Friday, September 27, 2013

Stanley Kramer and Lee Marvin Set Sail on a Ship of Fools

Back in the dark days of 1941, Katherine Anne Porter began a novel that was intended as an allegory of the Nazi rise to power. Ship of Fools was set entirely on an ocean liner sailing from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany in 1933. Passengers of many nationalities were thrown together on a voyage that revealed the darkness inside each of them. 

When Porter’s novel was published in 1962, it became a sensation worldwide. In 1965, Stanley Kramer launched a major film version, starring such international luminaries as Oskar Werner (as a doomed German doctor), Simone Signoret (as a drug-addicted Spanish aristocrat who faces jail for siding with the peasantry), dancer José Greco (in a rare acting role as the unscrupulous leader of a flamenco troupe), and José Ferrer (who’d made a delightful Cyrano de Bergerac for Kramer, but was cast this time as an odious proto-Nazi). Kramer’s Ship of  Fools also featured young George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley as mismatched lovers, along with Michael Dunn as a sardonic dwarf who functioned as the film’s Greek chorus (“You may even find yourself on board.”) The film won two Oscars, and was nominated for six more, including Best Picture. It was a prime example of an endangered Hollywood species: a film with a strong social consciousness   

I just saw Ship of Fools on the big screen as part of the Stanley Kramer Centennial series, now at the Billy Wilder Theater through September 29. Before the screening began, Karen Sharpe Kramer reminisced about how, as an ingénue shooting a Jerry Lewis film on the Paramount lot, she had slipped into the soundstage where the big ship had been built, determined to see some famous actors at work. Her brief encounter with director Kramer set off a chain of events that led to their marriage nine months later.

Another guest on the Wilder stage was BarBara Luna, who had played a tempestuous member of Greco’s dance troupe. One of Luna’s most vivid memories was of co-star Lee Marvin chasing her around the set, even getting his foot caught in a fire-bucket in the process. She also spoke about the famous scene in which Marvin (as a washed-up baseball player) drunkenly invades the cabin of socialite Vivien Leigh, who wards off his advances by hammering him with her evening slipper. In Luna’s vivid telling, one of Leigh’s blows shattered Marvin’s nose.

Dwayne Epstein is having none of that. Epstein’s biography, Lee Marvin: Point Blank, is newly in print. But Epstein worked on this labor-of-love for two decades, and so was able to interview Hollywood movers and shakers who are now, alas, long gone. Back in 1994 he discussed the Marvin-Leigh scene with Stanley Kramer, who decried the fact that that the old rumor was still afloat. (Marvin’s broken beak actually stemmed from an encounter with Martin Milner on the TV series, Route 66.) As Epstein discovered, Marvin held onto the shoe with which Leigh had assailed him as a cherished memento.

There are many more stories to be told about marvelous Lee Marvin. Visitors to this Sunday’s West Hollywood Book Fair will hear some of them, because Dwayne Epstein is one of the speakers on a Hollywood Biography panel I’ll be moderating. Another participant is B. James Gladstone, a show biz attorney who wrote The Man Who Seduced Hollywood: The Life and Loves of Greg Bautzer, Tinseltown’s Most Powerful Lawyer. The immortal Milt Larsen will also be on hand to talk about My Magical Journey, and my fourth panelist is Michael Z. Stern, whose memoir details his unlikely friendship with Lucille Ball. Y’all come!  

To purchase $10 tickets to any of the remaining screenings for the Stanley Kramer centennial celebration at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater, click here


  1. I'm going backwards! I already know your panel went swimmingly - and now we're earlier and I'm wishing I could have joined you for the Ship of Fools screening. If I do make it to one of these one day - I'll bring the popcorn. Do you like butter, or plain?

  2. Well, I like butter . . . but virtuously stick to plain. And I eat a lot of it, unless stopped. Thanks for asking, Mr. C.