Oscar Vault Monday – Ship Of Fools, 1965 (dir. Stanley Kramer)
This was a film I’d meant to watch for a while because it was Vivien Leigh’s last screen appearance. Then it disappeared off of Instant Netflix and I kind of forgot I wanted to watch it. Luckily for me, TCM showed the film last week as part of its 31 Days of Oscar and boy am I glad that they did. I absolutely loved it. I think it might be one of the finest examples of interlocking storylines I’ve ever seen. Plus, the set decoration and cinematography were to die for. Some of the crispest B&W cinematography I’ve seen in a while. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two: Best B&W Art Direction (won), Best Cinematography (won), Best B&W Costume Design, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress Simone Signoret, Best Supporting Actor Michael Dunn, Best Actor Oskar Werner and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were Darling, Doctor Zhivago, A Thousand Clowns and winner The Sound of Music.
This film also contains one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled. I’m not going to write about every single performance/storyline, partly because that would take forever and partly because I couldn’t find videos of everything in order to make good screencaps. Instead, I’m going to write about my favorite handful of storylines.
Like I said earlier, this was the last screen appearance of two-time Oscar-winner Vivien Leigh. Prior to seeing this film, the latest of her performances I’d seen was The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which was a hot mess, so it was nice to see her in a later film that was actually thoroughly good. It was also kind of difficult to watch because her character, Mary Treadwell, was a fragile middle-aged woman and that fragility seemed more or less the state in which Vivien herself was in. Knowing her health problems, it was hard for me to tell how much was feigned and how much was just Vivien. Regardless, I think she gives a fine performance in this film and a worthy final performance for such a fabulous career.
However, my favorite storyline in the film was that of La Condesa (played with exquisite melancholy by Academy Award-winner Simone Signoret), a doomed aristocrat heading to an island prison, and her new-found friendship with the ship’s doctor (played by Oskar Werner). The two of them have such great chemistry together. Signoret was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in the film (having previously won the award for 1959’s Room At The Top), ultimately losing to Julie Christie in Darling. I have to say, I’ve seen Darling and I just don’t quite get why she won that award. Really, I’ve seen all five of the performances that were nominated that year and I’d have to say Christie would probably rank last among them for me.
I’ve been a fan of Oscar Werner for years now because I love him so much in François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Werner’s Dr. Willie Schumann is the heart of this film; as the ship’s doctor, he is one of the few characters that interacts with everyone. The intimate scenes between him and Signoret are probably the best scenes in the film. (NB: by intimate, I mean deep and intense conversations, not sex). However, the scene that struck me the most is just after one of the steerage passengers dies saving the beloved dog of a first class couple, who are so obtuse that all they can think about is why the doctor isn’t taking a look at their dog. I got chills when Werner tells the couple that the man who saved their dog died and abruptly leaves out of disgust.
Heinz Rühmann as Julius Lowenthal delivers one of my favorite lines in the film, in response to José Ferrer’s anti-Semitic Siegfried Rieber:
Rieber: You must admit that the Jews are a great part of the German problem.
Lowenthal: True, but not only the Jews, also men who smoke the pipe are a great part of the German problem.
Rieber: Why men who smoke the pipe?
Lowenthal: Why the Jews?
Speaking of lines that I really liked, my other favorite came during a conversation between Vivien Leigh’s Treadwell and Lee Marvin’s southern alcoholic and one-time baseball player, Bill Tenny. Overhearing some anti-Semitic remarks made by one of the European passengers, Tenny says something like the Southerners have nothing against the Jews and in fact he’d never seen one until he was 15 years old. Treadwell replies, “Perhaps you were too busy lynching Negroes to care about the Jews.” The way she delivers the line is just so perfectly acerbic. Marvin, while not nominated for his role in this film, won the Best Actor Academy Award that same year for his performance in Cat Ballou.
Another great storyline in the film is that of George Segal’s David and his girlfriend (and maybe soon-to-be fiance) Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley). The two are so perfectly matched acting-wise, bringing to life characters that are so perfectly mismatched. David is a painter who is dealing with his own lack of success and Jenny is obsessed with status and wants David to try to figure out another way to be successful. Segal shows passion and maturity, something that he perfected the next year in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Lastly, I wanted to talk about Michael Dunn, whose steerage passenger Carl Glocken breaks the fourth wall at the beginning and end of the film with his observations. Dunn, a dwarf who refused to be cast in “cute” roles, preferring instead to prove himself as a serious actor in dramatic roles, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Glocken. Dunn lost to Martin Balsam in A Thousand Clowns.
If you’re interested in purchasing this film, you can do so here.
Posted on February 28, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal, Heinz Rühmann, José Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Michael Dunn, Oscar Vault Monday, Oskar Werner, Simone Signoret, Stanley Kramer, the Academy Awards, Vivien Leigh. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.