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V.I.P.s, The (1963)

Main image of V.I.P.s, The (1963)
35mm, Eastmancolor, Panavision, 119 mins
DirectorAnthony Asquith
Production CompaniesMGM British Studios, Taylor Productions
ProducerAnatole De Grunwald
ScreenplayTerence Rattigan
PhotographyJack Hildyard
MusicMiklós Rózsa

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Frances Andros), Richard Burton (Paul Andros), Louis Jourdan (Marc Champselle), Elsa Martinelli (Gloria Gritti), Margaret Rutherford (Duchess of Brighton), Maggie Smith (Miss Mead), Rod Taylor (Les Mangrum), Orson Welles (Max Buda)

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Various celebrities, each with an urgent reason to leave the country immediately, are detained at London Airport by fog, and have to resolve numerous emotional and financial problems while waiting for take-off.

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Set in an unidentified major airport, but filmed in what was then the largest set constructed in Britain (the script includes a reference to Boreham Wood, the location of MGM's British studios), The V.I.Ps was the ninth and penultimate collaboration between writer Terence Rattigan and director Anthony Asquith.

Based on a real-life incident involving the actress Vivien Leigh's attempt to leave her then husband Laurence Olivier for Australian actor Peter Finch, Rattigan expanded this theme into a glossy extravaganza about assorted V.I.Ps who are more than mildly inconvenienced when their plane is delayed due to fog.

Film producer Max Buda (Orson Welles) has to leave the country by midnight for tax reasons, Australian tractor mogul Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor) has a vital meeting in New York, while Givenchy-dressed trophy wife Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor) has just left her wealthy industrialist husband Paul (Richard Burton) a note saying that she's eloping with playboy gigolo Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan), and would prefer to be in the air when he reads it.

Essentially, it's a variation on Grand Hotel (US, 1932), the first such multi-star vehicle, a formula that showed no signs of waning even thirty years later. Viewed today, it's also a fascinating time capsule of the early 1960s (when international air travel was the height of jet-set glamour), and a revealing snapshot of the state of the much-publicised Burton-Taylor romance - they would marry for the first time the following year.

It also overlaps two great British character actresses at very different stages in their careers. Margaret Rutherford is on superbly dotty (and Oscar-winning) form as the Duchess of Brighton, taking an increasingly elaborate cocktail of drugs to match her ever-changing mood, while a very young Maggie Smith in only her third film (and her first major one) is more than a match for Burton in their one scene together when she has to make a potentially humiliating request out of the blue.

While The V.I.Ps is clearly not one of Asquith's more personal projects, it contains an intriguing speech by Rod Taylor that echoes Stewart Granger's in Fanny By Gaslight (d. Asquith, 1944): Granger hopes that the class system will be abolished in a hundred years, while Taylor says something similar about how future V.I.Ps would earn their status. Both views chime perfectly with Asquith's lifelong socialist beliefs - even if nothing else in the film does.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Briers, Richard (1934-2013)
Burton, Richard (1925-1984)
Carey, Joyce (1898-1993)
Clarke, Frank (1915-2002)
Hildyard, Jack (1908-1990)
Hordern, Sir Michael (1911-1995)
Parkinson, Roy (1916-)
Price, Dennis (1915-1973)
Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977)
Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)
Smith, Maggie (1934-)
Taylor, Elizabeth (1932-2011)