Book Reviews

SAM SPIEGEL

By • Apr 1st, 2003 •

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by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni
(Simon and Schuster)

In an alternate universe, Sam Spiegel would have loved producing a film about his own mythic life and times. Indeed one of the most surprising footnotes about the new biography of Sam Spiegel (Simon and Schuster) by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni (who was an assistant on Spiegel’s last production 1983’s Betrayed) is that it is really the first real biography of this titan of mid-twentieth century Hollywood. Almost certainly the greatest producer of his day, Spiegel’s pre-Hollywood life is portrayed by Ms. Fraser-Cavassoni as interesting as anything that happened to him after he got to Hollywood. Indeed, there is little known about Spiegel’s life before he came to Hollywood and even Spiegel himself embellished the truth in his own remembrances. Despite this, the most impressive work Ms. Fraser-Cavassoni does is to piece together as somewhat coherent portrait of Spiegel’s early adulthood. The author shows how Spiegel grew up in provincial Jaroslav and helped colonize Palestine in the 1920’s. Eventually he abandoned his wife and daughter and a slew of Israeli creditors to pursue a film career in Europe. Speigel started out life in the US arriving from Austria in the late 20’s passing himself off as a bogus diplomat and economist. From there he did a stint in jail (police arrested him while in mid-negotiation for a 3,000.00 a week contract with a top film studio) for diplomatic fraud. After this brush with the law (not his last), he moved backed to Germany and worked at Universal Studios’ German office (where he met the likes of Billy Wilder and William Wyler). During this time, he also landed a couple of Producer credits for German films (featuring Peter Lorre). Ultimately, Spiegel fled from Germany and bounced around Europe and Mexico and landed in the US in 1939 where he began his legendary Hollywood producing career (as S. P. Eagle at nearly 40) with the non-characteristically low key Tales of Manhattan. Ms. Fraser-Cavassoni is especially adept at showing how the characteristics such as lying, which caused Spiegel so much trouble in his youth, became assets in his climb up the Hollywood ladder.

The most memorable and effective part of the author’s narrative is the mid-section of the book, which traces the dramas that surrounded Spiegel’s years as arguably the most powerful man in Hollywood. From 1951 until 1959 Spiegel produced The African Queen, On the Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Suddenly Last Summer, picking up three Oscars in less than a decade. Of particular interest are the narratives of how Spiegel navigated the troubled production of The African Queen from apparent disaster to box office and Academy Award acclaim.

Mrs. Fraser-Cavassoni’s narrative of the ordeals of making Lawrence is especially enlightening. She points out that Spiegel had at best skimmed Lawrence’s work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Also, Spiegel helped educate the American public about Lawrence’s exploits by having a hand in an extensive public relations campaign commissioning biographies for public consumption, as well as having candy manufactured with Lawrence’s likeness engraved on bonbons. There was even a line of white terry cloth robes with hoods made for children as a way of raising the American public’s awareness of this mythic British hero. In addition to this, the author notes that Spiegel bought up all of the books concerning Lawrence to insure that no other producer would be able to film a version of the Lawrence narrative.

Spiegel was the last of his kind and there is some realization in Ms. Fraser-Cavassoni’s tone that is melancholy mixed with a kind of affection. This affection sometimes gets in the way of her viewing of the Spiegel legacy. Despite his Oscar wins and his high profile effectiveness in dealing with idiosyncratic personalities such as David Lean and John Huston, many of the Spiegel productions don’t have the kind of staying power of less well-known works of the fifties by such American masters as Nicolas Ray and Samuel Fuller. His influence, ironically enough, is slight (Harvey Weinstein is the possible lone exception) due to the fact that Hollywood would probably not tolerate a man like Speigel for as long as he was tolerated. Ms. Fraser-Cavassoni’s book makes it clear that this is a shame.

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