(Click here for information on the 2020 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. This week, the August selection The V.I.P.s by Marvin H. Albert)
As I mentioned, I did not realize that this was a novelization when I dug it out of the box for this year’s Imaginary Summer Book Club. In general, paperback novelizations are the most ephemeral of the ephemera- quickly churned out (often based on the shooting script rather than the finished product) and destined to fade into obscurity at the end of their initial print run.
Over the summer I did catch an interesting interview with mystery writer Max Allan Collins, where he talked at length about his lucrative side-gig of writing film novelizations- his titles include the Mel Gibson remake of Maverick, I Love Trouble, U.S. Marshals, and Waterworld, an impressive line-up of 1990s deep cuts.
One of the aspects he touched on was the freedom in these projects, when presented with a 100 page script and an order for a 300 page book: there is a lot of wiggle room for additional characterization and backstory. He also commented that teenagers are the target market for film novelizations, which makes sense. It’s hard to imagine the even the most die-hard adult fan paying money to read, say, Air Force One: The Book.
Which brings us to our current author, whose prolific film-novelization output over 30 years includes such time capsules as Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling, Palm Springs Weekend, Under the Yum Yum Tree and What’s New Pussycat? (Albert’s most notable original novels were the Tony Rome detective series)
The V.I.P.s (the movie) was released at the onset of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton-mania; it actually hit the theaters the same year as the troubled production of Cleopatra. I tend to think of the Taylor-Burton catalog (with the exception of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) as being critically reviled, but a quick check of the reviews of the 11 films they made together shows most of them were considered “average” at worst (although wholly overshadowed by their affair, marriage, divorce, re-marriage and re-divorce).
The V.I.P.s, the movie, is light on the plot, heavy on the characters, and extremely sluggish in its pacing. Updating the “Grand Hotel” formula to contemporary London, it gathers a group of Very Important Persons and strands them overnight at Heathrow airport: The wife of a wealthy industrialist, a gigolo, a European film director and his sexy young protégée, a crass self-made Australian businessman and his loyal secretary, and a dotty aristocrat. All have desperate business in the United States that is complicated by the delay.
I am just going to tell you that if for some reason in 2020 you are trying to choose between the 2 hour movie or the 185-page book, go with the book. It probably took the same amount of time to read as to watch the movie, and at least gives us the pleasures of the details of luxury air travel before that became an oxymoron. Here Sanders, the airport’s Director of Hospitality, oversees arrangements in the V.I.P. lounge:
He was supervising a steward in the arrangement of a table in which there were flowers, a bottle of champagne, and some sandwiches that had just been brough in from the kitchen.
“Our very special caviar, Commander,” Sanders said as he came behind the screen. And in a confidential whisper: “A good deal better than they serve in the Royal Lounge.”
“Of course.” Commander Millbank inspected the bottle of champagne in the ice bucket. “The right brand, but the wrong year.”
“Oh, heavens! How did we come to make a mistake like that?” Sanders turned on the steward.
Millbank is the personal assistant to Paul Andros, that billionaire industrialist, who arrives at Heathrow in a helicopter and then is chauffeured the hundred yards to the lounge in a Rolls-Royce. He is there to see off his wife, Frances, on a 10 day trip to Jamaica.
(Obviously, these are Taylor and Burton)
But- mild surprise! After Andros takes his leave, Frances reveals that she plans on disembarking in New York because she is running away with French gigolo Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan, more than holding his own in the acting department). Frances rendezvous with Marc in the commoner’s coffee shop, and reveals that she left her husband a Dear John letter, assuring him that he won’t find it until they are airborne. START THE CLOCK.
Also in the lounge are Australian Tractor magnate Les Mangram and his lovesick secretary Miss Meade (Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith), bound for a New York board meeting that very afternoon where he will thwart a hostile takeover of his company; unfortunately, he has written a bad check to cover the stock purchase and needs to show up in person at that meeting to keep everything from collapsing. START ANOTHER CLOCK.
Also lounging around getting free swag are German movie director Max Harbinger and his starlet-of-the-moment, Gloria Veriden; he has to be out of the country by midnight or will face a $100,000 tax bill. START ANOTHER CLOCK.
And finally we have the elderly Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford), unable to afford passage on the Queen Mary and about to embark on her first-ever flight hepped up on her maid’s pep pills, on a quest to take her title to land a job in Miami so that she may secure the future of her ancestral estate, which is about to go into foreclosure. She seems to have all the time in the world.
As the fog settles in, Sanders first arranges lunch tickets for the airport’s restaurant and then overnight accommodations as the flights are repeatedly delayed and the V.I.P.s start panicking.
Paul finds his wife’s letter earlier than expected, and first shows up at the airport and attempts to shoot Marc; later he’ll turn up in Frances’s hotel room and threaten martial rape, which results in a scuffle that puts her arm through a window- a chastened Paul calls a doctor and then slinks off into the hotel lounge. Marc was off playing gin rummy the whole time.
Here Paul will encounter the tipsy Miss Meade, who in a burst of inspiration, asks him for a loan to cover her boss’s bad check. He saves the day (of course he sees something of himself in young Mangram…) then leaves a letter with the front desk to be mailed to his wife in New York.
Meanwhile, Harbinger has been conspiring with his attorneys, who point out that if he marries Gloria, half of that monster tax bill will be her problem. He talks himself into it, and Gloria talks him into a starring role in his next Serious Drama.
Meanwhile the poor old Duchess of Brighton has been taking tranquilizers on top of the uppers in anticipation of boarding.
The next morning the fog has lifted and everyone shuttles over to the airport; the night manager sees Marc with Gloria and gives him Paul’s letter to give to her- it turns out to be a suicide note, OF COURSE, which means he really loves her OF COURSE and she rushes back to the hotel where he has been up all night to reunite with him, because she just needed to be needed all along.
The book follows the film fairly closely for the most part. The biggest exceptions are the movie people- Orson Welles hams it up as the renamed Max Buda, and the book’s redheaded all-American sexpot Gloria Verdin becomes Italian sexpot Gloria Gritti.
The Duchess’s plot gets lost in the book, but the film neatly ties up her story by having Buda spot a photo of her ancestral estate, declare it perfect for his next film and rent it on the spot; the drug-addled Duchess gleefully disembarks and heads home.
The biggest difference is the addition, in the book, of substantial humorous subplot involving the stranded delegations of Soviet and American diplomats, headed back to their respective countries after treaty negotiations broke down in London. The interpreters for the respective delegations become friendly, and scheme together to get their bosses to play nice and restart their talks in Switzerland: the interpreters discover they have a shared love of fishing at Lake Geneva.
Availability: I was only able to find the movie as part of a budget box set of Taylor-Burton films, which also includes the aforementioned Virginia Woolf, along with The Sandpiper and The Comedians. This DVD includes no special features.
Copies of the mass-market paperback are widely available used.
Odds and Ends: The movie is incredibly slow-paced, as mentioned, and since the story takes place over a 16 hour period, we don’t even get the pleasure of Taylor having fabulous costume changes.
At the beginning of the film Paul presents his wife with a platinum-and-sapphire bracelet as a going away present, and tells her not to read the inscription until she gets to New York. The fact that we never find out what it says will haunt me to the end of my days!!!!