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Jean Anouilh's bittersweet farce The Waltz of the Toreadors, about a retired general buoyed by the prospect of one last shot at regaining a long-lost love, was a popular theatrical staple in the mid 20th century, first as a hit in Paris, then on the London stage in 1956, and again a year later as a Broadway production that ran for 132 performances with Ralph Richardson in the lead, garnering the New York Drama Critics Best Foreign Play Award. It was first adapted for television in 1959. Three years later, the big screen version of Waltz of the Toreadors (1962) was released, with the characters and setting changed from French to English, and 37-year-old Peter Sellers cast as the aging Lothario who finds himself competing with a younger man for the woman of his dreams.
Sellers was just on the cusp of emerging as an international box office phenomenon, but his comic skills had already been well noted in a number of productions, and he had recently won the Best Actor Award from the British Academy for I'm All Right Jack (1959). While filming Waltz of the Toreadors, a comedy of romantic and marital upset, the actor was undergoing his own marriage woes. He and first wife Anne Howe were bitterly nearing the end of their relationship, a crisis fueled largely by his philandering, and Sellers sought relief from this distress with near-constant work. Even that, however, wasn't always enough. During production on Waltz of the Toreadors, he held up production for many costly hours while he called his friend David Lodge to the Thames valley location shoot, begging him to talk to Anne and apologize for him, in the hopes he could patch things up one last time. The gesture ultimately proved to be in vain.
Unfortunately, the completed film version of Waltz of the Toreadors did little to raise Sellers's spirits. It was not a box office success, and he thought "the whole thing looks terrible." Luckily, the job he took to recover from what he perceived to be this career debacle was the supporting role of Clare Quilty in Stanley Kubrick's production of Lolita (1962); the director even expanded the actor's role for the sake of the film (and Sellers' career) which brought the star raves and widespread attention.
Sellers's low opinion of Waltz of the Toreadors was not necessarily borne out by critics. Wolf Mankowitz's screenplay was nominated for a British Academy Award and Sellers walked off with Best Actor award at the San Sebastian (Spain) Film Festival. Even Variety, while noting the film was often too divided between slapstick, farce, high comedy, drama, and tragedy, remarked that Sellers "extracts laughs and compassionate pity with equal ease." And Bosley Crowther in the New York Times said he played the part "with detail so deft and devilish that he adds another jewel to his crown."
If Sellers had had his way, he wouldn't have been in the film in the first place. Two weeks before principal photography was set to begin, he was offered the lead in Freud (1962) by director John Huston and tried hard to get out of his Toreadors contract to do that film. The part eventually went to Montgomery Clift in what proved to be his penultimate role.
To capitalize on Sellers's box office power after the run of the Pink Panther movies and Dr. Strangelove (1964), Waltz of the Toreadors was re-released in the United States in 1967 as The Amorous General.
Director: John Guillermin
Producer: Peter De Sarigny
Screenplay: Wolf Mankowitz, based on Lucienne Hill's translation of the play by Jean Anouilh
Cinematography: John Wilcox
Editing: Peter Taylor
Art Direction: Harry Pottle
Original Music: Richard Addinsell
Cast: Peter Sellers (Gen. Leo Fitzjohn), Dany Robin (Ghislaine), Margaret Leighton (Emily Fitzjohn), John Fraser (Lt. Robert Finch), Cyril Cusack (Dr. Grogan).
by Rob Nixon