders really was as acerbic and perversely whimsical as his most typical roles. I get the sense that reading his autobiography and this book of letters might be like spending more time with Addison DeWitt--minus the unnerving sexual obsession with Eve. Thank you for sharing this! Good luck with that MG in the snow (actual or metaphorical).

Karen said...

Oh my god. That couldn't be any more delicious if it tried with both hands.

I shouldn't be surprised that the Divine Mr Sanders wrote thus, so I'm just going to go back and bathe in it a while longer.

The Siren said...

Gerard, Mankiewicz always said Addison was a self-portrait, but even so, it was evidently one of the most perfect meetings of actor and character in the history of film. This book is full of deliciousness and any day now I am going to click "purchase" on Memoirs of a Professional Cad, price be damned.

Karen, don't you just love it? the book is so priceless I have about four more excerpts I'm dying to reprint.

The Siren said...

Oh, and Self-Styled Siren has been good to me, but I really do wish I had encountered "Indiscretions of a Forlorn Apricot" while searching for blog titles.

Gloria said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gloria said...

I've read George's "memoirs" (not as autobiographical, alas, as one would like to, but a darn good read and entirely, deliciously, Sanderian!). I've also read the Aherne book, and I'm after a third-party bio of Sanders to balance them all (i've got this idea of doing a bit fat post on unca George some day, LOL).

It seems that the marriage of Benita Hume was something of a shock among the most respectable members of the British community in Hollywood: she went to be married to Colman, a complete gentleman and admired leader of the group, to marrying Sanders, who was regarded as a cad and a maverick (and, "harumph, he was after all, a bleedin' Russky!"). The fact that Hume and Sanders got on very well illustrates that benita was quite the woman and had an extraordinary sense of humour.

Aherne tells the story that, during WW2, Nigel Bruce irately asked Sanders during a Brit party why he had not donated to some charity relief as any other decent Englishman in Tinseltown had done. Sanders unruffled answer was "because I'm a shit, that's why".

Sanders may come as the heartless bastard in the eyes of many present there, but to put in balance this, one must think that George and his family had to leave Russia after the revolution with little possessions, and George must have thought that no charity helped him back then.

Also, Bruce could be a bit annoying in his self-appointed role as watchdog of the British Raj: Elsa Lanchester recalls how, one day, Bruce came banging at her house, to irately blare to her and Charles Laughton that they had not contributed to a relief charity... After what must have been an exchange of looks of utter puzzlement between Charles and Elsa, they went into the house, and brought back to Bruce a letter of thanks from said charity: they had, as a matter of fact, contributed with a very handsome sum, only that they asked to remain anonymous (for them, it was a metter of actually helping, not getting publicity for having helped)

Bruce had, of course, to retire from the Laughtons' place with his tail betwwen his legs. Served him well.

Gerard Jones said...

A bit off topic, but: recently saw TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE, a really fun little programmer starring George's brother, Tom Conway. I've always had kind of a snide attitude toward old Tom, but I found him quite likable and capable in this. He didn't have George's peculiar magic, but he was a good sport, radiating good will and an enjoyment of the game and his coworkers.

Slightly disquieting ending though, as the old fellow carries the young Ann Rutherford into a room to boff her...

Anonymous said...

"You're too short for that gesture."

My favorite Sanders line, and one I still live in hopes of dropping into casually sneering conversation.

Vanwall said...

Acid and urbane - Sanders was not only the real deal, he had the best voice ever, IMHO. Evidently he was a superior correspondant as well - something to aspire to, even. I'm with M Lapper - anything Sanders was in was automatically better, and watchable.

Had to dig an MG Midget out of a sandy wash once - and it wasn't even mine; after that, I'll let you do the snowdrifting.

X. Trapnel said...

How is it possible to begin "'Take that, you bastard,' said Joan Fontaine" and get even better? I shall soon find out as a copy of Memoirs of a Professional Cad awaits at the local university library, no doubt after decades of dusty philistine neglect. Rejoice with me, fellow apricots!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh that's my favorite Eve line too, and I've had several occasions to use it around short, unaccountably ostentatious gay men.

I think it's time to talk about George's performance in Viaggio in Italia

What say you Campaspe?

Andrew Wickliffe said...

My wife and I are making our way through Sanders Saint movies...
I'd forgotten how much I love him.
Wish the book weren't $200 at Amazon right now, looks like it'd be a great read.

Karen said...

