From the current Summer 2021 Issue
From the Canterville Ghost to the Hunchback of Notre Dame — CHARLES LAUGHTON was...
AN ACTOR OF SUBSTANCE
By Stone Wallace
Looking back at the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one might consider Charles Laughton to be something of an anomaly. Like Wallace Beery and Edward G. Robinson, he was an actor who might not have met the qualifications of “leading man” yet he became a movie star who could carry a picture.
He was rotund with heavy, flabby features; as Laughton himself once proclaimed — with complete immodesty — “I have a face like the behind of an elephant.” Yet while he may not have met Hollywood’s standard for beauty, he displayed amazing range and versatility, excelling at personifying historical characters and great characters in literature. He could convey outright sadistic villainy or arouse audience sympathy with sensitive and even tender performances.
Some have accused him of overacting and one would be hard-pressed to argue against that claim, particularly in several of his later, lesser roles. Certainly there were instances when Laughton cut the ham a little too thick, but he was never less than entertaining — and often most memorable — whether playing a larger-than-life character or simply portraying a commonplace “everyman.”
Charles Laughton was born on July 1, 1899 in Yorkshire, England. As the son of a hotel keeper, it was expected that young Charles would take over the family business after his graduation from Stonyhurst College (at age 16) and service during the Great War (where he was exposed to mustard gas shortly before the armistice). By then, however, Charles had already felt the lure of the stage. With his family’s consent, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (whose faculty included another future star, Claude Rains).
Laughton made his London stage debut in 1926, in a production of The Government Inspector. In this role (and others that followed), he quickly demonstrated that he was an actor of both substance and power. Two years later, in Alibi, he became the first actor to portray Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot.
In between those two productions was 1927’s Mr. Prohack, where Laughton met cast mate Elsa Lanchester. The two began a relationship that led to them appearing together in the 1928 silent film comedy Blue Bottles (Laughton’s first film role) and marrying in 1929. (The couple appeared together in a dozen films, including The Beachcomber, The Big Clock and The Six Wives of Henry VIII.)
The next stop was New York, where Laughton made his Broadway debut in a 1931 production of Payment Deferred, the story of a bank clerk so deeply in debt that he resorts to murder to get the money he needs. The show’s success led Laughton to Hollywood, where he took a supporting part (alongside Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart) in James Whale’s creepy, eccentric 1932 film The Old Dark House.
Later that year, Laughton reprised his stage role in the movie version of Payment Deferred, and co-starred (alongside Gary Cooper and Cary Grant) in Devil and the Deep, chewing the scenery as a deranged submarine captain married to Tallulah Bankhead. He also had a brief but humorous role in the all-star affair If I Had a Million, as an office clerk who receives a million dollars and announces his newfound independence by blowing a raspberry at his boss.
From there, Laughton returned to more serious fare, playing the mad emperor Nero in The Sign of the Cross and the even madder Dr. Moreau in the gruesome pre-Code Island of Lost Souls, based on H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Wells didn’t care for the final product (feeling that the philosophical aspects of his novel were overshadowed by the emphasis on horror); apparently Laughton wasn’t fond of his role either, although he was reportedly paid $2,250 per week.
Although Laughton played a leading role in Island of Lost Souls, it was his Oscar-winning performance as the titular character in 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII that established him as a “star.” (Laughton reprised the role of King Henry twenty years later in Young Bess, which starred Jean Simmons as Queen Elizabeth I.)
A series of highly successful films followed, including 1934’s The Barretts of Wimpole Street and the charming 1935 comedy Ruggles of Red Gap, with Laughton as an English butler whose employer loses him in a poker game. Once again, Laughton’s foray into comedy was followed by more serious roles during the same year. He was the determined Inspector Javert in 1935’s Les Miserables, hounding Fredric March’s Jean Valjean mercilessly until his conscience overtakes him. Then there was Mutiny on the Bounty, where Laughton crafted an unforgettable performance as the cruel Captain Bligh and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award.
He was set to play the role of Mr. Micawber in the film version of Dickens’ David Copperfield, but he disliked both the makeup he wore (which was as Micawber was described in the book) and his performance and asked to be released from the project after only two days’ shooting. He recommended giving the role to W.C. Fields, who made it truly his own.
