I feel like it’s been forever since I’ve published something directly on this blog! Well, it was in January when I shared my review of Marlon Brando’s biography written by Patricia Bosworth. And I’m back today with another book review! This time, I’ll be giving you my appreciation of George Sanders’s autobiography entitled Memoirs of a Professional Cad, initially published in 1960. I’m part of that book club that Samantha from Musings of a Classic Film Addict and her sister – two great ladies – have organized, and that was our book for March. A much-appreciated choice, I must say!
Memoirs of a Professional Cad is not your traditional, chronological type of autobiography. And that’s what makes it stands for itself. Indeed, a welcomed introduction by film historian Tony Thomas explains that George Sanders rather shares various thoughts with us instead of telling us about all his life from A to Z. He also specifies that Sanders doesn’t use any dates or years in his writing. Indeed, it is the films he talks about that help us to situate the different life-stories chronologically. So, as a result, the text is, in a way, chronological since it begins with his childhood and then goes into his career, but he kind of goes back and forth at times. Moreover, Sanders alternates between his thoughts on different subjects and existential questions and facts from his personal and professional life.
By reading his autobiography, one realizes that Sanders travelled a lot during his life. First of all, he was born in Russia, but he and his family moved to England as the revolution started. Before becoming an actor, he lived and worked in Argentina. Moreover, the various film shootings brought him to work in Italy, France, Spain, etc. I particularly appreciate the part about Madrid since it brought back memories of this city that I visited in 2017. Definitely one of the coolest places where I’ve been. And the way he describes El Retiro park perfectly gives justice to that beautiful place.
As the book reveals it, George Sanders was a peculiar and interesting man. He didn’t necessarily try to please others. Moreover, people often think of him as a reflection of some of his characters. Added to that, some of his views, on women and Japanese people, for example, are definitely outdated. The man was also boastful, which almost becomes a running gag at one point. And, to be honest, it’s kind of hard to say if he was serious or if it was just his sense of humour. However, despite his flaws, I appreciated that he was true and didn’t pretend to be someone he wasn’t. This is George Sanders presenting his true colours with no filters.
Following that, there’s, however, a nuance to make. Indeed, the book sort of breaks some myths about the actor. As explained in the introduction, Sanders was this guy who didn’t particularly like his acting career and whose favourite activity was to sleep. It makes him sound like someone who didn’t appreciate anything. It looks that way in the first chapters, but the further you go in your reading, the more you realise he did enjoy some pleasures of life (aside from sleeping). While acting didn’t necessarily seem to be his cup of tea either, he gives some clue of appreciated career moments. For example, when he shot Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954), although Roberto Rossellini’s shooting methods were not really in accordance with someone who likes to sleep (!), we understand that he was grateful to co-star with Ingrid Bergman. The two actors shared the screen before in Rage in Heaven (W.S. Van Dyke, 1941). Sanders doesn’t talk about it in his book, but the fact that he was happy to work with Ingrid indicates that his first working experience with her must have been good. However, if memory serves right, Ingrid Bergman talks about the shooting of Rage in Heaven in her autobiography. Still, all I remember from that part is that she wrote that Sanders was (unsurprisingly) always taking naps on the set. Or maybe I read about it in the excellent La Véritable Ingrid Bergman by Bertrand Meyer-Stabley. I’m not sure!
Among the people Sanders talk about, there are quite some bits about his second wife, Hungarian-born actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. The latter seemed to be quite a unique woman. On many occasions, he also talks about his friend, actor Tyrone Power. One part that particularly hit me was when he discusses Power’s premature death. Considering he passed away at age 44 only, it was a sudden death. However, I was not aware of all the context and reading it as told by Sanders makes it sounds even more sudden. Poor guy.
Because the book was published in 1960, and Sanders passed away in 1972, it doesn’t cover all his life and career. Talking for myself, I would have liked to read his thoughts on filming Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960) or doing Shere Khan’s voice for The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967). His story ends quite abruptly as he relates a conversation with director William Lee Wilder (Billy Wilder’s brother) on the set of Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons (W. Lee Wilder, 1960). I turned the page, and the book was over. I thought: “What? That’s it?”. Tony Thomas’s conclusion, fortunately, raps up things. Of course, it only goes into the main lines of his last 12 years, including his suicide of boredom.
Memoirs of a Professional Cad is a short book that reads itself quickly and easily. It’s an advantage but, in a way, a disadvantage since some aspects of his life are missing. For example, I would have been curious to know more about his work with Alfred Hitchcock (he played in both Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent) or about his brother Tom Conway who was also an actor. But, I guess Sanders chose what he wanted to write about, which often happens in autobiographies.
The copy I read was a French version. In opposition to Marlon Brando biography, where the translation was not very good, this one was done finely and didn’t disturb the reading. So, I appreciated that.
Memoirs of a Professional Cad is definitely a worth reading book. No, it doesn’t reveal everything about Sanders’s life and career, but it is a good preview. The angles he chose to tell us about his life make it a fascinating read. For these reasons, I give it a good rating of ****.
If you have read that book, please let me know in the comment what you thought of it. Otherwise, I hope my review made you want to read it!