Monday, February 24, 2014

Splendor at Twilight

Beauty is perhaps the least unconditional of gifts.

I'm doing what we so often do on a quiet evening, watching TCM, and tonight it's a particular - well, favorite doesn't seem quite right, given the sere, bitter tone of the film - but let's say favorite, for lack of a better word: Ship of Fools.

It's far from a perfect film.  It features the usual all-over-the-place accents that dog movies set "abroad" that feature performers of many nations, many not playing anything like their own origin.  Its costumes, makeup, and hair bear only the most passing of resemblances to the era - the early 1930s - in which it's putatively set.  It is portentous (in a "people come, people go," Grand Hotel sort of way), it is talky, and in spots it is, undeniably, unintentionally funny.

But you can't look away.  Simone Signoret is gripping as a drug-addled countess; George Segal is infuriating but shockingly handsome as a headstrong young American artist; German character actor Heinz Rühmann is heartbreaking as a Jewish salesman ("There are a nearly a million Jews in Germany - what are they going to do? Kill all of us?").  Most of all though, there is Miss Vivien Leigh, for one last time inhabiting a fragile, damaged character with her special brand of fragile, damaged indomitability.

In this and her other late film, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Leigh examines what happens to the pretty, pretty girl when the pretty's gone, or just a memory.  It's enough to make one glad that looks have never been one's stock in trade, for their vanishing seems to leave little behind but resentment and regrets.  She plays vain women with a lack of vanity that lacerates in part because you can see how much it pains her to do so.

In the end, the ship reaches Bremerhaven, and the company disperses, back into their own lives and into history.  As a film, it may not quite measure up to Katherine Anne Porter's monumental novel, but it can stand on its own in the way it looks at love.  "Love me," says Leigh's brittle divorcée, "whether I am able to love. Even is there is no such thing as love. Love me."  It's never enough; she knows that, and played out large and small, so do all the passengers on the Ship of Fools.  What sets apart the wise fools - Leigh, and the wry dwarf, and the others with any self-awareness - is that they realize it, but even so, when the ship's band plays "Tales from the Vienna Woods," they dance...


  1. By the time "Ship of Fools" was made she had lost her beloved Larry and her mental health. One wonders how she carried on with this film...

    1. By all accounts it was a struggle, but most of those working with her seem to have ended up admiring her determination. It's a remarkable performance, both when it's most volatile (the scene in which she attacks Lee Marvin is genuinely terrifying) and in its quieter moments, when she allows resignation and despair to battle it out in a complex and deeply moving way.

    2. I once had a lovely little conversation with Margery Gray (Mrs. Sheldon Harnick of Fiddler/She Loves Me/Fiorello! fame) about Ms. Leigh. Margery worked with her on Broadway for the better part of 1963 in the musical Tovarich (for which Viv won a Tony). She got rather wistful when I mentioned Ms. Leigh and spoke of her with great affection. She said Ms. Leigh was lovely to her and to the whole cast. She still seemed quite touched and saddened as she made reference to Vivien's illness.