The lives of great screen cads Dennis Price and George Sanders

This week I look back at the careers of two of my favourite stars of the past, both of whom sadly had endings they did not deserve.

The first is Dennis Price, who starred in a number of films made at Elstree Studios although his most famous, Kind Hearts And Coronets, was shot at Ealing. That was the movie that should have cemented his stardom but Alec Guinness stole the show playing several different characters. As the 1950s came he was kept busy but seldom in a top-rated movie and in the mid 1950s he attempted suicide at home while making a film at Elstree with Dirk Bogarde. Although Dennis had been married and had children it was known that he also had affairs with men and there was speculation that he was being blackmailed.

Dennis survived and he remained, specialising in upper class cads, except for when he successfully played Jeeves in a hit 1960s television series. I think his last class film role was in Tunes Of Glory, in which he was reunited with Alec Guinness. Thereafter it was usually a few days’ work in a comedy or horror movie. I had the pleasure to meet Dennis at Elstree while he was shooting a Hammer horror in a guest part. By now he was an alcoholic but was still capable of giving a touch of class to each role. I corresponded with him in his last year when he was living as a tax exile on Sark in the Channel Islands and treasure his hand written letters. He died in hospital following a fall.

My second favourite is Hollywood’s favourite cad, George Sanders, who excelled in playing villains for decades. Ironically his career was supposed to have started in Borehamwood in 1936 but the studio burnt down and with it his contract. He came back several times to make films in future years but his fame was established in Tinsel Town. I guess the pinnacle came with an Oscar for his part in the classic All About Eve with Bette Davis in the 1950s.

Alas during the 1960s his career went into decline as did his health, especially mentally. As far back as the early 1950s apparently as I discovered a memo at the MGM British Studios replacing him with Stanley Baker as he was having a nervous breakdown. When George filmed Village Of The Damned at MGM in 1960 the director Wolf Rilla later told me George ripped out all the script pages that did not feature dialogue for him and had no interest in the plot.

I met George at Elstree Studios on one of his last films in about 1972 called Endless Night. My friend Hayley Mills was the star. He seemed very tired and bored. I think his final film was called Psychomania, a low budget horror film. His co-star, the late Nicky Henson, told me that George seemed worn out and the schedule was arranged so all his scenes could be shot in a just a few days.

It would seem life had become too much and George booked into a Spanish hotel and the next day died from pills mixed with vodka. He left suicide notes saying he was glad to go.

Ironically they both died within a few months of each other. I don’t think we have that calibre of screen cad nowadays. Perhaps in the era of action films their time has passed. However, those of us who enjoy such performances can revel in the movie legacy they have left behind.

Paul Welsh MBE is a Borehamwood writer and historian of Elstree Studios

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