George Sanders was one of classic Hollywood’s most popular character actors who was occasionally cast as the leading man. He often played elegant, suave villains whose acerbic wit made his performances memorable.
It turns out that famed onscreen wit was an extension of Sanders himself. It is also what has made his autobiography one that many reviewers rave about. I have long meant to read his Memoirs of a Professional Cad and finally made time to do so.
Sanders early life sounds rather interesting, particularly for it’s internationality. Born in Russia, his family fled to England to escape the Russian Revolution. He attended several schools there, before going to work in a PR/marketing capacity. Sanders describes his own lack of interest and motivation as well as the many times he was kicked out of school or fired from his jobs. Eventually, he made his way to South America, working in Argentina and Chile, before finding his way back to England.
Because this is the part of his life that is less documented, I would have liked more details about it. He briefly talks about his family, before they practically disappear from his story. The way he describes his time in South America sounds like an adventure, I would also have loved to know more about. Then again, it could be his style of relaying this information makes it more interesting than it actually is.
As much as I enjoy learning personal details about famous people, I also read biographies to learn more about the people they interact with. So, I went into this book, hoping for some of that well-known Sanders snark in regards to his Hollywood compatriots. However, rather oddly, Sanders autobiography is remarkably short on details such as names and dates. He briefly tells of his introduction to acting through a fellow English co-worker named Greer Garson and then never mentions her again. He also shares a very little about his experience working with Ingrid Bergman and her husband Rossellini in Italy, as well as his time on Solomon and Sheba and the death of Tyrone Power. Ex-wife Eva Gabor receives the most attention in this book. He rarely mentions any of his films by name.
One particularly fascinating personal anecdote he shares is his brush with Broadway fame. Sanders had trained his singing voice and campaigned very hard for a role in South Pacific. Then after winning the part, he panicked and bowed out. His excuse was his concern in committing himself to a year long contract, but his nephew believed it was more a case of self-doubt.
So in regards, to learning more of his experiences in Hollywood, this autobiography fell short with me. But considering how removed his screen characters generally appear from the action, maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me in what he would be willing to share about his private life.
However, where this book does excel, is in exposing Sanders’ thoughts and life philosophy. Though lacking personal details, the chapters read likes short essays of his opinions on everything from technology, relationships between men and women including the role of woman in a man’s life, beauty, psychiatry, the stage, and singing, among other things. He is rather observant and wise about human nature as some of his statements prove.
… most people in distress are more interested in being comforted than being cured.
It is one of the sad ironies of life that one has to make money in order to spend time but waste time in order to make money.
He also displays surprising insight on many other topics, despite the sarcastic way he presents them. He had some particularly keen insights into his profession.
The truth of the matter is that while Hollywood admires people who win Oscars, it employs people who make money, and to be able to do one does not necessarily mean you can do the other.
Perhaps the greatest fulfilment in acting is not just the satisfaction involved in the opportunity for the extrovert to exhibit himself but more the opportunity to act out that part of himself for which he has the imagination and the capacity, but not the heart or the courage.
Unexpectedly, I found several things in which I relate to George Sanders very well, including his love for sleep, a lack of ambition and his ambivalence towards technology:
I often wonder if I really need a telephone. Is it a convenience or is it a nuisance?
But the system we have chosen can lead only to further enslavement to an ever mounting assortment of devices, the workings of which we do not understand and must depend upon others to keep in good repair.
and a complicated relationship with beauty:
Like a joker in canasta, it is a powerful advantage properly played and a heavy load to have left in your hand.
Sanders appeared to be a believer in self-awareness and even pursued this through visits to psychiatrists and hypnotists. And while I haven’t pursued self-knowledge quite that far, I too think it is very important.
For the most part, I enjoyed this autobiography, though in some ways it fell short for me. If I had known going in that it lacked in personal details, I might have enjoyed more his signature humor in describing his thoughts. However, since Sanders as the author feels somewhat removed from Sanders as the subject I don’t feel this qualifies as a true autobiography.
This is one of several classic film book reviews I will be posting for the 2021 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past.