George Sanders — Blood and Sanders (1943) 🇺🇸
George Sanders may be the only actor extant who can be called good, “bad,” and completely indifferent.
by Dorothy Deere
A daring lady columnist edged up to George Sanders on the set recently, and after first ascertaining that she was within walking not running distance to the nearest exit, asked him a typical interview question:
“Mr. Sanders, is there any particular role you have always dreamed of playing on the screen?”
“Why yes, there is,” he answered her pleasantly enough. “I should like to play an invalid... and stay in bed throughout the whole picture.”
The lady took her one foot out of the air where she had left it, posed for flight. The answer wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, but so far she had suffered nothing more serious than a clipped accent to the jaw.
“If you had an absolute choice of leading ladies for your pictures, whom would you pick?”
“Ingrid Bergman, of course.”
“Of course. Uh... why?”
“Because she has such an air of respectability.”
Respectability has never lured anyone to the box-office yet. In Miss Bergman’s behalf, she asked, “Would you care to enlarge upon that... a little?”
“Of course, Miss Bergman has none of the acquired glamour which becomes so tiresome in other actresses.”
The lady had her interview, and as Sanders interviews go, it was practically a scoop. True to the feminine trait of never knowing when the party is over, she pushed her luck.
“You prefer your leading ladies with an ‘air of respectability.’ Would you tell me what appeals to you most in women off-screen?”
Mr. Sanders made ready for the knock-out.
“Why, certainly — the reverse!”
The interview was not definitely finished.
In all Hollywood there is no one so proficient at the verbal Mickey Finn as the bored Britisher. This particular talent has given him the reputation for being a lot of things which innately he is not; temperamental, discourteous, a misogynist, a “character.” Things have now advanced to the stage where hardly a columnist in town can afford to make him the subject of affable comment for fear of contradicting a previously written item.
There are a lot of people who will tell you he enjoys living up to his reputation as l’homme horrible. At 20th Century-Fox (where “Moon and Sixpence” is still sometimes referred to as “Moon and Sanders”), you can still reduce any publicity man to a state of dehydration by recalling the time, a few months ago, when it was discovered that the bachelor Englishman had become a benedict.
Mr. Sanders, being in a marrying mood, had done so without notifying either the press or his studio. Presently there came a hint, in this column and that one, that a lady was now occupying the Sanders’ menage. Other news-gatherers called the publicity department to check.
In Hollywood, the lack of a denial is affirmation, and vice versa. “You’ll have to make some sort of statement,” the star was told.
“Oh, now will I?” he asked in a tone that drew blood. “Well, then, just tell them I said the lady and I are living together!”
The publicity department declared an immediate moratorium on the Sanders marriage, carefully responding to all conversation on the subject with a five-minute lull.
The real truth about him is that George Sanders is a gentleman, a species once aptly defined as “a fellow who never insults anyone unintentionally.” His inherent characteristics are a bitter intelligence, and an inability to be bothered with the things or people he considers trivial. The fact that he is unable to find much that he does not consider trivial, just happens to be unfortunate for those to whom the same things are important.
Born with a rare ennui, he has developed it into a beautifully wrought armor against the things most cinemanians believe they cannot do without. He is probably the only actor extant who falls into all classifications; good, “bad”... and completely indifferent! Living up to any sort of personal reputation isn’t worth his effort. Favorable publicity concerns him least of all, since it calls for a sustained and synthetic pleasantry he disdains. He prefers to confine his acting to the screen. Considering his success, he has as much right to his opinion as the rest of Hollywood has to theirs.
Recently, when he moved over to the Columbia lot to star in “Appointment in Berlin,” the entire staff figuratively fastened their safety belts. The word was around, of course, that the Sanders personality was a chill wind that blew nobody any good. After a week of shooting, tension eased to a positive state of letdown. The camera crew quit tip-toeing, and the publicity staff began to wonder whether the fascinating Mr. Sanders wasn’t being so nice just to be nasty. After all, there were columnists waiting to be serviced with bits of printable spleen.
