Hollywood can be rough on sibling actors but those Sanders boys got on for the most part pretty well. No professional jealousy. For all their shortcoming, both felt the other was family, after all.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, continuing our series of periodic blogs on one of our favorite actors, Tom Conway’s younger brother, George Sanders.
Conway was born in 1904 under the name Thomas Charles Sanders. When he followed George to Hollywood, he lost a brotherly coin toss and changed his surname to Conway.
In time, the likeable Conway was referred to as “the nice George Sanders.”
Subsequent comparisons with his much more successful younger brother (by two years) apparently never bothered him. It was George who persuaded his brother to try Hollywood after his desultory radio and stage appearances in their adopted country, England. (The Sanders came from a wealthy St. Petersburg family who had fled the Russian revolution to England, and then lived in genteel poverty.)
George wrote their father (who also came to Hollywood) lengthy missives quite practically spelling out how Tom should approach Hollywood. What clothes to buy, what pictures should be taken. In one entertaining letter, he advised how to handle producers and studio bigwigs. The cynicism is abundant, and the recommendations are dead on.
In Hollywood, Sanders was supportive of brother. The fact that Tom made an unsuccessful (screen) test should not depress him, he wrote in a 1937 letter to their father. I have made plenty of unsuccessful tests, and so has everyone else in the business. And the fact they said Tom did not photograph well should be no cause for alarm, since they said precisely the same thing to Ronald Colman!
After a stint at MGM, Conway shifted to RKO where he made his most memorable film appearances. He starred in 10 titles of the studio’s profitable Falcon mystery series, taking over the lead abandoned by brother George — on his way to bigger things. Be that as it may, the series with Tom in the lead performed every bit as well, if not better, at the box office than versions starring brother George.
But to fully appreciate what a solid actor Conway was, we suggest you take a look at two classics, 1942’s Cat People and 1943’s I walked With A Zombie, both directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton.
In the former, Conway is silkenly ominous as Dr. Louis Judd, the villainous Freudian psychiatrist treating star Simone Simon as a kittenish Serbian immigrant with feline issues. In the latter, he plays a more complex character, the proprietor of a Caribbean plantation beset by voodoo, a zombie wife and lust for costar Frances Dee.
In both these excellent movies, Conway is terrific. He appeared in a supporting part as the aristocratic “Whitfield Savory II” in the 1948 fantasy musical One Touch of Venus, starring Robert Walker and a young Ava Garner on loanout from MGM.
By the Fifties, Conway concentrated on television, and logged a host of credits on several tube series.
Ironically, he was a panelist on a TV show called Bachelor’s Haven, and arranged to have Zsa Zsa Gabor, George’s second wife, turn up as a guest. Gabor, decked out in what she called her “working diamonds” was a sensation, becoming “an instant star.” The tube appearance launched a career that Sanders feared, since he preferred his wives to be docile and professionally non-threatening.
The Sanders brothers, close for much of their lives, were estranged by the time Conway expired. George got fed up dealing with Tom’s alcoholism. Battling drinking problems and coping with failing eyesight, Conway died more or less destitute in 1967 at 62.
Sanders expired five years later, the subject for another blog.