I am delighted to report that Columbia appears to have not one but TWO copies of Professional Cad, the original and a 1992 reprint, one of which will be winging its way onto my bedside table tout damn suite.

Dan Leo said...

Vanwell's comment beat me to the punch. I have been working on my impersonation of Sanders's voice for decades. I often practice on my cats, to their annoyance.

D Cairns said...

Professional Cad is great, with some unexpected emotion as well as wit -- Sanders' description of Tyrone Power's untimely death is terribly moving, as George apparently blamed himself for not spotting the symptoms of incipient heart attack (Power thought it was his bursitis flaring up). Terrific book.

The Siren said...

Okay, so clearly I need to write a bit more about A Dreadful Man, since there's evidently a hunger for Sanders. I can't get enough myself, either.

Gerard Jones said...

Yes, please, Campaspe. Great picture you found, too.

Yojimboen said...

A hundred years ago I was lucky enough to hear Andrew L. Stone talk about George Sanders at a film school Q & A – specifically his role in Stone’s The Last Voyage. There was a scene where ship’s captain Sanders had to slap officer Edmond O’Brien, slap him hard. Long story short, many takes were blown because Sanders was obviously pulling the slap and only gently tapping O’Brien. Stone said he finally took Sanders aside and begged him to let loose, “Eddy O’Brien’s tougher than he looks – I’ve asked him, he says it ok. C’mon, George, give ‘im one good shot and we can wrap for the day”.

Longer story shorter, next take Sanders hit O’Brien so hard he almost knocked him out. (O’Brien was half-blind, and wore thick contact lenses years before anyone.) His lenses popped out and O’Brien nearly hit the deck; he was hurt.

Stone called ‘cut’, they had a perfect take. Sanders, however was terribly distraught, and left the set almost in tears. After a minute, Stone asked the recovered O’Brien to go ‘forgive’ George, who was clearly very upset by the whole experience.

The story ends with Eddy O’Brien reassuring George that he was ok, no harm done; he shouldn’t worry about losing the lenses, O’Brien had a spare pair, etc. etc.

Sanders looked at O’Brien and said icily, “Who gives a f**k about your lenses? I hurt my hand!”

Gloria said...


George's performance in Viaggio in Italia is a personal favourite... There's that great thing about a man trying to hide the fact that he actually cares under a thick layer of cynicism.

Incidentally, it is one of the films whose shooting is covered in "Memoirs" with some detail. To tell the story in short, Sanders was used to the systematic way of working of the Hollywood studios, and found Rossellini's tecnique rather anarchic... Actually, Sanders became quite desperate about the whole thing, though he explains the whole thing in a terribly entertaining way.

hamletta said...

Damn, damn, damn!

I swear Memoirs was still in print just a few years ago, and I put off ordering a copy because it was expensive ($45).

I could kick myself.

At least the library has it.

My favorite part was the fight between Sanders and a Spanish paparazzo at Tyrone Powers's funeral, which he translates word-by-word to ludicrous effect: "Go back and drink the milk of your whore mother!"

DavidEhrenstein said...

You've got it, Gloria! That's how the part was concieved and therefore Sandrs casting was perfect. But by that very fact it marks Viaggio as a very radical work. Movies with big stars in them are, accordign to Hollywood, supposed to supply the audience with characters they can easily like and "identify with."
That's not easily done here as the marriage we see on screen is quite like marriages in real life.

Arthur S. said...

According to Tag Gallagher's phenomenal biography of Roberto Rossellini, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBERTO ROSSELLINI(which aside from being a warts and all tribute to a great saint of cinema also has huge information on Fellini, Truffaut, Ingrid Bergman, Hollywood's favourite Irishman David O'Selznick, King Vidor, Jean Renoir), Sanders hated Rossellini.

Rossellini tried to convince him by telling him, "Look George, this isn't the first bad film you starred in and it won't be your last either." Rossellini's method of directing actors was put the actors in the same position as the characters. So he basically used the real-life antagonism between Bergman and Sanders to create that film.

It's a terrible shame that this film isn't available in America. It's on a great DVD courtesy the BFI.

Brian Aherne is also a great presence in Hitchcock's I CONFESS in addition to the two masterpieces mentioned here by David E.

By the way, I am Arthur S. I am a regular at SHADOWPLAY but this is my first time at this rather popular place.

The Siren said...

David and Gloria, Viaggio is, I am convinced, Sanders' best acting and a very great movie.

Yojimboen, I am still laughing over that story!

