The irreplaceable George Sanders (1906-1972) was born on July 3. I am astounded to contemplate that I haven’t done a post on him yet. Perhaps the undertaking has seemed too daunting. Such an unconventional excuse for a star and yet so indispensable once he established himself. Cutting, oily, arch, cynical but rarely purely villainous — usually more soft and lacking in character. Often his characters proved to have a heart, and he often even played heroes, even conventional ones. This is because the British have the opposite class prejudices that Americans do. Sanders’ upper class air of privilege and his sensuous, nonchalant manner seems perfectly consonant with the British idea of a military officer, patriotic spy, or virtuous knight. To an American, his personality is identical to what we have become conditioned to read as the villain. And after all, we did fight two wars against them. Sanders in a red coat and periwig, taking snuff between draconian edicts, would be a perfect poster boy for what we were fighting against.
Yet, he was often the hero, especially in his early years. I was astounded a few years ago to catch him starring in B movie series like The Saint and The Falcon that were playing on television. He was even in a Mr. Moto movie. But this led pretty quickly to prestige work. He’s in The House of the Seven Gables (1940, technically a B film) with Vincent Price, but also Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Foreign Correspondent (1940).
The languorous Sanders we’ve all come to appreciate shows up as early as The Moon and Sixpence (1942), and is fully solidified by The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) in which he plays Wilde’s stand-in, Lord Henry Wotton. He would get to do Wilde again in The Fan (1949), an adaptation of Lady Windermere’s Fan. The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) and his Oscar winning role role as theatre critic Addison DeWitt in All About Eve (1950) cement this particular image for all time. And yet at the same time, there were all these historical costume epics: Samson and Delilah (1949), Ivanhoe (1952), King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), and Solomon and Sheba (1959). He had his own tv show in 1957, George Sanders Mystery Theatre. There follows some fairly respectable sci-fi and horror, From the Earth to the Moon (1958), Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons (1960) and Village of the Damned (1960). And comedies like The Cracksman (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964) and The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965).
As was frequently the case with actors of his generation, his last roles in the late 1960s and early 70s were a grab-bag of strangeness. He played Mr. Freeze on Batman. He was the voice of Shere Kahn the Tiger in Disney’s animated The Jungle Book (1967), which ironically may be his most widely known role today. The same year, he played the villain in Sonny and Cher’s experimental comedy Good Times. And The Body Stealers (1969), Doomwatch (1972), Endless Night (1972), and Psychomania a.k.a The Death Wheelers (1972) are a very weird, schlocky final chapter to a career that had embraced just about every genre, including musicals.
Yes, Sanders could sing! He actually released this record album in 1958:
The George Sanders Touch…songs for the lovely lady. Was ANY irony intended here? His screen roles conjure visions of date rape, scoundrelly coercion, rakish seduction, and sneaky departures, a la “I’m sorry, my dear. I didn’t tell you? My mother needs me in Cairo. I won’t be back for 11 years.” If you’ve any doubt, two years after this album was released, he published his autobiography: Memoirs of a Professional Cad. Sanders was married four times; two of his marriages were with Gabor Sisters. (He’d co-starred with Zsa Zsa in Death of a Scoundrel).
And thus we come to Sanders’ suicide note. Apparently he left three of them, the most famous of which read: “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.”
It sounds very funny and characteristic of him but it cloaked a much sadder reality. He was depressed, in failing health, and had been drinking since the failure of his last marriage. Despondent, he swallowed five bottles of sleeping pills while staying in a villa on the Spanish coast.
Sanders’ older brother was the actor Tom Conway, who took over as the Falcon when Sanders left the series, and starred in three Val Lewton horror pictures for RKO. The brothers were both born in Imperial Russia; the family fled at the time of the Revolution. Thus, this quintessentially English actor was — technically — Russian. No wonder he was so depressed!