Sanders of the Withered: “The Candy Man” (1968)

by Dean Brandum

I saw a fox near my place the other day. The poor, emaciated creature was scavenging in some scrub (among the beer bottles and cigarette butts) by the side of the road. You rarely see them this close to the city, but a recent media report had mentioned that the ongoing drought has made this a common sight. In their natural habitats, the strong commandeer the dwindling supplies leaving the older and weaker members in the area with little choice but to venture into unfamiliar territory to find food and water where they can. Many perish, yet some are able to adapt to the meagre lifestyle. Sadly, even if conditions improve they seldom return home as their places have taken by the younger and fitter. For these older animals, once used to a reasonably idyllic lifestyle, their existence is that of nomads in an unforgiving wasteland.

I was reminded of this Darwinian phenomenon when watching The Candy Man recently. A dreary and cheap little melodrama from 1969, this Mexican-filmed kidnapping yarn is notable only for the top-billed presence of George Sanders. He plays Carter, an English drug dealer who has blackmailed an addict into stealing the child of a movie star (Leslie Parrish) in town for the premiere of her latest film. Things don’t go according to plan and the infant (an unpleasant and possibly mentally challenged moppet) is taken instead by a deluded woman whose own baby had died that morning (why she’d want to inflict more torment upon herself with this most hideous tot is left unexplained). Anyway, through various and ridiculous plot contrivances Carter unwillingly winds up with the kid and they hole up in a hotel high rise just as her parents and the police arrive. He is happy to leave her teetering from the balcony (quite understandable, really) as he attempts his getaway. The rest you can probably guess if you care to but there is no reason why you should.

The Candy Man – through title and concept – promises the tease of sleaze but instead delivers little more than a glumly routine police procedural. This was Herbert J. Leder’s final film as director (he also produced and penned the screenplay) and is disappointing considering his reasonable track record for decently made horror fodder (The Frozen Dead, It!) that had enough mild thrills to satisfy their drive-in status, but required little cutting for their ensuing, late-show TV slots. This time around one would have hoped for some acid-laced kiddie snatching scuzz but it is not to be. The best we get is a would-be psychedelic title track from the Forum Quorum who sound like The Strawberry Alarm Clock on a bad day (did they ever have a good day?) and the lamest trip sequence imaginable in which a pothead sees the colours change on a painting of doves (no doubt a crew member swinging a lamp behind the camera. Utterly unremarkable in every way, The Candy Man is barely worthy of a revisit, let alone an entry on an internet blog.

Except for the fact George Sanders tops the bill.

For a much of the 1930’s-1940s Sanders occupied the rarefied position of Hollywood cinema’s elegant cad. Beginning with turns as both the Saint and the Falcon in RKO support features, his handsome, noble features combined with a smooth, playful charm were parlayed into prestigious studio product, usually as the supporting player who stole the show from the leads (petty larceny in most cases). In the process his characters adopted an acerbic tongue and a darker, perhaps sadistic shade previously not apparent. Goodbye Simon Templar, hello Addison DeWitt. Strong, prestige pictures were his forte, mostly in support (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Forever Amber) but the occasional lead came his way too, generally on a lower budget, but seldom of lesser interest (The Provate Affairs of Bel Ami, Lured, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry). 1950’s All About Eve saw him walk away with the best supporting Oscar (aided, no doubt, by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s superb dialogue, which his delivered deliciously). It would seem that the oncoming decade was his for the taking.

Sadly it was the worst timing possible. With the studio system in turmoil all but the most established of stars were relieved of their contract services and cut loose. The careful nurturing and security offered by the system gone, Sanders was one of many forced to hock his services for whatever was available, resulting in several ludicrous medieval yarns (King Richard and the Crusaders, Ivanhoe, The King’s Thief) and, with the focus on the younger breed of angsty, methody players, Sanders’s style (blame his material) seemed camply archaic by that time. The following decade offered little respite and the once in-demand thesp (like many of his contemporaries) took what he could, mostly riffing on remembered character types from better days. This took in numerous television appearances and scouring the Earth for cinema roles in increasingly obscure productions, be it the villain in a British Charlie Drake comedy, the suspected arms dealer in an Italian spy flick or an extended cameo in a Spanish outdoor drama. In the country where he became a star very few of this big screen efforts would have been released at all and, if they did it was to prop up cheap co-features in mid-west drive-ins or big city grindhouses.

