by George Sanders
Dean Street Press
Originally Published 1960
9781910570463 - Paperback
Barnes and Noble
“You should watch the film for George Sanders.” In one form or another this is a line I’ve repeated often during my years as a classic film fan. George Sanders could charm audiences regardless of the quality of the film he was in. He made fine classics such as All About Eve and Foreign Correspondent as well as questionable clunkers. Every single film he was in was improved simply by his presence.
“...on the screen I am invariably a sonofabitch, in life I am a dear, dear, boy.” – George Sanders
George Sanders charmed fans on the printed page as well with Memoirs of a Professional Cad. Written and published in 1960, this memoir is essentially a collection of essays broken up into 23 chapters and split into Books I and II. Each chapter has a specific theme or multiple themes as Sanders might decide to veer off into a rant or go on a tangent. As I was reading the memoir I started giving chapters different titles. For example chapter 9 I called “On impulsiveness”, chapter 11 “On how to say no and living the good life” and Book II chapter 4, “Musings on Albert, the butler”. With a few exceptions, most of the chapters stand alone as individual essays. Book II chapters 6 and 7 are presented as a pair. Chapter 6 recounts the filming of Solomon and Sheba which leads into chapter 7 which deals with the sudden death of Tyrone Power.
“To the best of my knowledge, my father came in the mail.” – George Sanders
The essays range on a variety of topics. We learn about his family and early days in Russia, his schooling in England and a variety of jobs he held before he became an actor. Sanders shared some hilarious stories of doing work for a cigarette-manufacturing company. He traveled through Argentina and Chile promoting the cigarettes. He came up with a clever marketing plan: dropping cigarette packages from a Bristol Bi-Plane into remote areas of Chile. He was “thrown out” of many jobs before this one but he seemed to make this one stick. However it all ended when he found himself in a duel with a widow’s fiancee and was consequently thrown into jail. His employer came to his rescue but only long enough to bail him out of a jail and bring him back to England. He was unceremoniously fired shortly after and both the fiancee and Sanders survived the ordeal.
“...the driving force of my life has always been laziness; to practice this, in reasonable comfort, I have even been prepared, from time to time, to work.” – George Sanders
This was a lucky turn of events because his next job brought him into the presence of budding actress Greer Garson. She introduced him to acting and legions of George Sanders fans should be forever grateful to her for doing so. In his memoirs, we learn about Sanders’ early days in theater, the time he bailed out of a Rodgers & Hammerstein Broadway production of South Pacific and behind-the-scenes stories of films such as The Moon and Sixpence (1942), All About Eve (1950), Captain Blackjack (1950), Journey to Italy (1954) , Solomon and Sheba (1959) and Bluebeards Ten Honeymoons (1960)
George Sanders had some wonderful observations on Hollywood, acting, work, school, relationships and his own personal quirks. The book is endlessly quotable and I bookmarked many a passage that I heartily agreed with, that made me laugh or that made me scratch my head. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
“I arrived at the conclusion that to enjoy one’s life to its fullest, one must build contrast into it. And the more extreme the contrast the fuller the life.”
“The average audience is also incapable of distinguishing between a good actor and a good part. The actor gets the credit every time when more often than not the credit should go to the writer.”
“The mortality rate among stars is extremely high, whereas a good character actor is almost indestructible.”
“It is one of the sad ironies of life that one has to make money in order to spend time but waste time in order to make money.”
“Common household services are better paid for in money than in marriage, which is liable to produce the disagreeable results of a grossly distended waistline coupled with conversation confined to comparative prices of ground beef.”
“To begin with, it is impossible to be in love with a woman without experiencing on occasions an irresistible desire to strangle her. This can lead to a good deal of ill-feeling. Women are touchy about being strangled.”
“To the Englishman it is a continual source of amazement and irritation that the rest of mankind does not consist of other Englishmen.”
“My first appearance on the screen was as one of the gods in The Man Who Could Work Miracles. The part called for me to ride half-naked and shiny with grease, at four o’clock in the morning during one of England’s coldest winters, on a horse which was also coated with grease.”
“For a long time I was considered the ideal actor to play sneering, arrogant, bull-necked Nazi brutes.”
On getting his Oscar for his role in All About Eve. “I was grateful and flattered to get mine, but apart from making my already large ego one size larger it did absolutely nothing for me.”
On Marilyn Monroe “I lunched with her once or twice during the making of the film and found her conversation had unexpected depths. She showed an interest in intellectual subjects which was, to say the least, disconcerting. In her presence it was hard to concentrate.”
“Zsa Zsa was like champagne, and I as her husband was hard put to it to keep up with her standard of effervescence”
“There was no air-conditioning in the studio and the heat was so great at times that one had to sit between scenes with ice cubes wrapped in towels pressed against all possible parts of the anatomy in order to survive.”
Sanders talks in detail about his failed marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor (and her obsession with hair dryers). He was writing his memoirs during a happy time in his life when he was married to Benita Hume. She’s only discussed once in the book at any length where Gabor’s antics take up entire essays. I also noticed that besides a fleeting mention of him in the first chapter, George Sanders does not talk at all about his brother, actor Tom Conway. I imagine at this point in Sander's life they were not on the best of terms.
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for years. I have been hunting down an elusive copy of the original out-of-print hardcover but much to my dismay I could never find a reasonably priced one. That’s when Dean Street Press came to the rescue! This small British publisher brought George Sanders’ memoir as well as his two mystery novels back into print. They were very generous and sent me an e-book version of Sanders’ memoir which I was very grateful to read. I still want a physical copy but now I’m debating whether I’ll buy the reissue paperback or wait for a good original hardcover copy.
“I had had since the beginning a profound sense of unreality about my newly acquired profession which the atmosphere of Hollywood did nothing to dispel. I never really thought I would make the grade. And let’s face it, I haven’t.” – George Sanders
I really wanted to love this book but in the end I just really liked it. Some of the essays are absolute gems and others were so-so. Every chapter had some pearl of wisdom, bit of insightful musing or humorous anecdote to devour so I felt very satisfied by the end. The publisher suggests that Sanders’ memoir is somewhat fictional. There is an after by Ulla Watson, Sanders’ niece. She also backs up the claim of Sanders as unreliable narrator pointing out that Sanders often downplayed his skills and sometimes his lack of confidence caused him to bail out of projects.
Whether we can believe everything George Sanders says or not it doesn’t really matter. Memoirs of a Professional Cad is an entertaining and enthralling insight into the mind of one of the 20th century’s most charming actors.
This is my second entry for my 2015 Classic Film Book Summer Reading Challenge!