Reviewed by Lyn Baines
In an Afterword to this new edition of George Sanders’ memoir, his niece, Ulla Watson, describes him as the opposite to the cads and bounders he played on screen. She describes him as intelligent, multi-talented and devoted to his family but also a bad businessman and full of self-doubt. This last characteristic is illustrated by his reaction to the offer of a part in the musical South Pacific. Sanders had chased the role with determination, even sending the producers a demo tape of himself singing all the songs. As soon as he was offered the part, he began to have doubts about his ability and the fact that he had committed himself to a fifteen month run.
To guarantee in writing that 14 months from that day I would still be standing on the same stage singing the same songs and speaking the same dialogue seemed to me like an extraordinary piece of presumption. God might have alternative plans for me. … The perennial bachelor in me who resents all ties and restrictions rebelled against such a limitation of his freedom. I felt as if I had been the victim of a shotgun wedding: I had seduced Rodgers and Hammerstein into giving me the part and now I was married to them for 15 months – without even Reno or Las Vegas by way of an escape clause.
He panicked, and was able to use his health as an excuse to get out of the contract. As soon as he was free, his bad back cleared up and he always regretted missing out on the part. This is one of the most revealing episodes in the book. I loved reading about Sanders’ early life and his adventures in Hollywood. He’s very funny and self-deprecating about his own talent, and very clear-sighted about his colleagues. His descriptions of visiting psychiatrists and analysts to help him work through his problems after the South Pacific debacle are terrific. However, I was less enthusiastic about his views on women and relationships. Maybe it was because the book was written in 1960 or maybe Sanders’ cynicism about women was all just part of the pose of the cad. Either way, I decided to focus on the many amusing anecdotes and witty sayings & ignore his more chauvinistic opinions.
Sanders was born in St Petersburg,
On July 3, 1906, the world was at peace. Nothing of any consequence seemed to be happening in the capital cities of any of its countries. Nothing disturbed the summer lethargy of its population. Everywhere people dozed contentedly, unaware that an event of major importance was taking place in St Petersburg, Russia. At number 6 Petroffski Ostroff, to Margaret and Henry Sanders, a son of dazzling beauty and infinite charm was being born. It was I.
Sanders’ parents were both born in Russia but their families were Scots. After an idyllic childhood, George was sent to school in England. In 1917, his parents narrowly escaped the Revolution & reached England after travelling through Finland. George’s education was not exactly comprehensive and he spent the rest of his life trying to catch up. He left school with no particular skills and spent a short time working for a textile manufacturer in Manchester before moving to Argentina to work for a tobacco company . He worked in marketing and came up with some very astute ideas, such as throwing samples of the product from a plane along with gold watches as prizes. Unfortunately fights broke out on the ground over the watches but the company was pleased with the results in terms of their sales. He was eventually fired from his first job for arriving late at an important dinner party but went on to work in Valparaiso and Chile before returning to England after a duel with the outraged husband of his mistress.
Sanders worked in advertising for a while, and was encouraged to join an amateur dramatics company by a beautiful girl who worked in the research department of the company. The beautiful girl was Greer Garson. These first tentative steps led him to bit parts in revues and night clubs; he understudied Noel Coward in Conversation Piece, a play that took him to Broadway. Sanders also appeared in a few English films before, as he puts it,
Having nothing to do, I went to Hollywood, where 20th Century-Fox bought my slightly scorched contract and put me into Lloyds of London with Tyrone Power. I had had since the beginning a profound sense of unreality about my newly acquired profession which the atmosphere of Hollywood did nothing to dispel. I never really thought I would make the grade. And let’s face it, I haven’t.
He realised that, to really become a star, he needed to have begun about ten years earlier so as to have made an impression on the audience as a young man. However, he soon got over his disappointment at not playing romantic leads and became accustomed to the idea of playing villains, which he did for most of his career. The cads and bounders, like Jack Favell in Rebecca & Miles Fairley in The Ghost and Mrs Muir are certainly the roles he’s most remembered for today, along with the suave villains like Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray and the many evil Nazis he played at the beginning of his career.
There was a limit to the number of Nazi roles that could be offered to me, and eventually I was allowed to do other things. But by this time I had been typed. I was definitely a nasty bit of goods. My nastiness however was of a novel kind. I was beastly but I was never coarse. I was a high-class sort of heel. If the plot required me to kill or maim anybody I always did so in a well-mannered way and if I may say so, with good taste. And I always wore a clean shirt. I was the sort of villain who was finicky about getting blood on his clothes; it wasn’t so much that I cared about being found out, but I liked to look neat.
However, he also played more sympathetic roles, from Charles II in Forever Amber to ffolliott in Foreign Correspondent (I watched this a couple of weeks ago and it’s a great thriller). He was also the voice of Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book, a role he was surely destined to play. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that the animator who drew Shere Khan was surprised when someone remarked that the drawing looked just like George Sanders.
He describes the unnerving experience of making a movie in Italy with Roberto Rossellini. There was no script and seemingly no organisation. If it was a good day for scuba diving, Rossellini, who loved diving, would just stop work early and leave. Sanders hadn’t been able to pass up an opportunity to work with Rossellini or with Ingrid Bergman, whose affair with the director had been one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood. Then there was the offer to make a movie in Spain with a great French director. The cast would only get paid from the profits but it was all expenses paid and a chance for an eight week holiday. Unfortunately the movie never did get made and eventually George escaped from Mallorca after five months of increasing boredom and worry that the producers wouldn’t be able to pay his hotel bill.
The death of Sanders’ great friend Tyrone Power during the production of Solomon and Sheba was a shock and Sanders writes very movingly of his friendship with Power who was a generous, extravagant man who loved parties and spending his considerable fortune. He also writes about working with Marilyn Monroe in All About Eve. He describes her as intelligent, humble and untemperamental as well as outstandingly beautiful. He felt that she wanted to be a star so much because of her unhappy childhood and that she wanted so much to be liked. Sanders was famously married to Zsa Zsa Gabor for five years (and later, near the end of his life, to her sister Magda). He describes Zsa Zsa as “like champagne” and their marriage as a mistake, “on certain rather important levels – how to live, for example – we were unable to communicate on the same wave length. We never arrived at a common set of values.”
Memoirs of a Professional Cad is a witty recollection of the life of one of the great Hollywood stars. Sanders comes across as a melancholy man with his pose of cynicism and his sardonic turn of phrase. His musings on everything from why actors want to win an Oscar to the advantages of fame (good tables and excellent service in restaurants seems to be the highlight) are told with panache but there’s an underlying sadness in the writer that left me feeling rather melancholy myself.
Lyn Baines blogs at I Prefer Reading, has no hope of ever getting through the tbr shelves but refuses to let this worry her.
George Sanders, Memoirs of a Professional Cad (Dean Street Press: London, 2015). 978-1507777824, 298 pp., paperback.
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