Once the crocodiles get you, you stay got.
Eight people go to the airport and the departing absolutely have to leave or else everything that matters to them will be ruined. That’s the premise of The V.I.P.s (1963) and, wouldn’t you know it, ends with everyone turning things around completely. The guy gets the girl, the girl gets the guy, the guy keeps his stuff, and so does that other guy and so does that girl, come to think of it. I’ve been pretty lax on the movies I’ve reviewed thus far. Probably because I’m not stupid enough to spend $10 for the benefit of a bitter blog blurb, thank you Man on a Ledge (2012). Happily, The V.I.P.s gives me a movie that wasn’t great. It’s a little juggle of four stories and two of them suck. Reminds me of a certain recent movie (Hugo (2011)) with a similar ratio and for similar reasons–if you’re going to make a subplot, then give it the time it needs and no more.
The story is, as briefly as I can put it, thus: (1) Paul Andros (Richard Burton) is a millionaire businessman who is losing his wife Frances (Elizabeth Taylor) to Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan), a French playboy, and they’re flying to New York to elope, (2) Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor–who voiced Pongo in 101 Dalmatians (1961), incidentally) of Mangrum Tractors is fighting off a corporate takeover with the help of Miss Mead (Maggie Smith) who is obviously smitten with the magnus Mangrum who is going to New York for some board meeting upon which all relies, (3) The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford) is going to Florida for some two-bit job because she wants to keep her family estate, and (4) Max Buda (Orson Welles) is fleeing the UK to avoid taxes with a brainless actress and gay lover cum accountant in tow.
I have a different five favorite actors every couple of days. Today, Richard Burton is in the list. Elizabeth Taylor will often make my list of top five actresses (especially after I watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Not today. With dialogue so clearly personal to her, she makes it sound like melodrama. More accurately, the dialogue is melodramatic and she can’t muster the skill to save it from what I’ll now call Vivien Leighing–“I’ll never be hungry again” indeed. To be fair, in 1963 Taylor played the Marc Champselle role in real life–the other person (to keep things sexist-free). Really, they should have made the movie in 1974 and they would have been going Method for the ten years. Even so, her situation is that she wants to feel needed and her millionaire husband and, unsatisfied, looks to a semi-loser who quite evidently does need her. About as uncommon as cold, I should say.
On the other hand, Maggie Smith and Rod Taylor play the second interesting story quite well. Perhaps the respective place in their careers had something to do with how much effort they put into the film. Liz Taylor, for her part, gives the impression that she sailed in for shooting and sailed out like she was shooting a particularly emotional soap commercial. Whatever the reason, the young lovers–it’s a little bizarre to think of Maggie Smith playing the young lover–should have gotten the majority of the screen time or at least not had to share it with stories three and four. Also, we don’t use the word squiffy enough.
The other two stories are utterly weak and are given too much screentime and too little, respectively. Buda’s tax dodge and sex life are a little too much for the cumulative fifteen minutes of development it gets. But I can understand why director Anthony Asquith did not give the amount of time required–because its silly cynicism is totally unnecessary. This isn’t subplot because it doesn’t act under the main plot (Burton/Taylor) but to one side. The Duchess is basically a cranky old woman with a cranky old house and gets that story across with roughly the same period of time. Buda’s story gets tied up somewhere around two third in (and it requires he marry the anencephalic) and then proceeds to tie up the Duchess’s right there at the end. I wonder why Terence Rattigan (no relation) couldn’t have come up with a way for the crumbling castle to serve the ends of Buda’s tax dodge and at least allow the crap plots to lean on one another like one of those team-building exercises. No, the only glue in the whole story is the location (airport/hotel) and the officious prigs that run the show for these V.I.P.s (note all of them are wealthy or titled).
The movie entertains enough to where it’s not a complete time sink, but it’s not at all worthy of the names attached. I tend to think of old movies like precocious children. I’ll pick one up and it’ll say something cunning or vaguely adult and it makes me giggle. Then sometimes, like now, I’ll remember that these people weren’t children and that 1963 is too late a year to make allowances for poor editing (e.g., people starting across the room–cut–they’ve covered twenty feet) and poor story construction.