Returning to the U.K. in 1936, Laughton made Rembrandt for Alexander Korda; his plans to appear in I, Claudius were abandoned after co-star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident. As the decade went on, Laughton co-founded Mayflower Pictures with German film producer Erich Pommer; the company produced three of Laughton’s films: The Beachcomber (co-starring Elsa Lanchester), Sidewalks of London and Jamaica Inn, Alfred Hitchcock’s final British film before leaving for Hollywood.
Unfortunately, none of these movies were profitable. Mayflower Pictures was headed for bankruptcy until RKO offered to rescue the company — provided Laughton agreed to star in the studio’s upcoming production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Laughton’s talent for pathos was effectively demonstrated in his classic portrayal of the deformed Paris bell-ringer Quasimodo.
The actor submerged himself into the character, to the point that he was almost unrecognizable. Laughton’s performance remains a masterwork (some people claimed that it eclipsed Lon Chaney’s earlier portrayal of the hunchback) with such memorable dialogue as: “I’m about as shapeless as the man in the moon” and his classic, poignant closing line, spoken as he sadly rests his head against one of the cathedral gargoyles: “Why was I not made of stone like thee?”
It goes without saying that (as it was for Chaney) playing Quasimodo was an uncomfortable experience for Laughton, who demanded that makeup artist Perc Westmore give him a deliberately heavy prosthetic hump to help him stay in character. In this case, he suffered for his art; unfortunately, he failed to receive even an Oscar nomination in that highly competitive year.
Following that screen triumph, Laughton moved away from classical and historical portrayals in favor of more mainstream roles. He was an Italian vineyard owner in They Knew What They Wanted, a South Seas patriarch in The Tuttles of Tahiti, an impoverished classical music composer in the anthology Tales of Manhattan, an American admiral during World War II in Stand By for Action, a Victorian butler in the star-studded Forever and a Day and an Australian bar-owner in The Man from Down Under.
One of Laughton’s most effective and affecting performances during World War II was in 1944’s This Land is Mine. Directed by the legendary Jean Renoir, the film starred Laughton (alongside Maureen O’Hara and George Sanders) as a cowardly, mother-dominated European schoolteacher who discovers an inner courage when Nazis occupy his village. This Land Is Mine was one of the top box-office earners of the year and remains a powerful and poignant film.
Laughton followed that role with lighter fare, enjoying himself enormously as the spirit of a dead nobleman (opposite Robert Young and Margaret O’Brien) in MGM’s comedy/fantasy The Canterville Ghost. To further prove his versatility, he followed these roles with The Suspect (a suspense thriller with Laughton as a mild-mannered man driven to homicide) and a return to historical drama with Laughton playing the titular role in 1945’s Captain Kidd. This low-budget but entertaining tale of treachery on the high seas saw the title character’s dastardly deeds thwarted by Randolph Scott.
Laughton’s unique speaking voice, which he could modulate from deep, penetrating intensity to a soft, velvety caress, made him perfect for radio as well. A longtime friend of writer Norman Corwin, Laughton made numerous appearances on his Columbia Presents Corwin series; in addition, he re-created several of his movie roles on the top anthologies of the period, including Academy Award, The Lux Radio Theater, Theater Guild of the Air and the Screen Guild Players.
He was a particularly popular player on Suspense, where he appeared ten times. For his last appearance on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills,” he reprised one of his most famous roles in “The Revenge of Captain Bligh,” a drama based on William Bligh’s own logs. Laughton also enjoyed displaying his comedic side with appearances on Duffy’s Tavern, The Alan Young Show and The Charlie McCarthy Show.
As the 1940s rolled on, he remained in constant demand for movie work. He was fourth-billed as malevolent magistrate Judge Lord Thomas Horfield in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case and played a murderous newspaper tycoon in the suspenseful The Big Clock, where his character met an ironic and quite memorable demise.
Laughton brought a famous fictional detective to life for 1949’s The Man on the Eiffel Tower, the first film directed by his friend Burgess Meredith. Filmed in color on location in Paris, the film starred Laughton as George Simonen’s character Inspector Jules Maigret. Laughton also helped out with the directing chores when Meredith was on-camera. The film features a notable climactic chase sequence, which takes place on the title edifice.