Hamletta, I shall try and work "Go back and drink the milk of your whore mother" into my next argument. As I live in Brooklyn it might not be as hard as you think.

Arthur, I am delighted to see you. You and David have me wanting to see The Great Garrick again--it's been a while. He recounts how he lost the part of Sidney Carton to Ronald Colman. Aherne might not have been half bad in that one.

DavidEhrenstein said...

The Great Garrick is really something else. The set-up is Jacques Rivette avant la lettre. Legendary theatrical impresssario David Garrick is taking off for France and his fans in the audience at curtain call tell him to show those Frenchmen what acting really is. The French hear about this and get Beaumarchais to write a play that they will perform "around him" at an inn they know he's stopping the better to unmask his presumed acting authority. This means that all the people working at the inn are actors from the Comedie Francaise -- except for one mysteriosu mademoiselle played by Olivia De Haviland. The script by Lajos Biro is most amusing and Whale runs riot with elaborate tracking shots including one in which the camera moves across a room and goes up to a window -- refocussing to take in what's outside. It's a garden at night and Brian Aherne is chasing a laughing Olivia across a small hill as she waves a wisp of chiffon in the air.
Sheer Unadulterated Heaven!

Gloria said...

Hamletta, the fight with the paparazzo is a riot to read if one understands Spanish. Sanders had spent part of his youth in South America and was quite fluent in Spanish, and, of course quite knowleadgeable about hispanic idioms and equivalents of English four-lettered words.

Sanders, in an utter display of genius, pre-dates google translator, making a literal by-the-word translation od Spanish phrases which is fun for the English reader, but really uprarious for the Spanish one.


- "You have been making to me the cuff"
Which is a literal translation of "Me has estado haciendo la punyeta", which could be properly translated as "You've been annoying me" or "you've been a pain in the ass to me"

- The supreme insult delivered by Sanders is a variation of the much used expression "la madre que te parió" (Lit. "The mother that bore you") which can be used also as an expression of admiration, but since the mother's reputation is in that case slurred, it is obviously used it its offending acception.

- "It is to me the hair you are taking" comes from "me estas tomando el pelo", which could be read as "no kidding!"

Back to Viaggio, and according to Sanders, he had no problem with Ingrid, in fact he felt that it was the (bad) state of her relationship with Rossellini which informed the character she plays in the film. Whatever the reason, she gives, as George, a memorable performance.

Their watching the archaeologists at work at Pompeii is a scene which remains engraved in my mind forever: it was sort of... like the end of the bell-maker episode in "Andrej Rublev"... a cinematic momento to die for.

The Siren said...

Gloria, I completely agree about the scene at Pompeii, it is awestriking, and it boggles my mind that the critics (at least in the US) panned Viaggio as they did most of Rossellini's work with Bergman. For her part, Ingrid seems to have liked Sanders a lot, it was just that he worried her; she described his off-set state on Viaggio as a series of nervous breakdowns. He called his psychiatrist daily at a time when long distance cost serious money.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Godard, Rohmer and Rivette went into ecstasies over that Pompeii scene. It's the lynchpin of the film's fame.

And Viaggio looks forward to the narrative discusiveness of Antonioni -- particularly L'Avventura.

It's a chame he never wored with Sanders as he loved emotionally complicated actors (eg. Alain Delon, Jack Nicholson, Tomas Milian.)

Karen said...

Holy camoly, you've all sold me. I've just ordered Viaggio from Yes, so the shipping is almost as much as the what?

Gloria said...

Campaspe, which book would you reccomend me about Ingrid (or 'Berto) that has the most interesting record about their work together?

Arthur S. said...

The amazing thing of the Pompeii scene in Viaggio in Italia was that it was totally unexpected and uncscripted.

Rossellini and his screenwriters read about an archeological site at Pompeii and found out about them digging out those casks and he worked that it into the script. He had the best luck in the world.

Viaggo in Italia got bad reviews everywhere. Save for one or two, the Italian critics hated it, saying Rossellini wasn't neo-realist and that he had sold out and in America, Rossellini and Bergman were still seen as offenders of public taste. Only Cahiers du Cinema supported it calling it the greatest Italian film of all time(even if it is in English) and called it the first Modern film though today this film would be sold as "a classic".

