What is the ultimate George Sanders movie?
The screen persona that made George Sanders (1906-1972) one of the unique presences of Hollywood not only during its heyday in the 1930s and '40s but well through the '60s is usually tied to the word "cad," even to including it in the title of his autobiography MEMOIRS OF A PROFESSIONAL CAD (1960). A somewhat outdated term today given that most people have a coarser turn of phrase for the characters he played, Sanders specialized in playing suave yet ruthless individuals who thought nothing of using seduction, fraud and knife-in-the-back tactics to get ahead.
The movies, and later on, television shows in which he appeared as an urbane villain or anti-hero usually had him paying for his crimes, given the moral standards of the time. But the ease at which he brought such characters to life appears to have been inspired by and carried over from his personal life, in which he could be alternately charming, witty and thoughtful, then insulting and repulsive because he used the same wit to put down anyone who irritated him at the moment. Likewise the intelligence that constantly displayed itself on screen, but so often used in his personal life to weasel out of business arrangements that no longer amused him, or as his friend and chronicler Brian Aherne noted, in supporting his lifelong hatred of paying taxes.
The actor's dismissive nature, Aherne tell us, was a defense developed by the younger Sanders, a Russian-born emigre, against the scorn and bullying he encountered as a "foreigner" when he entered the world of British education. "Conscious of his superior breeding, talents and intelligence, he withdrew behind a protective mask, compounded of shyness and intellectual contempt, and thus formed the personality which was later to intrigue audiences on the screen," Aherne said.* Possessed of a noteworthy singing voice, Sanders made his way to the stage and graduated to film in Britain in 1929. After a few years, he was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox and made his U.S. film debut in LLOYDS OF LONDON (1936), the first starring vehicle for Tyrone Power (for whom Sanders delivered a eulogy upon Power's untimely death in 1958).**
Although forever scornful of acting as a profession, Sanders was a useful choice for Fox either as a villain or engaging hero, as in INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENT (1938), not to mention his starring roles at RKO Radio Pictures as The Saint (1939-1941) and the not-dissimilar Falcon series he briefly headlined until relinquishing the role to his real-life brother Tom Conway (1904-1967). If a role bored him or was what he believed beneath his talents, such as bad guy Eric Norvel in MR. MOTO'S LAST WARNING (1939), Sanders acted out his discontent to director Norman Foster "by running up huge restaurant bills and (charging) them to Foster's account," historian Howard M. Berlin explained.***
Actually, the two 1940 films in which Sanders was directed by Alfred Hitchcock were perfect summations of his increasingly familiar presence. In REBECCA, the David O. Selznick production released in March, Sanders' Jack Favell is a flippant yet dark evocation of the title character's one-time lover who imperils the happiness of leads Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. His Scott Ffolliott in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, produced by Walter Wanger and distributed in August, beautifully captured Sanders' lighter side as the comical yet resourceful companion of bumptious American newsman Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) exposing Fascist skullduggery on the eve of World War II.
Yet despite the image that surrounded Sanders, the man possessed some positive attributes and they was evident in his Hollywood career, playing sympathetic leading and supporting roles for some time until winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar of 1950 for his Addison DeWitt, the acidulous theater critic who was part of the drama explored in ALL ABOUT EVE -- for some, the role that defined his career then and later.
ALL ABOUT EVE may be considered by one faction of fans and critics as the ultimate George Sanders movie because of its honors-laden legacy. Others will look at his smoothly underplayed Lord Harry Wotton, the corruptor of a Victorian innocent (Hurd Hatfield) in 1945's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, or on a lower-budgeted scale, even his gloriously over-the-top ex-Nazi Albert Richter in WITNESS TO MURDER (1954), cast opposite Barbara Stanwyck and his ALL ABOUT EVE co-star Gary Merrill.
