(#10 in a 12-part series to be printed at the beginning of each month)
Manny P. here…
SHIP OF FOOLS – By 1965, Stanley Kramer was an accomplished producer and director. Ship of Fools is his forgotten classic. A cross-section of international folks aboard an ocean liner in the pre-fascist era play out a drawing-room drama with a toxic doctrine brainwashing entire countries in Europe, including Italy, Spain, and Germany. It was adapted by Abby Mann from the only major novel written by Katherine Anne Porter.
The collaboration of Stanley Kramer and Abby Mann worked well in 1961 when they developed the movie Judgment at Nuremburg. The motion picture earned the screenwriter an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Mann was the obvious choice to flesh out characters played by Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, Jose Ferrer, Simone Signoret, Oskar Werner, George Segal, Elizabeth Ashley, and Michael Dunn. The script emerged as a winner.
Katharine Hepburn was originally asked to star in the film, but declined as she was attending to the declining health of Spencer Tracy. Kramer was a personal friend of the couple, and quickly turned to Vivien Leigh.
Though the epic motion picture was beaten by The Sound of Music for Best Picture, the performances of Michael Dunn, Oskar Werner, and Simone Signoret made their Oscar races quite compelling. Dunn lost to Martin Balsam in A Thousand Clowns; Signoret lost to Julie Christie in Darling; and Werner lost to Lee Marvin (his co-star) for his duo-role in Cat Ballou.
Abby Mann really ignited the foolish behavior of strangers as they intermingle in various conversations. Using Michael Dunn, a dwarf, to set up the opening segment was brilliant. His perceived disability is dwarfed by the not-so-obvious psychological disabilities of his fellow passengers. The casual pace of each scene also allows for appropriate character development.
The Hitler overtones are a little over-the-top. Conversations involving Michael Dunn were believable and poignant. His prophecy of the Nazi Final Solution enjoyed the benefit of scripted hindsight. Less honest was Jose Ferrer’s huber-fascist propaganda. It beats the viewer up, and his revelation that his character is not German predictably parallels the pent-up psychosis of Der Fuhrer.
Like Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Katherine Anne Porter won major accolades for her only novel in 1962. It’s success gave the scribe financial security, but deprived her readers from enjoying any future major literary works. She spent the remainder of her career writing short stories. This fact is a real shame.
Supporting Actor Spotlight
The first Latin actor to win a Best Actor Oscar was Jose Ferrer. Born in Puerto Rico, Ferrer was a Broadway star during the 1930′s and 1940′s as a performer and director. He took the stage in Charley’s Aunt, Othello, and Cyrano de Bergerac. His directorial credits include Stalag 13 and The Andersonville Trials. Due to his Tony-winning job in Cyrano, Hollywood came calling.
Primarily a character actor, he reprised his starring performance in the motion picture version of Cyrano. Ferrer took home an Academy Award in 1950. His career choices were based on his desire to play a given part. He starred in Moulin Rouge; but he supported others in Joan of Arc, Miss Sadie Thompson, The Caine Mutiny, Lawrence of Arabia, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and Voyage of the Damned.
Ferrer also directed a few movies, including I Accuse and Return to Peyton Place. He starred in Man of La Mancha on a road tour of the Broadway musical, replacing Richard Kiley in 1967. JOSE FERRER –>
Appropriately, the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) renamed its Tespis Award to the HOLA José Ferrer Tespis Award in 2005. Ferrer’s commanding acting-style guaranteed scene-stealing in any motion picture for which he was cast.
This was the last film made by Vivien Leigh, a fitting finale. And, Ship of Fools made major stars of George Segal, Lee Marvin, and Wener Klemperer, who was later cast on television’s Hogan’s Heroes. Michael Dunn garnered a viilainous recurring role on The Wild Wild West.
More importantly, Ship of Fools reminded audiences that a negative political climate can generate globally disastrous consequences. In the capable hands of Stanley Kramer, this point was adroitly made.
Until next time> “never forget”