Ship of Fools (1965): Kramer’s Pretentious yet Well Acted Drama, Starring Simone Signoret and Vivien Leigh

Representing prestigious and literary cinema at its most ponderous and pretentious, but well acted, Ship of Fools was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

Stanley Kramer had directed the Nazi trial drama “Judgment at Nuremberg” before “Ship of Fools,” and undoubtedly it was good preparation, because “Ship of Fools,” which is based on Katherine Ann Porter’s book (published in 1962), is another honorable monument to tragedy and catastrophe.

The tale could be described as “Grand Hotel” or “Stagecoach” on water, since it’s based on the same thematic premise: an aggregate of disparate passengers stuck and confined in space in a time of crisis.

In the early 1930s, as an ocean liner leaves Vera Cruz, heading for Hitler’s Germany, Bremerhaven, to be exact. The host, sort of a Greek tragedy, or a narrator like the one in “Our Town,” is a cynical dwarf named Glocken (Michael Dunn).

At the beginning, addressing the audience, he warns us that we might even find ourselves aboard the ship. And at the end, with an ironic smile on his face, Glocken notes: “What has all this to do with us today Why, nothing at all”

Throughout, serving as the moral compass, Glocken ridicules the lurid, morally blank lives of his fellow passengers–in other words, “little” people like us.

They include a cross-section of upper-class and working-class people, with a couple of misfits thrown into the mix. The wealthy Germans on the ship are asked to sit at the captain’s tableexcept for the aforementioned dwarf and a Jew, Heinz Ruhmann. The ship’s gentle doctor, Schumann (Oskar Werner), himself a victim of heart condition, courts La Condesa (Simone Signoret), a Spaniard deported for her political activities.

Lee Marvin plays Tenny, a failed baseball player whose career ended when he couldn’t hit the outside curve ball. Almost always drunk, he makes a pass as Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh), a flirtatious divorcee, anxious to dance.

The younger generation is represented by David and Jenny (George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley), a bickering couple about to get married. While David is a proletarian artist with animalistic behavior, Jenny is a rich, neurotic matron jealous of his talent

The group also includes the evangelist Wengraf, and the dancer Pepe (Jose Greco). Crudely edited, we switch from one banal subplot to another–and left at the mercy of the good actors to elevate the scripted text above its pretentious melodramatics.

We are led to believe that the frivolous women (Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Ashley, Simone Signoret) would do just about anything for an exquisite outfit, a decent dancing partner, or, in Signoret’s case, a quick drug fix.

Their male companions–selfish artist George Segal, rich oaf Lee Marvin, weakling Oskar Werner, and Nazi-worshipper Jose Ferrer as Trieber–are worse than the women.

Impressively shot by Ernst Laszlo in black and white, the film looks suitably bleak, but is poorly directed by Stanley Kramer who can’t unify the episodic material, resulting in a long (two and half hours), uneven film with as many dramatic highs as low ones. Symbolism of the picture is also heavy-handed by Mann the writer and director. While Porter’s novel was set in 1931, the filmmakers moved the saga ahead to 1933, the year that Hitler rose to power.

The film features Vivien Leigh’s final performance, Oscar-nominated turns from Signoret, Werner, and Dunn, and a robust performance from Lee Marvin, who won the Oscar that very year for the spoof Western, “Cat Ballou.”

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Stanley Kramer
Screenplay (Adapted): Abby Mann
Actor: Oskar Werner
Actress: Simone Signoret
Supporting Actor: Michael Dunn
Cinematography (black-and-white): Ernest Laszlo
Art Direction-Set Decoration (black-and-white): Robert Clatworthy; Joseph Kish
Costume (black-and-white): Bill Thomas and Jean Louis

Oscar Awards: 2
Art Direction-Set Decoration

Oscar Context

The 1965 competition for Best Picture was rather weak. Stanley Kramer’s flawed and pretentious “Ship of Fools” and the screen adaptation of the Broadway comedy “A Thousand Clowns” stood no chance of winning. The other two contenders were made by British directors, David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago,” a romantic spectacle, and John Schlesinger’ “Darling!” clearly the most innovative of the nominees, earlier singled out by the New York Film Critics.

For most Academy members, the choice was between “The Sound of Music” and “Doctor Zhivago,” each of which received ten nominations. At the end of the day, the awards were also equally divided, with each movie getting five, though, except for screenplay (Robert Bolt), “Doctor Zhivago” received mostly technical awards, such as Color Cinematography (Freddie Young), Color Art Direction-Set Decoration (John Box and Terry Marsh), and Color Costume Design (Phyllis Dalton).

Julie Christie won the Best Actress Oscar for “Darling,” and Martin Balsam the Supporting Actor Oscar for “A Thousand Clowns.”