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Friday, May 27, 2016

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 Paris snobbery that blocks his transition from provinces that betters disdain. He'll use lethal intellect and way with women to force way up social, economic, and political ladders. I find myself rooting for Georges to make it, which might say more about me than him. Director and writer Lewin does not soften Sanders scheming, but deep-buried humanity is there from a start. It would need a hard heart not to feel a little sorry for severe comeuppance Bel Ami gets in the end.

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 Enterprise studio, which was rented, then left by that company, thus Bel Ami move to RKO-Pathe. Bugaboo for independents was finding space to make your movie --- it wasn't as though majors flung open gates to accommodate you. A theme song was got out months ahead of Bel Ami, a hoped for boost. Introduced by popular "Hildegarde" of airwave fame, it was also waxed by Dinah Shore, then others. A larger stink developed when a group called the Associated Women's Club found out what The Private Affairs Of Bel Ami was all about ...

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.


Blogger James Abbott said...

Possibly Sanders' best performance. Love this picture, never understood why it was not more appreciated.

Also a great fan of Lewin's films -- his Moon and Sixpence is superb (and also much better than the weak tea of Dorian Gray).

11:27 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Always loved that jaunty Dinah Shore number. Had the 78 for years.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Is it possible that, as a publicity stunt, a publicist may have encouraged the Associated Women's Club to protest the film? (The club could have been sincere in their criticism of the film without realizing that they were being used as an inadvertent promotional tool.)

12:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes, for all we know, the whole thing may have been rigged.

12:40 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers the legacy of George Sanders:

"I disapprove of hypocrisy in other people."

When such a line falls so readily from the tongue of an actor, you must wonder whether he is not so far removed from the character he's playing, whether it is Belle Ami, Lord Henry Wooten, or Addison de Witt. There is in such commentary the suggestion of a lively, sardonic intelligence which views humanity from the distanced perspective of his own desires and appetites.

George Sanders produced an autobiography late in his career, "Memoirs of a Professional Cad," which blurred the distinctions between the man and the parts he played. If he was not that character, however, he at least understood the fascination it had for some. A little later, there was another piece of prose, a suicide note, in which he professed to be leaving this "sweet cesspool" of a world because he was bored with it. In truth, this boredom was the pose of a proud man. His career had faded into ever fainter echoes of parts he'd played, he'd suffered financial reverses, and now he was alone and faced with declining health.

Perhaps as he waited for the pills to take effect--vodka and Nembutal were the ingredients of his last cocktail--he permitted himself a smile, thinking of the effect that note would have. Even some punk rockers would sing that "If you covered him with garbage/George Sanders would still have style." There were two other notes, however, the contents of which I do not have, though I wonder whether they were more personal and less subservient to the pose. There is a place for love in anyone's life, even in its absence.

10:58 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

The Kinks were part of the original British Invasion of 1964 along with the Beatles, Dave Clark 5, Rolling Stones and a few more. Yeah, sometimes called the grandfathers of punk but hardly anonymous punk rockers. That song, 'Celluloid Heroes', came out in 1972, predating punk by about 5 years. Also includes a shoutout to Bela Lugosi!

8:32 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

If you want to see a similar movie, track down "The Scoundrel," a 1935 Paramount release starring Noel Coward and written/directed by Hecht & MacArthur. It gets a bad rep for its sentimental climax, but it makes no difference to me. My parents saw "The Scoundrel" on its original release when they were teenagers, and never forgot it.

11:10 AM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

“Dear World,

I am leaving because I’m Gabored...

Good Luck”

1:48 PM  

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