The nadir of this period would have to be The Candy Man. Not that it is a particularly awful film, but just so depressingly sub-par for a performer of such talent and past career. It is a most unedifying spectacle: stuck in the one, cheap, mothbitten off-the-rack suit for the running time, his face is gaunt, the liver spots are glowering on pasty skin, his hair lank and lifeless. In need of a paycheque, Sanders, who could once be relied upon to convey a character through the tilt of an eyebrow is given the task of handing out lollipops to children in a park and then reduced to pawing through a trash can and, indeed, grabbing the contents from a street bum who got there first.

Such degradation, such humiliation. Four years later, exhausted from scrounging through the scripted trash on offer (and fighting for the morsels with various bums of the industry), two Gabors too many and having seen his minor star brother (Tom Conway) drink himself to death, Sanders took his own life. In his suicide note he described the world as a ‘cesspool’, which, when reduced to making the likes of The Candy Man is an entirely understandable assessment. His reason? ‘He was ‘bored’.

Sadly we can’t turn back time, but imagine for a moment if the fallen Sanders had somehow struck gold with The Candy Man. That instead of vanishing without trace, it was a blockbuster hit and one that became part of the shared cultural consciousness for decades to come. We would think ‘Carter’, not ‘Addison DeWitt’. Another Oscar in the bag and his demise long stalled. The happening man of the generation, feted by the French, adored by the new Hollywood and a guaranteed ratings winner as a raconteur on the talk show circuit. Perhaps Don Corelone would have been his for the taking (“We’ll have to make the dear fellow an offer he simply cannot refuse”), maybe the following year it would have seen Sanders smearing margarine up Maria Schneider’s arsehole instead of Brando. By the late 1970s at least all that “I saw a snail crawl along the edge of a razor blade” palaver would have been delivered with perfect diction. Of course he could not remain immortal so the inevitable 4-disc The Candy Man special edition DVD would have to suffice without his audio commentary, but it would include the long desired “The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady” (1954) album reissued as a bonus disc for fans of Hollywood’s brightest and most enduring star.

Although offered millions to film a sequel to this film Sanders would resist. “Why tamper with perfection?” he would say. However, knowing the public’s demand for more Carter he would continue to offer tantalising glimpses. Picture, if you can, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with the aging, flea-bitten, pasty Sanders singing to the confectionary-addicted tykes and letting them know exactly who mixes it with love and makes the world taste good. The added sequence of him kidnapping the gold ticket winner Charlie Bucket and throwing him from the roof of Slugworth’s factory made it the feel-good favourite of 1971.

I’m reminded at this time that Missy Alex, my fellow film bunny is, like myself, a fond fan of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992). And for good reason. Hulking Tony Todd is indeed a most terrifying spectre of evil, but please, keep with me in this parallel world of forlorn hope for a little longer. Picture instead, the very elderly Sanders in the film – not as a remake or sequel of the 1968 programmer, but as a re-imagined reprise of the character. Virginia Madsen utters those prophetic words five times into the mirror then turns ago and is confronted by George. Instead of wreaking all sorts of gory havoc he tells Virginia that in The Hot Spot Jennifer Connelly’s breasts were the better and that she is cursed to get her inferior tits out in straight-to-video trash for the next twelve years. Sadistic, acerbic and perceptive – the most horrifying monster committed to celluloid.

But the pinnacle of all artistic referencing, the crowning glory to all Sanders had achieved, the ultimate in critical, social and peer acclaim would be realised in 2006. For that was the year that Christine Aguilera released her chart-topping tribute single, “Candyman”. Flouncing her shapeless arse to jacked-off Andrews Sisters inspired twitterings she sings of a certain man, an idealised Adonis, one indeed capable of satisfying her in triplicate.

No, not a buffed up, braindead, beefcake marine but George Sanders, actually Sanders as Carter. Tatty, aging, disillusioned, broke and contemplating suicide.

Carter.

With the real big cock who makes her cherry pop.

With the validation of a former mouseketeer millions of prepubescent girls will go to bed dreaming of Carter and waking the next morning wondering why their knickers feel araldited to their skin.

Yes. Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine.

It has been said to hang on to a dream as long as you can. Don’t check your lottery ticket as soon as the numbers are announced. For a couple of days I lived this dream. I avoided the television and switched off the radio in the hope that somehow, my fantasy of Sanders/Carter was now a reality. Then I drove to the local bottleshop with a desperate need to drink. Near the gutter lay the fox I had nicknamed George. Its once regal coat matted with blood and dirt, mashed into the tar by the unaware traffic. Perhaps he was trying to cross the road but I suspect he carefully chose his moment and waited. Death by his own paw, so to speak. Just another hunk of roadkill.

The dream was over.

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