Rumored as one of the inspirations for television’s Dynasty (1981-89), Anthony Asquith's The V.I.P.’s (1963) was MGM's attempt to resurrect the big and splashy ensemble picture, long since a holdover from the days when they were the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’ and movies like Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner At Eight 1933) epitomized a certain kind of residual elegance as effortless as glitter and spangles adorning Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies. Alas, Metro had not made lavishly appointed star-driven vehicles such as this since the late 1930s; the government consent decrees of the late 1940s and early 50s, forcing a divestiture of their top-heavy star system, thus making it virtually impossible to assemble a cast of A-list talent at a moment’s notice. Moreover, Hollywood was reeling over the skyrocketing costs to produce pictures – even mediocre ones. Worse, the industry suddenly found itself in the unenviable position of not being able to pigeonhole the public taste.
In the old days, MGM’s VP in charge of production, Irving G. Thalberg had consulted the crystal ball in his mind with remarkable clairvoyance, giving Metro its prestige with an uninterrupted string of megahits. Thalberg didn’t follow trends. He set them. For a time, after his untimely death in 1936, MGM continued to chug along under his steam and imprint; L.B. Mayer becoming the custodian of projects already begun or in the planning stages. But by the late 1940s, MGM seemed on the verge of a critical and financial derailment. Their profits and output had dwindled by half. Ominously, not a single major Academy Award was bestowed on a Metro picture in nearly three years. And Mayer, who had once vacillated as the undisputed raja of this, the plushest of Hollywood kingdoms, now seemed to be simply going through the motions, while diverting his time and energies to two hobbies – a new love and horse-racing – that had absolutely nothing to do with the studio’s wellbeing. By all accounts, the dream factory was gearing up for a very rude awakening.
After the appointment of Dore Schary, MGM appeared to momentarily recover from its apoplexy. But like everything about Hollywood, its resurrection was a smoke and mirrors illusion; Schary creating a rift within the company to fester as star contracts were dropped, bought out or renewed only on a picture-by-picture basis; his own ennui with managing a glamor factory eventually lead to a severe downturn in Metro’s profits and his own deposal as captain of this ship already taking on far too much ballast to remain afloat for much longer. The circumstances of MGM’s final implosion were, by no means, unique. As television bit into badly needed revenue and stars foundered to find steady work elsewhere, Metro struggled to maintain its façade as ‘the king of features’. In this light it stood to reason – possibly even flying in the face of logic - that Anatole de Grunwald’s verve to produce The V.I.P’s as an all-star soap opera would return MGM to its heady prestige from days of yore. They might first have considered how the times had moved on, arguably, without them.
What the movie did offer, that no TV soap opera of its generation could, was the megawatt star power of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The V.I.P’s was to reap the whirlwind from the Burton/Taylor affair. Only months before, it had touched off a firestorm of controversy in Rome on the set of Cleopatra (1963). While both stars then were decried by the Pope and on the floor of the United States Senate as degenerates for the unapologetic way they had managed to wreck two marriages (one to America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds), enough to set up the gossip rags with enough steam to propel them for nearly a decade’s worth of printable scandal, this perverse excitement surrounding the couple had given Cleopatra an enormous boost in advanced ticket sales; the tidal wave threatening to swamp The V.I.P’s at the box office too. In our present age of star-laden publicity scandals it is perhaps a little difficult to assess just how potent the Taylor/Burton tittle-tattle was in 1963. Nothing quite like it had been experienced before. Certainly, without it, The V.I.P’s is just another fairly tepid yarn about a ‘marriage in crisis,’ offset with endearing and very solid cameo performances. And Terrance Rattigan’s screenplay is not particularly interesting in testing the boundaries of such rumormongering; merely whetting the public’s appetite for sin while remaining mostly ‘above it all’ and allowing the public to bask in the afterglow of stars who, arguably, had done their best work elsewhere.
In retrospect, Burton seems particularly bored with the part of wealthy industrialist, Paul Andros; something of a doting spouse whose manner in wooing his wife, Frances (Elizabeth Taylor) comes across as just a tad domineering and manipulative. He showers her with expensive jewels and furs and she gives him…hmmm. Not much of that going on in The V.I.P’s either. Instead, we get a fairly antiseptic romance between Mrs. Andros and Mark Champselle (played with oily charm by Louis Jourdan); a swarthy French gigolo, hopping from Riviera to Riviera via the next round of intercontinental poker games. Recently, however, these have threatened to push his playboy lifestyle into the red. So, Mark needs Frances – or at least Frances’ money – far more than evidently she needs him. He’s exciting, well sort of. Actually, not really. Jourdan gives us a thoroughly placid Lothario; more moony and dewy-eyed than anything else – and bordering on needy. Oh well, I suppose he appeals to Fran’s mother instinct. Actually, The V.I.P.’s is rather cagey about where Frances’ loyalties lay (pun intended) and this, in hindsight, is really part of the reason the picture doesn’t quite click as it should.
