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Sanders, Georgelocked

(1906–1972)
  • Robert Sharp

Sanders, George (1906–1972), actor, was born on 3 July 1906 at 6 Petroffski Ostroff, St Petersburg, Russia, one of two sons and a daughter of Henry Sanders (b. c.1870), a rope manufacturer, and his wife, Margaret Kolbe, a horticulturist and a fair musician. Although born in Russia, his parents had retained their British identity, being of Scottish ancestry. With the revolution in 1917 the family fled to England. Sanders was educated at a Russian grade school, Dunshurst preparatory school, Bedales School near Petersfield in Hampshire, Brighton College, and Manchester Technical College. In Manchester he studied textiles, a profession he pursued for a year, followed by three years as a salesman with tobacco companies in Argentina and Chile. When this was terminated he returned to Britain where, in the early 1930s, after a brief spell as an 'account executive' with Lever Brothers in London, Sanders turned to the stage, encouraged by Greer Garson. He appeared in a revue, Ballyhoo; acted in more than fifty radio plays for the BBC, where he received voice coaching; appeared in the play King's Ransom; he also did nightclub work and appeared in Noël Coward's Conversation Piece, going to Broadway with it (where he was Coward's understudy); he took the lead in the play Further Outlook on his return.

Sanders's film début was Find the Lady (1936). He was the leading actor in only his second film, Strange Cargo, the same year. Other films quickly followed before he decided to try his luck in Hollywood when the studio with which he had a long-term contract burnt down. His first American film was Lloyds of London (1937) for Twentieth Century Fox, which had taken over his contract. Several featured roles followed before the RKO studio negotiated for him to play Leslie Charteris's smooth adventurer, the Saint, in their ‘B’ series of films, which he did five times between 1939 and 1941. Through the war years Sanders often portrayed Nazis, such as in Fritz Lang's Man Hunt (1941). However, he also undertook other roles, in Rebecca, as the caddish cousin, Jack Favell, and also in Foreign Correspondent, both in 1940 for Alfred Hitchcock; and, especially, as Charles Strickland (modelled on the painter Paul Gauguin) in The Moon and Sixpence (1942) from W. Somerset Maugham's novel. He also played Michael Arlen's debonair troubleshooter, the Falcon, four times (1941–2) in another RKO ‘B’ series, before passing the role to his brother in the series and in real life, Tom Conway. Offsetting this were more prestigious roles in This Land is Mine (1943) for director Jean Renoir, The Lodger (1944), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) as Lord Henry Wotton, the evil influence on Gray. This last role was a cynical, world-weary portrayal, the prototype of the character for which he would be best remembered, the suave and sophisticated, mocking, almost sneering, cad. It seemed he wished to imply this image was his real-life self: 'for an elegant assumption of superiority over the other cast-members, George wins hands down' (Shipman, 484). However, he was remembered also as a 'kind and emotional person … a somewhat lost and overgrown schoolboy' (Ogden).

After the Second World War the films Sanders made were mixed. Hangover Square (1945) was his last under contract at Twentieth Century Fox. He subsequently played the title role in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947); he was good in The Ghost and Mrs Muir and better as Charles II in Forever Amber (both 1947). With All about Eve (1950), though, as 'that venomous fish-wife Addison de Witt', as Bette Davis's character calls him, he excelled, winning an Academy award as best supporting actor for his portrayal of the cynical drama critic. Of the award he wrote 'Apart from making my already large ego one size larger it did absolutely nothing for me' (Sanders, 69). He had another excellent role opposite Ethel Merman, in the Irving Berlin musical Call me Madam (1953). His solo 'Marrying for Love' showed he could more than carry a tune. With a rich bass-baritone voice he did make some commercial recordings; he was even signed by Rodgers and Hammerstein to replace Ezio Pinza on stage in South Pacific, a commitment he backed out of.

Call me Madam was Sanders's last important leading role. Thereafter he appeared in mediocre productions, although a few films rose above generally indifferent programmers: Witness to Murder (1954), While the City Sleeps (1956), Death of a Scoundrel (1957). In 1958 he hosted The George Sanders Mystery Theatre, a series for television. In 1960 he published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad, referring to acting as unnecessary hard work: 'it takes up a lot of time that might be more profitably employed' (Sanders, 58). But if his films in the 1950s were uninspired, those of the 1960s were worse. These were mostly shot in Britain or on the continent and Sanders was usually 'his old tired self', even in better films such as The Quiller Memorandum (1966), often relying on his image of languid indifference and articulate disdain. 'He so practised the sneer that eventually he required no words' (Thomson, 663). His mellifluous tones, though, were used to excellent effect when he provided the voice of Shere Khan the tiger in Disney's cartoon version of The Jungle Book (1967). In John Huston's The Kremlin Letter (1970) he was seen, sadly, as a drag queen. Final films, in Britain, out of a lifetime total of 110, included Psychomania (1971) about a motorcycle gang brought back from the grave by the devil, and Doomwatch (1972), based on the television series.

Away from film-making, Sanders had put his name to two ghost-written Inner Sanctum Mystery novels, Crime on my Hands (1944), and Stranger at Home (1946), the basis of the film The Unholy Four (1954). He was also a director of Cadco Developments Ltd, a piggery firm which marketed sausages, with a factory in Sussex and an extension in Scotland. It was a financial disaster. Following its collapse in 1964, a Board of Trade investigation strongly criticized his behaviour.

Sanders married four times, three of his marriages ending in divorce. His first marriage (1940–48) was to the actress Susan Larson (real name Elsie M. Poole). His second (1949–54) was to the film actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. What Sanders described as 'the best thing that has happened in my life' (Sanders, 142) was his marriage in 1958 to the actress Benita Hume (1906–1967), widow of Ronald Colman, which lasted until her death. His brief final marriage in 1970 to Magda Gabor (1921–1997), sister of his second wife, lasted only a few months.

Sanders suffered a stroke in 1969, and several small strokes during the next year. David Niven, in his second volume of autobiography, Bring on the Empty Horses, recalled Sanders saying in 1937 'I will have had enough of this earth by the time I am 65 … So I shall commit suicide' (Walker, 365). Sanders died in his hotel room at Castelldefels near Barcelona on 25 April 1972 from an overdose of sleeping pills. Shortly before he had sold his house in Majorca. His suicide note read 'Dear world, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough …'. His brother had died in 1967; Sanders was survived by his sister, Margaret. He was buried in England.

Sources

  • R. Vanderbeets, George Sanders: an exhausted life (1991)
  • B. Aherne, G. Sanders, and B. Hume, A dreadful man (1979)
  • D. Niven, Bring on the empty horses (1975)
  • D. Shipman, The great movie stars: the golden years (1970)
  • E. Katz, The international film encyclopedia (1980)
  • D. Thomson, A biographical dictionary of film, 3rd edn (1994)
  • The international dictionary of films and filmmakers, 3: Actors and actresses, ed. J. Vinson (1986)
  • The Times (26 April 1972)
  • W. G. Ogden, The Times (5 May 1972)
  • J. Walker, ed., Halliwell's filmgoer's companion, 12th edn (1997)

Archives

Film

  • BFINA, performance footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, performance footage