In two weeks, things had got to such a state that when a wag rushed off the set one day and made the statement, “At last, Sanders has bared the ivories!” he gathered an eager crowd.
“What did he say?” they chorused, pencils palpitating.
“Nothing. He’s singing. Sitting at the piano and entertaining a bunch of prop men!”
As a matter of truth, too, there is little basis for the legend that the Talkie Town Terror spend all his time between scenes disdainfully sleeping, or crouched in his dressing room thinking up ways to scare grown-ups. He occupies a great deal of his time at the piano, regaling the grips and crew with his excellent repertoire of ditties, most of them on the ribald side. The piano is moved from sound-stage to sound-stage as the picture progresses. For more serious-minded admirers, he has a quick course in piano technique in which he will patiently instruct anyone who is really interested.* It happens that he likes music.
Another hobby is building model airplanes. At home he goes in for fourteen foot jobs that will really fly. On the set he folds sheets of script into schoolboy models that whiz through the air, over the director’s head, with the greatest of ease.
If anyone thinks that the sight of a six-footer, attired in the full dignity of Nazi officer regalia, chasing a blue paper airplane back and forth across the set, is a bit incongruous, he really doesn’t care. And if an interviewer find it a bit difficult to compete with the paper airplane for his attention, he doesn’t care either. Publicity comes and goes, but aviation is here to stay.
In action before the cameras, there is nothing supercilious about Sanders but his face, which was built for it. Strangely enough, he is infinitely patient with the lesser talent of those he is working with. Possessed of what is probably the most perfect sense of timing in the business, he will unprotestingly rehearse and rehearse again, while some bit player strives to make action and dialogue come out even.
He has a totally out-of-character giggle, a high-pitched indication of mirth which never fails to surprise, coming as it does out of a perpetually dignified countenance. It is most apt to occur when the patience of others is wearing a bit thin. A perfectionist, he has nothing but good humor for anyone trying to improve a picture.
In “Appointment in Berlin,” he plays a Lord Haw-Haw with a reverse twist. That is, his traitorous actions turn out to be for Britain’s honor, and his broadcasts are really code messages from Berlin to London. All of which is a cunning arrangement, since it allows his fans to hate him and love him at the same time.
During the course of the reels, he gets himself arrested by some well-deceived British Intelligence officers. In the making of this particular scene, a bit player was required to rush in and slap handcuffs on the star’s wrists. Again and again the player burst through the door in true Scotland Yard fashion, whipped out the steel bracelets, but each time something seemed to get in the way of the clamps.
Finally, Director Al Green grew impatient. “You’re not putting mittens on a baby,” he snapped. “That last time you acted like you were afraid of hurting George.”
The bit player looked sheepish. Sanders pulled back the cuffs from his raw and bruised wrists, and giggled.
“Aren’t you being a bit hard on the fellow? He has tried it the other way, you know!”
He takes his picture assignments as they come, usually accepts the dialogue as it is written for him. Most actors and actresses indignantly refuse a role now and then, wax temperamental over a part or the lines in it. Subconsciously it bolsters their ego. The ego of Sanders is such that he is confident he cannot give a bad performance, and that any line, spoken by him, gains distinction. So far, he’s proved his point... to such an extent that minor pictures are now definitely relegated to his past.
Privately, however, he has his own Academy Award ready and waiting for a screen play which does not contain the lines: “You must get some sleep, now.” It’s the only phrase he ever asks to have deleted.
“It seems to be a mechanical impossibility to write anything longer than two reels without someone sending someone off to bed. Even the best picture I ever saw, ‘Mrs. Miniver,’ had Garson trundling Pidgeon off to sleep, after his return from Dunkirk.”
No flash in the developing-pans was Sanders, his ascent to stardom was a matter of some seven years and more than thirty pictures. Starting his Hollywood career with a poisonously villainous role in “Lloyds of London,” he grew on the public — especially the woman public — like a slow case of undulant fever, symptomized by both chills and flushes.