The style of "Viaggio in Italia" mixed documentary with fiction in a way that was profoundly influential to the New Wave. Godard famously said, "All you need to make a film is two people and car." This leads to PIERROT LE FOU but the film haunts CONTEMPT as well.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I always thought Sanders miscast as the hero's sidekick in "Foreign Correspondent," but Oscar Wilde must have known, somehow, that he would play Lord Henry Wotton in "Dorian Gray." He and Angela Lansbury are the only reasons I keep watching it.

Let's start a campaign to get his memoir reprinted. Again.

The Siren said...

Arthur, thanks for the added Viaggio information--I didn't know before how the European critics treated it. No wonder Cahiers was such a thunderbolt in that era. And I hadn't thought about it, but yes, I can see a great deal of it in Contempt. Karen, you won't be sorry you ordered it--it's a favorite of Scorsese's as well.

Gloria, I got what little information I have read on Viaggio's filming from Bergman's autobiography, which is a very typical book in that it concentrates on lovely little anecdotes about stars and directors and personal stuff and jettisons most of the nuts-and-bolts of work. And I was also astonished to see that neither she nor the ghostwriter devoted page space to the film's quality, except for the writer to note that the critics hated it. Bergman is silent, and I would have loved to known whether she realized just how marvelous it was, or whether she internalized its lack of success the way so many film artists do. It may have been hard for her to look at it except through the filter of her own disintegrating marriage, anyway.

Buttermilk Sky, amen!! I can tell you, my hits have zoomed up, more even than usual when Mr. Wolcott is kind enough to link here. People really love Sanders, his memoirs would do well in reprint and if someone does reprint them, you have the Siren's promise that she will flog the daylights out of them. I also agree about Foreign Correspondent; overall I am not crazy about the film but Sanders is dead sexy in it nonetheless. He made a good leading man when occasion demanded but sometimes when he shows up I get confused and start waiting for him to go bad--this must have been even more of a problem in his heyday.

I think Picture of Dorian Gray is all-around great and Hurd Hatfield is quite marvelous too.

Gloria said...

Campaspe, that's the disappointing thing about film people biographies... sometimes one has to wait for a good third party biography to appear (and I mean, a third party biography which isn't neither smarmy hagiography nor "wire hangers" smear stuff)

Re a reprint of Sanders' memoirs... I wonder why whoever owns the rights does'nt do it: I feel there's enough demand for it (the massive over-prizing of second hand items certainly illustrates it), and a limited reprint wouldn't be that expensive to produce either...

Arthur S. said...

According to Tag Gallagher, Ingrid Bergman didn't seem to appreciate the films she made with Rossellini. Like Rossellini's critics, she expected them to be like Rome Open City or Paisan but Rossellini(who hated repeating himself) and they were films that were sui generis. On the other hand it's possible that the act of playing these challenging roles took a great strain on her and she couldn't really be objective.

The only successful venture commercially was Rossellini's production of Joan at the Stake, a Paul Claudel ortario that was a commercial success when it played in theatrical venues in France, Italy and Brazil(save for Sweden though Ingmar Bergman who attended the premiere thought Rossellini didn't direct her well).

One film she liked was Rossellini's THE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS which was made during their marriage though she wasn't in it. Rossellini was so taken with St. Francis that he made EUROPA 51, a film that's about what would happen to St. Francis if he did what he did in post-war Italy and looked like Ingrid Bergman...

Cahiers du Cinema was definitely a minority voice in the 50s, it's Golden Age. Rossellini became friends with many of that group and encouraged them to becomes film-makers and even took Truffaut as an assistant for a brief period(during which they didn't do any film-making but Truffaut learnt a lot). Truffaut later said that Rossellini was the Father of the French New Wave.

During his period with Rossellini, Truffaut was assigned to do another vehicle for Bergman that never got made. A comedy that was about a heterosexual woman's attempt to seduce a homosexual man. The inspiration was that Bergman wanted to make a version of TEA AND SYMPATHY, Rossellini hated the play and decided to do a better version himself.

jonerik said...

Saunders had a line in the movie "Star is Born" which was similar to another line I could've sworn he had maybe in "A Tale of Two Cities" ? or "Dorian Gray"? I have this image of seeing Saunders sneering in a condescending way to some wretch saying "What a pity..."

Jennythenipper said...

I think the real life George Sanders may actually be funnier than the film version. It's so true. Brian Aherne did spend the rest of his life on tour with Katherine Cornell. So often was he photographed with Ms. Cornell, that I've seen him erroneously described as her husband.

It's too bad Aherne and Sanders never worked together in a movie.