Posted by Moira Finnie on July 1, 2009
A Note from Moira:
When I heard the news that Stewart Granger was to be July’s Star of the Month on TCM, I was delighted for two reasons. As regular readers might have guessed, part of my happiness stemmed from my lifelong enjoyment of the adventure films touched on appreciatively in last week’s nod to Errol Flynn in this blog. Such movies also were animated with renewed zest during Stewart Granger‘s high time in British and Hollywood films.
My second reason for joy was the offer by my friend, Peter Bosch, a writer and a recent TCM Fan Guest Programmer to have an interview he’d conducted with Mr. Granger published here. I think Peter, (fondly known to many of us on the TCM Message Boards as Filmlover), does an excellent job of capturing Granger‘s acerbic wit and honesty in this glimpse of the man as he launched his well done autobiography in 1981.
My elation was piqued by the thought of the neglected Granger garnering a bit of deserved attention and, as I hope you will enjoy, the actor’s personality comes across vividly in this timely piece. This actor injected each of his many roles with high style, even though, as you will see below, this panache and sense of grandeur was a gift that he seems to have undervalued in himself. My favorite Granger movies are the little known Love Story (1944) with Margaret Lockwood, the charming “April-August” romance of Adam and Evelyne (1949) with the remarkably beautiful girl (and talented actress) who became the actor’s wife, Jean Simmons, the frontier story of The Wild North with an almost unrecognizable Cyd Charisse as a gorgeous Indian maiden, and the beautifully made–and perhaps most sumptuous of all swashbucklers, Scaramouche (1952). In all, he brought a hint of good humor, naughty arrogance, and the sense that at his core, he was both a scoundrel and a gentleman. The viewer was never quite sure which way his characters might turn. Though such figures–and such acting, alas, fell out of fashion, Granger‘s ability to entertain and take us out of ourselves will be seen throughout this month’s slew of 26 scheduled Stewart Granger films on Tuesday’s in July.
Mr. Granger once cavalierly dismissed some very fine work, by claiming that “I’ve never done a film I’m proud of.” Anyone who has enjoyed his films knows better. The thirst for style, color, romance and adventure in the human heart is indestructible. One of the few actors who brought this yearning to satisfying life on screen gives us much to be appreciated and rediscovered here ~ Moira.
The Last Swashbuckler by Peter Bosch
July 2009 Foreword:
In 1981, I had the chance to interview Stewart Granger for a local weekly TV magazine in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, while he was in the city to promote his autobiography, “Sparks Fly Upward.”
As Stewart Granger is TCM’s Star of the Month for July 2009, I thought you might like to read that interview.
“Everything about him is on a huge scale — his physique, his voice, his laugh, his enthusiasm, his frustrations, his temperament and his generosity.”
Thirty years later, it is early morning in May 1981 in the Vancouver, British Columbia, hotel suite where Stewart Granger is talking about his autobiography, “Sparks Fly Upward,” an extremely entertaining book I read in one sitting. (The phrase comes from Job 5:7 “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.”)
“It’s a lovely life,” Granger stated, “but it’s all in the past. It’s all over and it’s gone so quickly. That’s another thing that struck me as incredible. I suddenly realize I’m 68. I’m very young mentally, I’m just old physically. I can’t run up the stairs and I can’t swashbuckle…and that’s rather sad. Although you’ve had a hell of a life, that doesn’t help me now, does it?”
And it has been a hell of a life, if the book is any indication. With a great deal of humor, he tells in the autobiography of his rise from film extra to leading stage actor to major film star. He also relates with frankness his love affairs with Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons, Hedy Lamarr and others, but without ever being offensive.
However, not everything was love and kisses. He reports the great battles with director Richard Brooks, his producers, Howard Hughes, and the acid-tongued Hedda Hopper, (seen below, at left) at whose name he would suddenly become infuriated. “That bloody Hedda Hopper ruined people! Hedda would plan and would have a campaign against certain people…she’d destroy you!”
