It Had To Happen Eventually ...
Women Of America Boycott George Sanders!
A long-standing favorite, The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami was never easy to find, being independently made, distributed by UA, then let to TV among mix of NTA features. It is subtitled "The History Of A Scoundrel," hence George Sanders as lead. There is a lovely Blu-Ray just out, much to the good as Bel Ami has layers of atmosphere splendidly photographed (Russell Metty). I had 16mm prints during chase after that format, none to approach how this disc looks. Whatever approval has been withheld might now be freely given, for the Albert Lewin-directed feature (his best, I think) may now be seen to same advantage as heard (dialogue and epigrams so good that I used to jot them down during 70's TV broadcasts). Surprise for me, after twenty or so years since seeing Bel Ami, was how understandable, if not sympathetic, Sanders' character plays. A scoundrel yes, but gripped by ambition he can't deny or resist --- also truthful at all times, and how many scoundrels can lay claim to that?
I always felt The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami beat socks off The Picture Of Dorian Gray, the latter wider-seen, more lavishly produced, but for me stricken by central weakness of Hurd Hatfield as title character. Sanders was there too, and we could wish he had played Dorian, or at least be woven more fully into action. His Bel Ami uses people badly, the whole point of narrative, though it's hardly a likeable lot he grazes on, plus he has advantaged position of underdog, thus pass we'll give for at least some of misdeeds. Georges Duroy (Sanders' character, also referred to as "Bel Ami" based on his caddish conduct with women) is less instigator than provoked by his enemies, principal of which is Warren William in a final role, their conflict a highlight. Georges' climb is as much a defense against
The story is based on Guy de Maupassant, but ended up being more Lewin, who did the screenplay. Lewin felt movies needed intellectual uplift: "I always tried to make pictures that would please me and some of my intelligent friends and still please the general public enough to pay off." Lewin also referred to himself as an "equilibrist," a word I know not the meaning of, and will resist looking up. Obviously, this man was no studio's pet. He was able to make indie pact with David Loew for The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami in wake of The Picture Of Dorian Gray earning a small profit (very small). They aimed at first for Technicolor, but realities said otherwise. Shooting would be at the doomed
The fuss was aired over half-a-year before the film's belated release (delays thanks to UA having a glut of product). Club women tipped to Bel Ami content were quick with salvos, claiming the film's effect on youth would be "deleterious and harmful." Lewin, Loew, and Sanders (each named specifically) displayed an "insulting and offensive attitude toward women's position as a public figure, and homemaker." Such inference must be "eliminated" to avert a boycott by membership nationwide. Whatever the filmmakers thought, United Artists saw publicity value to put just-previous The Outlaw in the shade. Nothing but good could come of the dust-up, especially fed by quotes like this: "This savage criticism of women must be stopped and the presentation of the anti-feminist thoughts of a disillusioned French in the sex-dominated book, Bel-Ami, will be thoroughly boycotted by members of our organization." For UA to run with this would be risky, as better than half a potential viewership hung in the balance, that half being one that largely decided what movies families and couples would go to see.
Further publicity centered around a painting to figure into Bel Ami narrative. A contest was had among name painters to submit a most appropriate canvas. The eleven results would tour US galleries. Another stroke of what seemed luck came when Boston's mayor called halt to an exhibition at the city's famed Copley Gallery, his shut-down prompted by nudity as rendered by artist Paul Del Vaux (Max Ernst having been winner of the contest, so censorship didn't become an issue for the movie). Loew and Lewin promptly filed a $200K damage suit that got in papers coast-to-coast. This was in October 1946, when The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami was thought to be imminent in theatres. Who knew that it would be Spring 1947 before the thing finally played, by which time heat from the controversy had cooled considerably. The Associated Women's Club flap and Boston business was more-less free ink, but to keep kettles at boil, UA sank $250K into Bel Ami's ad budget, high for them, and a vote of confidence for what was hoped to be a Big One for 1947.
Key art for posters shows Angela Lansbury clutching at leg of an otherwise unseen George Sanders. This was figured not just to grab attention, but to become a trademark, as familiar as icons used to sell other products. The Sanders trouser leg would equal Jane Russell's haystack pose for The Outlaw, razor image on behalf of Spellbound, other visuals that delivered for past pics. The art tours were also revived, showmen encouraged to consult local museums for tie-ins. "Bel Ami vs. The Women" was figured for a "Battle Of Barbs," femme readers invited to answer insults as spoken by George Sanders in the film. The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami was left to sink or swim with these, plus lingering value of the song, and linkage with the de Maupassant book. Reviews were no assist, being mixed when not outright pans, like Bosley Crowther's in the New York Times. "Sink" became more like a drown, The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami taking a ghastly $389K in domestic rentals, one of UA's sorriest performers that year. Did even Lewin's "intelligent" friends show up? If so there must not have been very many of them. Hopefully a latter, if not so erudite, generation will come finally to embrace The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami.