If the the concept of Anthony Asquith’s 1963 drama The V.I.P.s sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen the like of it about a million times. Character story lines interweave, sometimes crossing each other’s paths, sometimes not, subtly affecting each others’ lives Chaos style. The gimmick this time is that a group of strangers–all very important people with very important flights to catch–find themselves stuck at at London’s Heathrow airport when their flights are delayed due to the reliably pea-soupy London fog. Their worlds converge at Terminal 2, and by the time the fog lifts, their lives will (big surprise) have changed forever. (Some gossip mongering here: It is rumored that the film was taken from a real-life incident involving Vivien Leigh, and her attempt to leave Laurence Olivier, by jetting off with Peter Finch, only to have their plans thwarted by the weather.)
The movie starts of a with a fat joke, and the eye-roll continues for quite a few moments of tetchy disinterest as we are introduced to an illustrious cast of characters: We have millionaire Paul Andross (Richard Burton) and his beautiful wife Frances (Elizabeth Taylor), a handsome international playboy (Louis Jourdan), a curmudgeonly film producer (Orson Welles) and his new Italian protegee (Elsa Martinelli), a charming Australian businessman (Ron Taylor) and his devoted secretary (Maggie Smith), and … the dizzyiny delightful Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford).
Burton brings Taylor to the airport to see her off, where they bump into mutual friend Jourdan. Jourdan is in actuality waiting for Taylor as the two have been having an affair and are planning to jet off to New York together. Taylor has left a goodbye letter to Burton at home, thinking that by the time he goes back to read it they will be on their way to New York. The indefinite delay throws a spanner in the works, and the worried lovers’ fear that Burton will come to the airport and try to stop them comes true, and his presence provides for some fairly solid melodrama. There’s plenty of that Burton-Taylor brand of fiery tirades that you expect to get with the price of admission. (Not to mention an accidental wrist-slitting. That’s right. Beat that, Douglas Sirk.) Taylor, to me, is at her best when she’s got a bit of a shrew in her. I love her as Maggie, and Martha, and Gloria, rather than the neglected, misunderstood-because-she’s-so beautiful-victim. Well. The V.I.P.s is definitive Taylor as the neglected wife, which means she is only allowed the sum of two facial expressions. It’s not Taylor’s fault, and when she’s given the opportunity to really belt out emotion, she hits it.
Welles is leaving the country to avoid a serious problem with his income tax: if he doesn’t leave by midnight, he’ll owe the British government some 1 million dollars. With him is a hot new Italian starlet, big on beauty but not brains, and as the clock ticks and Welles becomes more aware that he’s not going to be able to talk his way out of the problem, his always present attorney concocts a loophole that involves Welles signing his life away on the dotted line: Welles elopes with the Italian sexpot before midnight, signing his production company into her name. His entire presence in the film feels like a tacked-on-afterthought of, Hey, Orson Welles is free, let’s put him in this movie too. One of the most memorable men in film history is here strangely unmemorable.
Rod Taylor (using his actual Aussie accent here, hubba hubba) is on his way to New York to save his tractor company from financial ruin, equipped with a very young Maggie Smith, his fastidious private secretary. Forget Liz and Dick, Taylor and Smith is where the real magic is. We learn enough about them in a very short period of time to make us believe them, they’re situation, their story, and the two are delightful together, Smith doing all she can with her very limited screentime as the lovelorn, rather plain secretary. Her quiet nuance is thoroughly winning, and comes away the man of the match, beating out a beautiful blonde for Taylor’s affections by the beauty of her brainpower (and a very convenient plot point with Burton that is laughably impractical, but nonetheless fun to watch).
And then there’s fumbling, bumbling, mad Duchess of Brighton, as played by with infectious zest by Margaret Rutherford, who simply eclipses the entire cast. As is common with the aristocracy, she’s found herself in want of cash, and is flying to the states to take a job that will provide her with enough money to save her estate home in the country. Although the character is written in to provide pure comic relief–which she does splendidly (Margaret Rutherford trying to fasten an airplane seatbelt is priceless), the grand actress is strong enough to come across as a wise old woman who for all her dottiness, is at least two steps ahead of everyone else.
Their stories wrap up neatly: Liz Taylor decides to stay with Burton and they walk off arm in arm. Smith saves Rod Taylor’s business by hitting up a drunken Burton for a loan, which he grants, and wins Taylor’s heart in the process. Margaret Rutherford doesn’t have to leave the country after all, when Orson Welles learns that she owns a large country estate and rents it from her for shooting for a hefty sum. Jourdan gets pretty dicked over, but apparently that’s OK since he’s spent most of his life being one. Everyone goes off to live happily ever after–how very MGM.
Certainly the film has a cast to boast about–and MGM did just that, riding on the wave of public fascination with Burton and Taylor as it was released not long after Cleopatra. MGM did publicity better than any other studio in the industry, and by 1963 it certainly needed all the boostering it could. There’s almost a sadness, actually, to watch the unfathomably over-the-top credit sequence, set to the great Miklos Roza’s rather florid score, both of which are completely inappropriate for the intimacy of the characters and their performances.
Pretty to look at, at times fun to listen to, but in the end it’s just too darn big for its own britches, The V.I.P.s is an unfortunate misfire– a self-conscious film that know what it really is, but feels it has to pretend to be something else. This is, after all, a character piece takes place in an airport, but it is packaged with all the Technicolor pomp of a sword and sandal epic. It seems a fitting metaphor for the disconnect between MGM and its audiences, and certainly accounts for the distance between our emotional involvement with what’s happening onscreen. Watch this one for the ladies: Liz, Maggie and Margaret.
Tolerate the rest.
This post is in conjunction with the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by our very own Jill Blake, and by Michael Nazarewycz and his website Scribe Hard on Film, which today honors Elizabeth Taylor. Yesterday’s star of the day was Maggie Smith so, as you can see, I cheated. 😉