On a much lighter note, when asked why he wrote the book, he laughed and replied, “For making money. I had a couple of friends…one was Michael Parkinson (host of England’s “The Parkinson Show”). He was partly responsible because he said, ‘Why don’t you write a book, because you were sort of the last of the swashbucklers, you know. ‘ And I said, ‘Oh, God, come on.’ And he said, ‘You were the first of the swashbucklers in England because there was nobody in the English film industry, if you think about it, that swashbuckled.’ But I suppose he’s right in a way. Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave…John Mills and James Mason, they weren’t swashbucklers, you know. I was the first one to jump around with a sword. So he said, ‘Why don’t you write about it because it would be interesting, you in the Fifties and the Forties, to show how it was. How it really was.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I will, some day.’
“Someone else, an agent it was, said, ‘It’s easy. You get a ghost writer, and just talk into a microphone, and they’ll do it all for you. Publishers will fall over themselves to give you the money.’ None of which is true. I picked the worst time in the publishing business, with the recession, and the cost of printing has gone up, and newspapers are going bankrupt. The ghost I got probably was a much better writer than me…but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t me talking. It was just phony. So that had to stop. So I had to write it and it was torture. It was terrifying because you’ve got to take out these memories that are in the back of your head and you’ve got to examine them and say, ‘Now how do I write about this interestingly?’ Even the happy periods are unhappy to write about because you say to yourself, ‘Why the hell didn’t I know I was happy then?’”
Part of the time that was very happy for him was his childhood. He was born James Lablache Stewart in London in 1913, the son of Major James Stewart and Frederica Lablache Stewart (whose parents had both been actors, and her grandfather was the famous opera singer, Luigi Lablache). (So, yes, Granger was born “James Stewart” but no relation to Hollywood’s famous Mr. Stewart, and was forced to be renamed Stewart Granger when the time came).
As related in the book, much of his childhood was enjoyable, especially the time he spent at the local cinema, getting caught up in the adventures of Scaramouche (1923) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), never knowing he would be starring in remakes of both films one day. There were also difficult times in his life, mostly being away at prep school, a loner among boys he didn’t get along with.
As he became a young man, he was looking for work and a friend said, “Then become a film extra. You get a guinea a day and the best crumpet in the world.” “Crumpet,” to those who don’t know, was British slang for—well, I’ll let you look it up…but all you had to do was mention the fairer sex to the young man and he was there. In the autobiography, he tells how on another occasion it was suggested he join an acting program at a school by trying for a scholarship. He told the person he wasn’t interested when he heard he would receive no money, but then saw that there were only eight other male students and fifty female students. And that is how he became an actor.
The book details his start in theater, his meeting and marrying Elspeth March, his military service, and back again to being a civilian and a return to the theatre. While starring in a play production of “Rebecca,” he was asked to audition at Gainsborough Pictures for a film called The Man In Grey, starring James Mason as the villain of the piece…a role Granger would have liked as opposed to the hero he played.
In fact, early in his film career, Granger was famous in roles that James Mason turned down. He took over as the hero in The Man in Grey (1943) and as Appollodorus in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) (seen below at left) and as Nicolo Paganini in The Magic Bow (1946) (right).
Granger laughed, “He was quite clever turning them up. Appollodorus was a terrible part. ‘The Magic Bow’ he should have played. It was a big success, but a terrible film. For ‘The Man in Grey’, I would have swapped with him any time. He was right to turn down the hero because the villain was much more interesting. Villains are always much more interesting. And they’re much easier to play. You don’t have to have that dimple, that smile, that flashing of teeth, that charm, the twinkle in the eye. You can just glower.”
During this early part of his career, the married Granger fell in love with a young film actress he had met socially, Deborah Kerr, and a short affair ensued. They did break it up but it was the start of marital troubles for him and Elspeth. Sometime later, they divorced. Shortly after that, he began seeing Jean Simmons, who had made an impression on the public in the film, The Way to the Stars (1945). She made an impression on him, as well, and they fell in love.
While Granger was featured in starring roles, he was helping Simmons’ career along. During the interview, I mentioned I had heard he was against her playing Ophelia in Laurence Olivier’s film production of Hamlet (1948). “No, where did you hear that?” he asked, puzzled, but then recalled, “Ah – I went to Larry and I said I was scared for her as she’s never done Shakespeare. I remember saying, ‘You will look after her, because I know what it is to play Shakespeare.’ Larry was a wonderful director and he said, ‘Now don’t worry, leave it to me’…and she was wonderful. She got nominated for that. Yes, you’re right, I’d forgotten about that.”