But for my taste, the ultimate George Sanders movie is one in which he starred, portraying characters whose infamy dominated the proceedings and kept viewers spellbound by how he'll pull off his next dirty deed. So the choice for the ultimate Sanders flick, in my estimation, goes to two films -- Albert Lewin's THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI, issued by United Artists on April 25, 1947, and DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL, directed by Charles Martin and released by RKO on Oct. 31, 1956. In both, Sanders' conception of a cad is in full sway, and despite the characters he portrayed coming to bad ends, he gives the audience its money's worth in being such a charming wastrel through all of the proceedings.
Opening with the title, "This is the history of a scoundrel," THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI quickly introduces us to Sanders as Georges Duroy, former soldier and dissatisfied railway clerk, gloomily pondering how and when to pay for his next meal in 1880 Paris when a chance encounter with old Army friend Charles Forestier (John Carradine) leads to an offer to write for the newspaper that employs Charles as its political editor. Because Georges has no journalistic experience, Charles introduces him to his wife Madeleine (Ann Dvorak), the real power behind tubercular Charles' work, to polish Georges' rough draft of his impressions on Algeria.
Although Georges has been amusing himself with floozy Rachel Michot (Marie Wilson), he is introduced by the Forestiers to their friend Clotilde de Marelle (Angela Lansbury), a widow with a young daughter Laurine (Karolyn Grimes, ZuZu of Frank Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, 1946). Georges develops feelings for both Clotilde and Laurine, but finds his rise in status means using his charms on other women to help him get ahead. "I am in a one-man war with Paris," as he explains his ambitions to Madeleine. "I will conquer it or it will conquer me."
When Charles dies of his lung ailment, Georges and Madeleine enter into a marriage of convenience to advance his career at the paper, owned by the greedy businessman Walter (Hugo Haas). Georges subsequently divorces Madeleine, pursues Walter's spoiled daughter Suzanne (Susan Douglas) and entices her needy mother (Katherine Emery) into his schemes -- stringing faithful Clotilde along all the way. Realizing a title attached to his name will make him acceptable to Suzanne's father and his fortune, Georges learns the law allows citizens to apply for apparently vacated noble titles, which are granted to the applicant after a year in which no member of the former title holder's family objects.
Georges seems to be well on his way to winning the de Cantel family seal when Philippe (Richard Fraser), a family member unaware of Georges' ploy, steps forward and challenges Georges to a duel. Philippe has been alerted to the scheme by the spurned Madame Walter ("I have been scratched by a very old cat," Georges sarcastically reflects) and vengeance-seeking yet cowardly Laroche-Mathieu (Warren William), whom Georges single-handedly brought down from a cabinet position. In the rain-soaked duel that Clotilde and Suzanne try to stop, Georges and Philippe are both fatally wounded, prompting Georges to finally realize he and Clotilde would have been happy together.
THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI, adapted from Guy de Maupassant's 1885 novel BEL-AMI, makes Georges a bounder of mammoth proportions, but plays fair in explaining his motivations in scenes where Sanders allows the character to lower his guard and be honest with the people in his sphere. Madeleine, whose own ambition is as strong as Georges' and brought to the fore with skill by the
underrated Dvorak, learns that Georges came from the country, and to him and all young men from rural communities, Paris and all it holds is a glittering prize he must possess. A more sensitive side of Georges emerges in his courting of Clotilde and in a scene where he entertains on the piano for the delighted Laurine. Sanders rose admirably to the opportunity provided by the film and is backed by an exemplary cast under the direction of Lewin, who also wrote the screenplay that included a twist ending so favored by de Maupassant in his fiction.
The film was an outgrowth of Lewin's successful partnership with David L. Loew on THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY two years earlier at M-G-M. Loew repeated as the producer of THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI and its cast reunited Sanders with two of DORIAN GRAY's supporting players, Lansbury (in an appealing and sensitive performance) as Gray's ill-fated lover Sybil Vane and Fraser as her doomed brother James. Although lower-budgeted and lacking the plush period look Metro provided for DORIAN GRAY, THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI employed a uniform production design of stripes and symbols that, strikingly shot by cinematographer Russell Metty, offered its own vision of late 19th Century grandeur.