His American debut was preceded by several pictures made for British studios, and before that, by stage successes. His very first professional engagement was as the lead in a musical comedy, a fact which he deflates with a few neatly pointed sentences.
“The producer heard me singing at a party and thought I had possibilities — I’ve forgotten whether he was very drunk or I was. Under more sober circumstances he didn’t like my approach to the role and I didn’t like his. I was fired.”
Young George decided to stay in the theatrical business to prove the producer wrong. He understudied several leading men, each time stepping into their roles before the musical had finished its run. This, too, he dismissed in off-hand fashion.
“If I had any outstanding talent, it was my ability to pick the right leading men. Stupid fellows, they either went out on benders or developed indigestion or something.”
At any rate, he eventually attained a leading man’s status all his own and drew the attention of the film studios. He signed a contract with a major British producer, and that very night the studio burned to the ground.
“No, I didn’t set it on fire... hut sometimes I look back through the years and wonder whether I shouldn’t have.”
“Nothing exciting — absolutely nothing”... has happened to him during his entire screen career. This is no understatement on his part. The excitement has been mostly on the part of feminine fans, who, following him through a succession of roles small and large, began to wonder whether, in a real-life clinch, they would want most to fight it out with soft words or a sharp scissors.
Any actor who possesses this particularly disturbing quality is a star as far as his women public is concerned, regardless of how long it takes his producer to officially award him that status. In the case of Sanders, like that of Humphrey Bogart, it took his movie bosses a while to catch on. In the more recent case of Alan Ladd, realization came quick.
The Englishman’s peculiar handsomeness is not of the orthodox sort. His somewhat glacial charm can be attributed to the fact that he is definitely and elegantly male. There is something about this flagrantly masculine superiority, the six-foot-three of height and a nose that is constantly looked down, that infuriates women (but in a pleasant way!) on and off screen. They simply cannot help being feminine around him, doing all sorts of fluttery, futile things. Mr. Sanders becomes more and more superior over this lack of poise. Thus, the legend has gradually grown that he is a “woman hater.”
Men have nearly as hard a time getting along with him. They, too, have the uncomfortable feeling that he has applied the cold measure of his intelligence to their foibles, and discarded them as unworthy of his time and effort.
Take the manly pastime of yachting. Most male stars at one time or other allow themselves the indulgence of owning and operating a boat. It gives them a feeling of virility and a subject for a “baritone” conversation. In addition, it is a picturesque background for still photographs, standing in dungarees at the mast, their profiles and chest muscles bucking a strong wind.
Mr. Sanders at one time owned a boat and spent some of his time leading a vagabond existence aboard. Eventually he sold it. His explanation is simple: “After you have sailed to Catalina and back, and back to Catalina and back again — that about does it!”
His boat, when he had it, could scarcely be termed a yacht. He was discouraged from buying anything more expensive after reading a few yachting magazines.
“Every boatsman buys them — ‘Yachting,’ ‘Rudder’ and that sort of thing. You sit at home taking mental voyages, you know. You open the February issue, and there is a large picture of the palatial yacht just built by Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so. Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so are frightfully rich and have been subscribing to the magazine for years, so in the March issue there are more pictures of the yacht, complete with an article detailing so many expensive appointments you wonder whether they are trailing part of them behind in a dinghy.
“In April they christen the yacht, the Super Sea-Gull, and there are pictures of Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so, all over-dressed up, smashing the champagne on the prow. The trials are held in May, with the Super Sea-Gull out-distancing everything afloat, and everybody frightfully happy about the whole thing. In June you turn to the want ad section, and there at the top of the ‘For Sale’ column is the Super Sea-Gull!’’
Son of a wealthy British rope manufacturer, Sanders has a background of extensive travel and educational sorties into the best schools. His mother, Margaret Kolbe Sanders, distinguished herself as a horticulturist, collecting national prizes for her flowers and bee-hives. There is a bit of fiction to the effect that she gave up this last activity when the infant George wandered into the apiary one day and stung all the other little bees to death.