While making movies, he still kept appearing on stage. One night, Irene Selznick, ex-wife of David O. Selznick and daughter of Louis B. Mayer, was in the audience of a play he was in. Soon after, he was winging his way to Hollywood and Fame. M-G-M put him into King Solomon’s Mines (1950), Scaramouche (1952), and The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), which were all remakes of film classics. But he claims that it never bothered him that the studio brought him clear across the ocean and they didn’t have anything original for him to do. “There’s damn little new in the world for those kind of classic romantic films,“ he said, “because they don’t write them anymore.”
One of the things he confessed in the interview was that in retrospect he would not have made that change from the legitimate stage to movies if he could do it over.
“I may not have been successful,” Granger said, “I may not have made so much money, but I sure as hell would have been happier because I would have been my own boss. I might have made mistakes. I don’t know. But they would have been mine. Not some mistake like the fat Nicholas Nayfack, who was the nephew of Nicholas Schenck (MGM’s New York based CEO), who made a film, Gun Glory (1957) and looked at me drunk one night and said, ‘I hate you, you son of a bitch.’ He couldn’t direct traffic. He couldn’t cross the street without being led. And so that was a failure; it wasn’t because you screwed it up, it’s because he screwed it up.
“And I’ll never forget when they came to me and said, ‘King Solomon’s Mines is a great success. Christ, you’re the next Gable! He’s out because he’s made two lousy films.’ They thought I was going to jump up and say, ‘How nice of you.’ I was outraged that they could talk about Gable like that! And I said, ‘Yes, and do you want to know why they were no good? Because Gable was no good? No, because you were stupid enough to put him into two bad pictures!’ Of course, I was finished as far as they were concerned, I was a ‘difficult character.’”
In 1953, Granger starred along with Simmons (then his wife) in Young Bess, which was the story of the years in the life of Elizabeth I before she became Queen of England. Simmons was the headstrong Bess, Charles Laughton was her father Henry VIII, Granger was Admiral Tom Seymour, and Deborah Kerr was Catherine Parr, Henry’s last wife. As previously mentioned, Granger had once been in love with Kerr and was required to play romantic scenes with both her and Simmons in the film. But any fears of Simmons and Kerr not getting along were quickly put to rest. “They were great friends,” Granger admitted. ”They absolutely loved each other. Jean knew I had had an affair with Deborah…I had introduced Deborah to her husband, Tony Bartlett. They were great friends, they used to giggle together and tell each other terrible stories in Cockney. It was lovely working with them.”
During the 1950s, Granger and Simmons had a chance to appear in War and Peace (1956), but it ended up starring another husband and wife team, Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn.
“Sure, because we turned it down,” Granger remarked. “Dino De Laurentiis (the producer of the film) we thought was a joke. He walked into our house with King Vidor to see Jean and he looked at me and suddenly said, ‘You would be beautiful for the prince.’ And I said, ‘But didn’t you come to see Jean?’ And he said, ‘Ah, yes.’ There was Jean sitting there and he was trying to get me to play the prince so I didn’t like that. I told Jean not to touch it.”
Sadly, sometimes even the greatest love affairs end, and it was true in the case of Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons. They divorced in 1960. Shortly after that, she married director Richard Brooks whom Granger loathed. “I didn’t like it at all. I thought she was stupid.” (2009 note: the following line was edited out of the published article, probably because Brooks was still alive at that time, but I remember Granger adding: “She thought she could turn him into a human being.”)
During that period, he was also working in every film that came along to pay off a ranch he had bought. One of those films was North to Alaska (1960), in which he costarred with John Wayne and Ernie Kovacs. Granger and Kovacs had a running joke that would absolutely burn Wayne. Granger remembered, “He got $666,000 for eight weeks work, eight hours a day. We worked out how much he’s earning a minute. We’d be sitting around in chairs and old Duke would be walking up and down and Ernie would call out, ‘Duke, you just made $556.’ And he’d go mad! ‘Duke, you just made another $27, just walking from there to there.’
“And I remember old Duke, who wasn’t too careful throwing his punch, absolutely pollaxing a man. One of those shots where the man was coming towards him and he had to stop his punch in front of his face. And he belted the guy and knocked him out. And old Duke said, ‘You came too far forward. It’s your fault.’”