After writing Paul a letter of farewell she assumes he won’t be able to read until her plane is safely off the ground, Frances is in for an unwelcomed surprise when a dense fog grounds all flights, placing her grand amour with Mark in grave jeopardy. This is especially true when Paul, having read the letter back home, returns to the terminal to pursue Frances with promises he will reform. Exactly what about him Frances should like to improve, remains open for discussion. In hindsight, their marital issues are never explained or resolved, leaving Frances to appear even more misguided and silly. Paul’s first thought is to avenge his betrayal by shooting both Frances and her lover in a jealous rage. This might have steamed things up a little; Rattigan’s screenplay setting up the possibility in a conversation Mark and Frances share inside the V.I.P. lounge; he innocently inquiring why Frances should fear Paul; she coolly suggesting, “When I was a child I was always afraid of the dark.” But is Paul her boogie man? No, and neither is he the murderous kind. After fumbling the gun scenario at the fifty yard line, Paul goes for Plan B: try and buy off Champselle. But money doesn't seem to be Mark’s motive either. So, onto Plan C. What is Plan C? Paul drowns his sorrows in drink. Good plan for a Welshman, since his woeful self-pity is grotesquely meant to squeeze empathy from a stone, and, in fact, softens Fran’s head and heart enough for her to realize she’s loved Paul all along…go figure.
If this ‘I don’t love you because I hate myself’ scenario seems more than a tad washed out – it is; leaving screenwriter, Terrance Rattigan to concoct even more sublimely nonsensical subplots with which to fatten the movie’s runtime. These include the queer pairing of the physically robust, Rod Taylor with the decidedly peripatetic, Maggie Smith. He is Les Mangrum, president of a U.K. farm-equipment manufacturing company, eager to expand its operations into the United States, and desperate for an influx of capital from an American investor, only possible if he can get to New York for the annual stockholder’s meeting and make his pitch (shades of the old Preysing/Saxophonia deal that served up some ill will towards Wallace Beery’s character in 1932’s Grand Hotel). She is Miss Mead, Mangrum’s ever-devoted secretary, quietly smitten, though quite certain Mangrum is totally unaware she even exists outside their professional relationship. It’s true: Les is a lost cause – romantically speaking. And Mead isn’t exactly the glamor gal to fire up his square-jawed testosterone. But she loves him – desperately! Unfortunately, all appears to be lost when a key stock holder sells Les out. While Mangrum is hold up in his hotel suite with a ditzy blonde, Miss Mead digs in her heels – orchestrating a hostile corporate takeover by appealing to Paul Andros for a loan Mangrum can use to re-launch his company.
Also destined to find eternal dissatisfaction is foreign film-making impresario, Max Buda (Orson Welles), whose latest protégée, Gloria Gritti (Elsa Martinelli) is about as talented as a stick of kindling. Mercifully, she’s bumped out in all the right places and has enough of a brain to have sold her soul to this devil’s advocate for higher art. Pampered, but void of even the remotest possibility Max is only courting her for the way she fits neatly between his sheets, Gloria is no one’s idea of an actress. She’s only some people’s idea of a fool. Nor is Max the once prolific star-maker of yore; employing sycophant, Dr. Schwatzbacher (Martin Miller) merely to bolster his ego. To avoid paying international taxes, Max decides to take advantage of a loophole. This will inevitably backfire; putting virtually all his assets in Gloria’s name. Ultimately, Gloria uses her newfound power of attorney to her advantage. Exactly what this means for Max’s future as a conman is debatable. What it means for his love life is death.
The last of the central cast is Margaret Rutherford, in her Oscar-winning role as the easily befuddled and bumbling Duchess of Brighton, reduced to selling tickets to her family estate, turned into a tourist attraction in her native England, thus staving off her inevitable eviction. Of all the aforementioned, Rutherford’s is the most animated performance; idiotic, though utterly charming as she packrats her way through Customs and Excise, makes a minor nuisance of herself wherever she goes, and is treated with the patience of Job and kid gloves by Sanders (Richard Wattis); the airport’s front man and over-accommodating host of the V.I.P lounge. There’s a lot of noise going on in Rattigan’s script, but most of it is submarined by the thoroughly leaden ‘marriage on the rocks’ scenario, obviously meant to mirror the presumed, rumored, and on occasion, well-documented volatility in the Burton/Taylor household.