Pure fact says that George was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, under the protection of the British embassy there, and received his early training in Russian schools. Came the war and the Revolution, and George still remembers the escape of his family across ice-covered rivers. Safely back in England, his parents settled down to raising their sons as Englishmen. George attended Dunhurst and Bedales schools and went through Brighton College.
Having been born into a bi-lingual home, he found that languages came naturally to him. In addition to Russian and Spanish, he has a working knowledge of French and German... and if it so moves him, can refuse to answer you in any of the four languages.
During his school days, the young George was an outstanding athlete. He became interscholastic champion in boxing, and topped a swimming career by saving a man from drowning in the Thames. Among his souvenirs is a testimonial from the British Humane Society, generously inscribed on vellum. He values the plaque highly, having found it an excellent practice target for dart throwing.
In his callow youth, he fancied becoming a scientist. He became interested in the technological aspects of industry almost as soon as he could spell it, and by the time he was graduated from college had patented three water devices for swimming toys. Engaging for a while in technical textile research, he left it to experiment with a tobacco venture in the Argentines.
Somewhere in between these various interests, he found time to learn to play the piano, guitar, and saxophone — also, to cultivate the rich baritone which he has never used on the screen, “because stage musicals are fun... but screen musicals are just silly.”
He considers acting a business, which he may at any time decide to abandon for some other business. Asked whether he ever “lived” his part in preparation of a screen-role, after the manner of Muni and Laughton, he was surprised into a loud snort, “Good heavens, no!” It was undoubtedly the most emotion he had ever shown in any conversation.
He likes the home he built in Hollywood, because, “why shouldn’t I — I built it the way I’d like it!” One of his excursions into print, favorable and otherwise, was made when he told a columnist he had purchased his home-site because it was not in a fashionable neighborhood. Other residents of the same neighborhood took exception, much to his amazement. “They accused me of being uncomplimentary. Since I don’t like fashionable neighborhoods, I considered I was paying this one a compliment!”
As for friends, the Sanders social circle consists of six — or maybe eight — he has never really counted. He regards the number, whatever it is, as entirely adequate.
“I suppose one should really go around making new friends... but I don’t see why. There’s nothing wrong with the ones I already have... and anyhow, I have only eight chairs in my dining room.”
Off screen he prefers non-professional associates. An actor, in his opinion, soon grows to look too much like an actor.
“It’s very easily explained. I have an acquaintance who is a sheep-farmer, from a long line of sheep-farmers. Look at him, and he looks like a sheep. It is the same with actors — there is a certain occupational distortion of features which becomes quite recognizable.”
Sanders is thirty-seven years old and during the filming of “Appointment in Berlin,” he received his army induction papers... which may, or may not be one of those omens Hitler is always dreading. Deferment was granted until the end of his picture commitments.
The Britisher himself had little to say on the subject until asked for his opinion of the current agitation for a government ruling on the “essential” status of all actors.
“I do not think the matter is up to the government... nor do I think it is up to Hollywood. There is only one way we can be ‘essential’ and that is, if the public decides that it is important to them that we remain on the screen. Therefore, I don’t think anything should be done, unless the public wants to do it... and they probably won’t.”
In more typical fashion he explains his preference as to army service. “I should like to be a liaison officer between the Americans and the British, explaining the idiosyncrasies of the Americans to the British, the idiosyncrasies of the British to the Americans... and the idiosyncrasies of myself to both!”
He has a totally out-of-character giggle, a high-pitched indication of mirth which never fails to surprise, coming as it does out of a perpetually dignified countenance. (Here he is giggling with Sterling Campbell, technical advisor on the Columbia lot.)
He is also appearing in “The Night Is Ending” for 20th Century.
Beginning his screen career with a poisonously villainous role in “Lloyds of London,” he has grown on the public like a slow case of undulant fever, accompanied by both chills and fever. As in the case of Humphrey Bogart, it took his movie bosses a while to realize that the fans had awarded him a star’s status. (Above is Mr. Sanders in a scene from “Appointment in Berlin.”)
Collection: Movieland Magazine, November 1943