Giving to Exhaustion
When one examines the list of 110+ movies made featuring today’s Turner Classic Movies Summer Under the Stars Festival honoree George Sanders (1906-1972), it’s no wonder that biographer Richard VanDerBeets entitled his 1990 profile George Sanders: An Exhausted Life. Whatever the ups and downs of the Russian-born, English-bred actor’s personal side, he plugged along regularly in his professional life, and the 13 movies unspooling across the 24-hour salute feature a good mix of programmers (one Saint and Falcon), top-tier thrillers (Foreign Correspondent, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the original Village of the Damned) and a Panther lark (A Shot in the Dark). There are missing milestones (The Moon and Sixpence, All About Eve), but the baker’s dozen on display are a varied enough representation of the breadth of the work of this star noted for his insinuating wit, sly style and unforced urbanity, even in seemingly incongruous settings. From the latter half of his long career, Sanders’ two Twilight Time titles may qualify as incongruous settings for urbanity, but whatever he thought of them (as it turns out, not too highly), he delivered what was required with flair and force.
For director King Vidor, he put on a sword and sandals for the Biblical epic Solomon and Sheba (1959), as the Israelite king’s would-be usurping warrior brother Adonijah, and its filming “proved significant for George personally if not professionally, for during the production he lost an old friend and acquired a new wife,” VanDerBeets noted. The old friend was Tyrone Power, with whom he worked in the 1930s and ’40s at Twentieth Century Fox and who died of a heart attack two-thirds of the way through the shoot after a vigorous swordfight sequence between Power and Sanders. The production would regroup and restart soon afterward with Yul Brynner assuming the role of Solomon (opposite Gina Lollobrigida as Sheba), but Sanders was nonetheless profoundly affected by the loss of Power. His tribute to the actor was delivered at Power’s funeral: “I shall always remember Tyrone Power as a bountiful man. A man who gave freely of himself. It mattered not to whom he gave. His concern was in the giving. I shall always remember his wonderful smile, a smile that would light up the darkest hour of the day like a sunburst. I shall always remember Tyrone Power as a man who gave more of himself than it was wise for him to give. Until in the end he gave his life.” Regarding a new spouse for the twice married and divorced Sanders, VanDerBeets writes: “The year 1958 saw the passing of another well-known screen actor, Ronald Colman. Some weeks after his death, his widow, Benita Hume Colman, was visited at her home in Kent, England, by old friends Brian and Eleanor Aherne. At afternoon tea Benita turned suddenly to Brian and said, ‘I want to ask you something. Aherne, who had come to comfort Benita in her time of loss, nodded sympathetically but was stunned by the question which followed. ‘What would you think,’ she asked, ‘if I were to marry George Sanders?’” They were married in Madrid on February 10, 1959, during the resumed filming of Solomon and Sheba, happily so until her death from a rapidly aggressive cancer eight years later.
Though depressed over the loss of Benita and in declining health himself, Sanders still thrust himself back into acting and, VanDerBeeks reports, “by far the most professional production he would be involved in during this final stage of his career was The Kremlin Letter (1970). He plays an American espionage agent with a homosexual bent assigned to seduce a top Russian spy of similar leanings. He is required to play the character in drag with blond wig, black satin sheath dress slit up the thigh, and long feather boa draped about his neck. ‘I feel rather silly,’ he admitted in an on-set interview, ‘but acting queer seems to be the trend these days.’ Director John Huston thought George did it well and recalls that in the transvestite scenes ‘he was exactly right in voice and gesture.’” A complex thriller with an all-star cast (Orson Welles, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Patrick O’Neal, Richard Boone), it sought to underscore the seamier, more ruthlessly amoral, slippery-slope aspects of brutal spycraft and geopolitical paranoia, failing with audiences and critics of the time, although French critics and, in particular, revered filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville were in its corner. Today, reevaluated by Huston and spy thriller completists, its profile has grown – and the dolled-up face of the piano-playing Sanders in a glitzy San Francisco gay bar site of an information-exchange sequence is one of its sordid yet fascinating key images of a chilling Cold War world. Two years later, Sanders would be gone, David Thomson recounting in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, “having left a plangent suicide note that complained of boredom.” TT’s hi-def Blu-ray of Solomon and Sheba and DVD of The Kremlin Letter (offered here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/14942/THE-KREMLIN-LETTER-DVD-1970/) will not bore, thanks in considerable part to Sanders. Thomson concludes his entry on the Academy Award®-winning trouper on a note with which vintage movie geeks concur: “The movie business feels so flat nowadays without figures like George Sanders.”