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Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools(1965)

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teaser Ship of Fools (1965)

In 1962, the celebrated American short story author and essayist Katherine Anne Porter published her first and only novel. Twenty years in the writing, Porter drew upon a 1931 ocean cruise she had taken from Vera Cruz to Germany, and crafted a compelling allegory for a world populace drifting inexorably toward global conflict. David O. Selznick jumped into the bidding for the film rights before he had even finished the book, but he could not top the $400,000 tag that United Artists had placed upon the property. In the hands of socially-conscious director Stanley Kramer, scenarist Abby Mann, and a diverse, accomplished international cast, Ship of Fools (1965) became one of the finest ensemble pieces of the period, and remains a compelling viewing experience today.

The tone of the incipient voyage is set by the cynical dwarf Glocken (Michael Dunn), who serves a Greek chorus function by addressing the camera and apprising the audience of the "ship of fools" they are about to encounter. In addition to its wealthy patrons, the German vessel Vera has also taken on a complement of hundreds of indigent Cuban deportees who are being returned to Spain against their wishes.

The central narrative thread of Ship of Fools belongs to the ship's doctor Willie Schumann (Oskar Werner), a disaffected man fully aware of his terminal heart disease and thoroughly weary of his wife, family and all else that the world has to offer. His outlook begins to shift when he encounters La Condesa (Simone Signoret), a kept woman with a drug addiction, whose dalliance with Spanish revolutionaries bought her deportation and imminent political imprisonment. Initially, the doctor quite correctly surmises that La Condesa's interest in him was fueled by his ability to meet her narcotics habit, but their unforced affinity for one another spurs depth of feeling that neither believed themselves able to still muster.

Also preeminent on the passenger manifest is the wealthy divorcee Lucy Treadwell (Vivien Leigh), an aging Southern belle sadly still trying to play the coquette, and Bill Tenny (Lee Marvin), a loutish, hard-drinking baseball scout eternally bitter over the washout of his career in the majors. Rieber (Jose Ferrer), an overbearing entrepreneur and confirmed Nazi who shares anti-Semitic screed with anyone within earshot, has ironically been bunked with the unflappably amiable Jewish salesman Lowenthal (Heinz Ruhmann).

Lowenthal comes to bond with Glocken, who is likewise shunted off as undesirable to the far recesses of the ship's dining area. Kramer and Mann rendered Lowenthal in a far more sympathetic light than Porter, in order to make him the narrative's lightning rod for dramatic irony ("There are a million Jews in Germany! What're they going to do...kill us all?") Rounding out the spotlighted players are a politically conscious young draftsman (George Segal) and his materially oriented girlfriend (Elizabeth Ashley), who are desperate to discover if they possess anything other than sexual heat that will sustain their relationship.

Ship of Fools turned out to be Leigh's screen farewell, and given the precarious state of the British beauty's physical and mental health at the time of production, the accounting she gave for herself was that much more remarkable. While Kramer, who had coveted Leigh for the role of Mrs. Treadwell, was initially put off by the actress's demands, his respect deepened once he became aware of the depths of her problems. As he related to Hugo Vickers for Vivien Leigh (Hamish Hamilton), "She was ill, and the courage to go ahead, the courage to make the film-was almost unbelievable."

While her spiked-heel rebuff of a drunken Marvin is one of the film's great set pieces, the actress had a low tolerance threshold for Marvin's penchant for showing up for his takes with "stale-Scotch breath," as reported in Anne Edwards' Vivien Leigh (Simon & Schuster). "In spite of it, they had a mutual admiration for each other. 'God, you have talent!,' she lauded him after the playing of their last scene together." In her memoir Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be (Harper & Row), Signoret recalled the dinner parties that Leigh would throw in 1964. "At the end of these evenings the phonograph played the theme from Gone With the Wind [1939]; it made her sad, but she did it deliberately...Ship of Fools was her last film, and she's prodigious in it."

While a share of contemporary critics dismissed Ship of Fools as Grand Hotel (1932) afloat, the project was buoyed by the strong efforts of its players, and Ship of Fools garnered Oscars for cinematographer Ernest Laszlo and art directors Robert Clatworthy and Joseph Kish. An additional six nominations were deservedly earned by Werner, Signoret, Dunn, Kramer, Mann and costume designers Bill Thomas and Jean Louis.

Producer: Stanley Kramer
Director: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Abby Mann, based on a novel by Katherine Anne Porter
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Film Editing: Robert C. Jones
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy
Music: Ernest Gold
Cast: Vivien Leigh (Mary Treadwell), Simone Signoret (La Condesa), Jose Ferrer (Siegfried Rieber), Lee Marvin (Bill Tenny), Oskar Werner (Willie Schumann), Elizabeth Ashley (Jenny Brown).
BW-150m. Closed captioning.

by Jay Steinberg

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