Ship of Fools was based on the novel of the same name by Katherine Anne Porter. Although published in 1962 Miss Porter had actually began work on Ship of Fools in 1940. It was based on a journal she had kept while travelling aboard a ship from Vercruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany in 1931. The title itself stems from the medieval satire Das Narrenschif (literally "The Ship of Fools"), written by Sebastian Brant. The novel, much like the film which would be based upon it, dealt with passengers aboard a ship travelling from Mexico to Germany in 1933 and their disappointments in life. While Ship of Fools received mixed reviews, it was a best selling novel in 1962.
Quite naturally the book's sales made Hollywood anxious to adapt it as a film. No less than David O. Selznick wanted the film rights to the novel. In the end it would be United Artists who would win the bidding war over the bestseller, purchasing the film rights for $400,000. Director Stanley Kramer and writer Abby Mann, who had worked together on Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) , were given the task of bringing Ship of Fools to the screen. The movie version of Ship of Fools left out a good deal of what was in the book, but at the same time it remained faithful to the spirit of the novel. Like the book, the movie Ship of Fools (1965) followed the stories of several characters, their disappointments in life, and their fears and hopes for the future. The central story in the film concerned the ship's physician, Dr, Schumann (Oskar Werner), who becomes involved with a Spanish countess (Simone Signoret) who is addicted to drugs and being transported to a German prison.
As to the role Vivien Leigh plays in Ship of Fools, it is that of Mary Treadwell, an ageing Southern belle and recent divorcee who refuses to let go of her youth. In some respects, given the similarities to both Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche DuBois, it would seem as if the part of Mrs. Treadwell was written for Vivien Leigh. Hard as it might be to believe, there are reports that it was Katharine Hepburn whom Stanley Kramer had originally wanted to cast as Mrs. Treadwell. Ultimately Miss Hepburn did not get the role because she insisted Mr. Kramer cast Spencer Tracy in the role of the ship's doctor, a role for which Mr. Kramer thought Mr. Tracy was much too old. This may have been for the best, as I have to wonder if Miss Hepburn could have convincingly played any Southern belle. She was unconvincing as Violet Venable in the movie version of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and even less convincing as Amanda in a television adaptation of The Glass Menagerie. While a great actress, playing Southerners may have been beyond Miss Hepburn.
This was certainly not the case with Vivien Leigh, whose two most notable roles to this day are Southern belles. Indeed, as stated above, there are similarities between the characters of Scarlett O'Hara, Blanche DuBois, and Mary Treadwell beyond being Southern belles. All three are women of extremes, capable of playing the coquette or the grand dame at will. Indeed, looking at the character superficially one might think Mrs. Treadwell was simply a combination of past characters played by Miss Leigh. Like Scarlett O'Hara there is a haughtiness about Mary Treadwell. Like Blanche DuBois she is nearly phobic about sex. Like Karen Stone in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), she is nearly desperate at the thought of losing her youth.
That having been said, Mary Treadwell is not a mere compilation of the various characters played by Vivien Leigh over the years. Indeed, in many ways Mrs. Treadwell is an even darker character than any Miss Leigh had ever played, except possibly for Blanche DuBois. Throughout most of the film Mrs. Treadwell is drunk and mourning her fading beauty. Even given her alcohol intake, she takes sleeping pills when she goes to bed. In many respects Mrs. Treadwell is bundle of contradictions. Worried that she is already old, while in the ship's companionway she breaks into the Charleston. While still clinging to her fading youth, Mrs. Treadwell sits in her cabin and looks in the mirror, putting on heavy make in a mockery of her former youth. Unlike many of Vivien Leigh's past characters, there was a rage and even real violence within Mrs. Treadwell. The source of her rage may not simply have been the loss of her youth and beauty, but her marriage as well. Mrs. Treadwell had been married to a wealthy man with wandering eyes. Divorced, she has his money, but no one to spend it with, and the beauty with which she could once draw men is slowly fading.
Vivien Leigh's performance in Ship of Fools numbers among her best, an impressive feat given the state of her mental and physical health at the time. Miss Leigh suffered from what was then called manic depression and what would now be called biploar I disorder. While working on the film Miss Leigh's mental state worsened. She would hallucinate at times. Her behaviour worsened. She would even insult the other actors. Fortunately the experienced members of the cast understood Miss Leigh was ill and overlooked such sleights. In fact, both Simone Signoret and Lee Marvin would become friends with Vivien Leigh. Unfortunately one young actress whom Vivien Leigh insulted did not understand and continued to protest even after it was explained to her that Miss Leigh was ill. Here it must be pointed out that Vivien Leigh was physically frail as well as mentally. In 1944 she had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, the disease which would ultimately take her life in 1967. That Vivien Leigh could give a bravura performance even as her mental and physical health were failing is nothing short of impressive.
Of course, Miss Leigh's performance is simply one of many in an ensemble. And by no means was Miss Leigh's performance the only impressive one. Oskar Werner as the ship's doctor and Simone Signoret as La Condesa also gave great performances, and both were nominated for Oscars for their roles. Perhaps the best performance was given by Michael Dunn (best known as Dr. Loveless on The Wild Wild West) as Glocken, who acts as the film's narrator and Greek chorus. He would also be nominated for an Oscar.
Beyond its performances, Ship of Fools is perhaps best described as a flawed masterpiece. While on the surface it might seem to be "Grand Hotel on a ship," it is actually much more substantive than the old melodrama. Indeed, Ship of Fools is at it most basic an examination of the mounting threat of Nazism using the microcosm of a ship. Because of this the film manifests what may be its biggest flaw--the heavy handed approach seen in many of director Stanley Kramer's early films. While it is obvious that the primary thrust of Mr. Kramer with this film was an examination of ethnic, religious, and political issues. That having been said, Ship of Fools is at its best dealing with the "smaller" concerns of human beings: Mrs. Treadwell's refusal to let go of her youth; washed up baseball player Bill Tenny (Lee Marvin) and the mess that has become his life; Dr. Schumann and his romance with La Condesa; and so on. Buoyed by these stories of the more commonplace concerns of humanity and the great performances that come with them, Ship of Fools did what many of Stanley Kramer's movies could not--it overcame the heavy handiness to become an entertaining film of some depth.
Watching Ship of Fools today, it is hard to believe that it is Vivien Leigh's last film. Although the character of Miss Treadwell is lamenting her passing youth and the beauty that came with it, Vivien Leigh's beauty in this film is still very much intact. What is more, she gives one of her most powerful performances. As Mrs. Treadwell, Miss Leigh proved that even in a supporting role she could deliver great work. Indeed, I must confess that when I think of Vivien Leigh's best performances, it is not simply her roles as Scarlett and Blanche that come to mind. Her role as Mary Treadwell in Ship of Fools comes to mind as well.