Additionally, Lewin and Loew at one point interrupted the black-and-white photography with a color shot of the painting "The Temptation of Saint Anthony," a creation of artist Max Ernst that won the $500 prize the producers offered for an original work they could use in the film. Viewers of DORIAN GRAY will remember the concluding shot of Gray's corrupted visage was also briefly shown in color.@
From the artistically conceived production of THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI to the harsher (and budget-conscious) contemporary vision offered in DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL is a bit of a shock to the system, but perfectly matches the outlook of the mercenary financial genius essayed by Sanders. While Clementi Sabourin has few if any of the sympathetic touches of Georges Duroy, and is more brutal in spots, Sanders provides a spellbinding portrayal of a conniver in as complex a web of scheming and deceit as that spun by the anti-hero of THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI.
A displaced person thought dead in the chaos of post-World War II Europe, Sabourin returns to his hometown in Czechoslavakia to find his brother Gerry (Tom Conway) has married Sabourin's love Zina (Lisa Ferraday). Angered, Sabourin informs to the police on his brother's shady activities, and Sabourin learns Gerry was killed resisting arrest. As a reward, Sabourin receives a visa to emigrate to the U.S. Arriving in New York, he observes comely but down-at-the-heels thief Bridget Kelly (Yvonne De Carlo) relieve oilman Leonard Wilson (Victor Jory) of his briefcase. He succeeds in charming Kelly out of the contents, but when her thug husband intervenes and tries to murder Sabourin, the newcomer to our shores, although wounded, pushes the unfortunate Mr. Kelly to his doom in front of a speeding taxi.
Utilizing documents and information in Wilson's briefcase, Sabourin launches his notorious career as a corporate pirate with the aid of wealthy Mrs. Ryan (Zsa Zsa Gabor), one of a number of women he keeps in his orbit, including a secretary with acting ambitions (Nancy Gates) and another rich backer (Coleen Gray). All the while, Kelly suppresses her own feelings for the arrogant Sabourin, whose infamy extends to stealing from investors in his enterprises. Eventually, Sabourin's greed leads to exposure, public outrage and government efforts to deport him back to Czechoslavakia.
Panicked, Sabourin makes a play for sympathy by loudly bringing home his mother (Celia Lovsky) from the old country and then trying to return to stolen money.
That leads to a deadly encounter with his gun-wielding partner O'Hara (John Hoyt) in which O'Hara is left a corpse and Sabourin is fatally wounded. He returns to his mansion, seeking forgiveness from his mother, who refuses after having learned of his misdeeds. Sabourin then goes to his room and dies, grotesquely sprawled over his bed. That's where he is found, as DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL begins, by faithful Kelly, who relates the story of Clementi Sabourin's rise and fall to a homicide detective (Morris Ankrum).
A much darker study by Sanders as a cad, DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL remains a compelling, watchable melodrama in which the leading man used all of his skill in making the essentially repugnant Sabourin a fascinating portrait of avariciousness and deception. Despite the inevitable and mostly unfavorable comparison made by critics to CITIZEN KANE (1941), DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL is a rather gripping piece of work, whose greyish tone is established in the opening location-shot scene of Kelly arriving by cab at Sabourin's home in a dim pre-dawn light. Budget concerns appear to have forced writer-producer-director Charles Martin to shoot most of the proceedings in the studio, yet it helps create a claustrophobic atmosphere in which Sabourin and his schemes flourish. Martin reportedly based his story on the life of Serge Rubinstein, a Russian-born financier and Wall Street player who was found slain in his apartment in 1955. The case remains unsolved.