Without the back story of this real life warring couple, The V.I.P’s has very little to recommend it. The aforementioned stars are generally wasted with a lot of melodramatic dumb show. Does anyone really care if Les Mangrum loses the company he’s built with his own two hands? If the Duchess never gets to see her extended family abroad is there a crisis brewing to threaten her familial dynasty back home? Will Miss Mead convince her boss she can be his kind of woman – any kind, in fact, that would suit his needs? What will become of Mark Champselle, deprived of the millions he might have pilfered from Frances, if only she hadn’t decided to go back to her husband? And Paul…well, knowing him as we presumably know Burton, any spousal betrayal would sound the death knell for love. Perhaps now he’ll be able to cheat on Frances for a while, or at the very least, make her feel incredibly guilty for misbehaving with so unworthy a man. Ho-hum, the beat goes on.
Rattigan’s screenplay rather tepidly toys with the outcome of all these narrative threads. There’s never any doubt Frances will go back to Paul, chaste and repentant and completely apologetic for having misled Mark down the primrose path to her perfumed boudoir. And yet, when she elects to return to Paul, Mark isn’t even particularly wounded. He’s panged, but not terribly surprised. Even more curious; the relationship between Paul and Mark isn’t strained. Paul ought to be furious with Mark. He isn’t. There ought to have been a showdown, a fist fight, pistols at ten paces, something – anything – to explain what the future conflict between these two mismatched bucks will be, also, to liven up the deadly dull third act of our story. But this we never see. In fact, everyone seems to part amicably enough after all those unrepentant crocodile tears have been shed, then put away. Frances smashes a mirror in her hotel room and superficially cuts her wrist. Pity the poor drama queen – she’s grasping at straws. And Paul comes to her aid with the understanding he’s been a negligent husband. Really? He apologizes for giving her everything in life she could possibly want?!?! What? How fickle is a woman’s heart? Apparently, very!
In some ways, The V.I.P’s may be viewed as a public apology made on behalf of Burton and Taylor for the way each had been (mis)represented in the tabloids; a means to smooth over all the negative fallout via their attractive, if loosely fictionalized alter egos; their megawatt celebrity the steamroller to make it all better in the public’s conservative estimation as per what constitutes propriety, decorum and fidelity in a modern marriage. Not that Taylor ever figured this one out for herself; divorcing Burton in 1974, before remarrying him again the following year; then, continuing to run through more hubbies with renewed dissatisfaction and as much – if not more - disregard for the way any of it would be viewed by the pundits who found her ongoing personal unhappiness rather disgustingly amusing. Good copy, that Liz Taylor. Print that!
The V.I.P’s may not be a perfect entertainment. At times, I would argue it isn’t even a competently made one. But it does possess all the trappings of a ‘Taylor-made’ melodrama; an imposing main title by Miklós Rózsa, and, Jack Hildyard’s deep focus cinematography, capable of cozying up the rather impersonal and bustling airport terminal and its coveted V.I.P. lounge, enough to make each the chichi proving ground where these elite meet. Hats off to designer, Hubert de Givenchy for Liz’s stunning creations, and to Pierre Cardin, who had everyone else covered in his stunning array of immaculately tailored suits and furs. If nothing else, The V.I.P’s provides the opportunity to ogle stars as they out to be; in all their finery and at a time when the perfection of such specimens was readily being called into question. Anatole de Grunwald produced it on a shoestring, but with the bombast and chutzpah that always translated into at least the look of money. Perception is, after all, nine tenths of the law in make-believe. The plot may be a dog, but The V.I.P’s still manages to put on a pretty good pony show for the masses. Evidently, audiences agreed. On a $4,000,000 budget, the picture grossed $10,205,626 in the U.S. alone, and another $14,000,000 worldwide. All aboard, indeed!
Warner Home Video’s DVD is adequate, though just that. Colors tend to be muddy and inconsistently balanced, favoring a red/blue palette with very warm flesh tones that occasionally veer into ‘piggy pink’. The anamorphic image is generally crisp, although infrequently we get black levels that threaten to obliterate finer detail in long shot. Age-related artefacts are present but not terribly distracting and mostly tempered for an overall smooth visual presentation. Overall, this is an unremarkable rendering of an equally unimpressive movie. The audio is mono as originally recorded. It works, but won’t give your speakers any sort of workout either. There are no extras. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)