In the 1950s, Stewart Granger had been a box-office draw…but between 1960 and 1967 he appeared mostly in foreign films, low-budget Italian epics and the like…movies he recalled as, “Awful, awful films.” He made them for one reason, “Because it was tax-free. For the first time in my life, I was making tax-free money. I didn’t care what I did as long as I got the money. I blew it. It was stupid.”
He made only two more films, both for television, and starred for one season in The Men from Shiloh (formerly The Virginian). He then decided to retire from acting.
“I thought I was rich,” he admitted. “I didn’t need them.”
However, nothing is permanent, so he made a guest appearance in the 1978 film, The Wild Geese. “I remember Richard (Burton) and I couldn’t remember our lines,” Granger said, laughing. “Here we are telling each other what professionals we are, and drying up left, right, and center.”
After he wrote the autobiography, he began feeling terrible pains in his chest. He went to a doctor who thought he might have a bronchial infection so it was x-rayed.
Granger said, “I’ll never forget when they hung up those dripping negatives and you see this great big ghastly white patch right on this black lung. And I said, ‘Is it?’ and he said, ‘I’m afraid so.’”
It was diagnosed as cancer, but later it was learned the doctor was wrong. Unfortunately, Granger didn’t know that at the time as he looked at the x-rays that could be showing his death. “Do you know what he said to me? ‘I’m not telling you to make your will tomorrow, but don’t wait too long.’ That’s what he said. And your heart sinks, BWHAMM! But because you’re an actor, you carry it off. So he thought I wasn’t terribly upset, so he asked me for my autograph. I thought that was in very poor taste. So when he sent me the bill, I sent him a bill for the autograph. And it was £10 more than the bill he sent me, and I haven’t heard from him since.”
Suddenly, my interview with Granger was interrupted by the incredibly loud sound of the fire alarm in the hotel corridor. We tried ignoring it at first, figuring it to be a false alarm, but when it persisted I began to feel a little nervous. Granger, on the other hand, was merely annoyed at the interruption of the interview. We discovered the management was “thoughtfully” testing their alarm at that early hour and we returned to my tape recorder which turned out to be more frightened than I as it was now chewing up my remaining tape.
Coupling that with the fact that Judi, the publisher’s pressed-for-time representative, was pushing me out the door so the actor-turned-author could make his next appointment, we concluded the interview.
But what of all the untold stories in his life from 1960 on that are not covered in “Sparks Fly Upward”? “That comes in my next book,” he quickly assured me.
2009 Endnote: I had hoped he would write that second book. Unfortunately, Stewart Granger died in 1993 without ever writing it.
I will always have fond memories of meeting him and interviewing him. He was the first celebrity I interviewed. And while there were many after, there was something special about this man that has always stayed with me. He was a man of life and energy and wit. You don’t come across many like that. To me, he will always be of the joyous grin as he runs up stairs, engaging in swordplay, and swashbuckling with the very best.
The following glimpses give us a taste for the dashing presence and good humor that Stewart Granger brought to his many roles:
This luridly romantic trailer from his very early supporting role in The Man in Grey (1943) gives a hint at what Granger meant above about James Mason’s gifts and their parallel careers:[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_TekKYWBj0]
In the clip below from The Woman Hater (1947) Granger’s comedic and romantic style, pre-Hollywood is evident in this playful scene with Edwige Feuillard:
A featurette dramatizing the lengths the cast and crew went to to make King Solomon’s Mines (1950):
In what many believe is the best-staged sword duel in screen history in Scaramouche (1952):
In The Wild North (1952), Granger had a chance to show his rough and ready side in this tale of the Yukon. Don’t miss the character’s accent or the wolves! A must for all aficionados of scenery-chewing at its most entertaining:
Young Bess (1953), a beautifully told story of the young Elizabeth, offering good roles for Jean Simmons, Deborah Kerr & Granger, as well as Charles Laughton:
The rarely seen sea saga included in this month’s lineup on TCM is All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953):
The magnificently mounted Beau Brummel (1954) boasts a great cast, and scads of Regency flavor thanks to them and the art direction from the legendary Alfred Junge and cinematographer Oswald Morris:
Bhowani Junction (1956) is a colorful look at Indian society and individuals caught up in personal and political conflicts of race and freedom at the end of the British Raj. Ava Gardner, Granger and Bill Travers make a compelling triangle in the midst of one of George Cukor’s more challenging late career films:
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