The film attracted some notice at the time for the pairing of Sanders and his second wife Gabor, whose five-year union dissolved in 1954. Aherne recalled that the vivacious Zsa Zsa soon became a success in radio, TV and film, especially after her impressive turn in John Huston's MOULIN ROUGE (1952). Yet Sanders "became petulant, for he had not envisaged the possibility of two stars in the home," Aherne wrote. "His remarks were not encouraging, but Zsa Zsa pressed on -- and continued to love him."@@ Upon their divorce, he added, Zsa Zsa offered no enmity toward her ex-spouse: "George is a wonderful man and I shall always love him." Sanders' all-too-typical response: "I have been cast aside liked a squeezed lemon."@@@
On another personal note, the machinations of Clementi Sabourin came back to haunt Sanders almost a decade after the release of DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL when the British government investigated his role as a silent partner in an investment company that not only fell through on its promises but whose chief officer served as a front for an American counterfeiting ring. No prosecution followed in the United Kingdom, Aherne said, partly due to so many influential investors trying to avoid negative press in connection with the affair. But Sanders was obliged to file for and obtain bankruptcy protection.#
DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL is the best-remembered film created by Martin (1910-1983), a playwright and author of several screenplays, including a 1948 comedy, MY DEAR SECRETARY, which he also produced and directed with a cast of Kirk Douglas, Laraine Day and Keenan Wynn (and an early public domain release to home video in the '80s). Prior to DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL, he helmed several episodes of a TV series, THE TELLTALE CLUE, which aired on CBS in the summer of 1954. Martin's resume reveals intermittent involvement with the screen after DEATH OF A SCOUNDREL; his next production, IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO!, an uncredited adaptation of a Chester Himes novel that starred Raymond St. Jacques and Barbara McNair, was distributed in 1968 by Cinerama.
Again, Sanders -- chosen as the lead when the originally-cast George Brent fell ill and could not continue with the role -- was surrounded by a top-notch cast that included a sincere and affecting performance by De Carlo as Kelly, while Gabor, Gates and Gray make alluring targets for his charm. On the male side, Jory and Hoyt are solid in support, as is Werner Klemperer in the underwritten role of Bauman, Sabourin's attorney. Also noteworthy is the second and last pairing of Sanders and Conway as brothers on-screen as well as in real life; their first was in THE FALCON'S BROTHER (1942), when Conway as Tom Lawrence took over as the amateur sleuth known as The Falcon from Sanders' Gay Lawrence.
Sanders continued working steadily in film as well as occasional guest star spots on TV, in demand for his distinctive air of superiority mixed with charm, or occasional outright villainy he brought to the roles offered to him, among them spot-on performances as Waldo Lydecker in small screen versions of LAURA in 1955 and 1968. Other actors have attempted to duplicate the persona that Sanders projected, more contemporary examples being Geoffrey Rush and the late Alan Rickman. But Sanders' approach remains uniquely his own and received perhaps its best interpretation in the films we have herewith discussed.
* Aherne (with assistance from George Sanders and Benita Hume), A DREADFUL MAN, New York: Berkley Books, 1981, p. 5. Aherne (1902-1986) was also an actor who began his Hollywood career in the 1930s, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Emperor Maximilian in JUAREZ (1939). He remained Sanders' friend and correspondent until Sanders' death. Hume (1906-1967), a former actress, was the widow of Ronald Colman, and became the third Mrs. George Sanders shortly after Colman's passing in 1958.
** Fred Lawrence Guiles, TYRONE POWER: THE LAST IDOL, New York: Berkley Books, 1980, p. 305.
*** Berlin, THE COMPLETE MR. MOTO FILM PHILE: A CASEBOOK, Rockville, Md.: The Wildside Press, 2005, p. 176. The author quoted an anecdote from Jon Tuska's THE DETECTIVE IN HOLLYWOOD, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1978.
@ Wikipedia entry on THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL-AMI, retrieved June 10, 2017.
@@ A DREADFUL MAN, p. 21.
@@@ Ibid., p. 24.
# Pp. 192-196 and intermittently explored in the last quarter of A DREADFUL MAN.