The 1950s saw Laughton appearing in lesser fare; in 1951’s The Strange Door, he hammed it up as an insane French nobleman, opposite Boris Karloff. He had a comedic role (opposite a young Marilyn Monroe) in “The Cop and the Anthem,” one of five stories dramatized for the all-star anthology O. Henry’s Full House. Laughton played the vagrant Soapy, trying desperately to get arrested and spend the winter indoors. Like all classic O. Henry stories, this one ends with an ironic twist.
Then there was 1952’s Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, where Laughton played… well, you guessed it. He even allowed director Charles Lamont to film his corpulent physique clad in a pair of long johns. The distinguished actor explained his decision to make the film by saying “I’ve never been able to do a double take. With Lou Costello I can learn.” In fact, he enjoyed his romp with the duo and later joined them on television’s Colgate Comedy Hour, delivering a moving rendition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
By this time, Laughton was spending more time on Broadway as a director. In 1950 he received critical acclaim for Don Juan in Hell, based on the writings of George Bernard Shaw; Laughton also appeared in the show (as did Charles Boyer, Agnes Moorehead and Sir Cedric Hardwicke) as the Devil. The show was popular enough to go on tour and even led the quartet of actors to record a “soundtrack” album.
In 1953, Laughton directed a staged reading of Stephen Vincent Benet’s John’s Brown Body, which featured Tyrone Power, Judith Anderson and Raymond Massey (recreating his famous film characterizations of both Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist John Brown).
Laughton’s most notable stage success during this time was 1954’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which centered on the court-martial scene in Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Lloyd Nolan played Captain Queeg, with Henry Fonda as defense attorney Barney Greenwald. (A young James Garner was also in the cast, appearing in a non-speaking part as a court-martial panelist.) The play ran for a year and 415 performances.
With these stage successes under his belt, Laughton directed (no pun intended) his attention back to the silver screen, helming the 1955 thriller Night of the Hunter. This moody and haunting film was based on the bestselling novel by Davis Grubb, which in turn was inspired by the true story of a serial killer. Robert Mitchum starred as the psychotic “preacher” in search of stolen money, ably supported by Shelley Winters and silent star Lillian Gish.
Sadly, Night of the Hunter was not a success with audiences or critics at the time of its release and Laughton never directed another movie. Today, of course, the film is highly regarded and lauded for its brilliant cinematography. Robert Mitchum was quoted as saying that Charles Laughton was the best director he ever worked for. Laughton reciprocated, stating that Mitchum was “a literate, gracious, kind man and he speaks beautifully – when he wants to. Bob would make the best Macbeth of any actor living.” (As an aside, it’s been suggested that Mitchum directed the scenes involving the two orphan characters, as Laughton apparently disliked working with children.)
Although Laughton’s directing career was over, he bounced back to major critical acclaim with his role as master barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts in 1957’s classic courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution, based on an Agatha Christie story. Directed by Billy Wilder, the film also starred Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich, with Elsa Lanchester playing Sir Wilfred’s concerned nurse. Laughton received both an Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination while Lanchester was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Sadly, this would be Tyrone Power’s last completed film; he collapsed and died of a heart attack while filming Solomon and Sheba.
Although Laughton made the most of any part he accepted, it should be noted that he didn’t accept them all. Back in 1938, he had refused the role of Professor Henry Higgins in an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Two decades later, he was offered the plum role of Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, but turned it down by explaining that he didn’t understand the motivations of the character and didn’t think he could play the part convincingly. (Alec Guinness had no such trouble and earned an Oscar for his effort.)
Besides his own work as an actor, Laughton was also a highly regarded drama teacher. He would hold classes inside his Pacific Palisades estate, and counted young Albert Finney among his students. During these sessions Laughton would play Billie Holiday records for his students to illustrate vocal inflection techniques. It seemed obvious that Charles Laughton was a man of great passion who preferred to keep active in pursuing his craft. He also enjoyed going on reading tours, lending his rich, mellifluous voice to everything from the Bible to Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums.”
Laughton possessed no snobbery when it came to appearing on television, making guest appearances on some of the top anthologies of the day, including General Electric Theater and Playhouse 90, where he gave a memorable performance in “In the Presence of Mine Enemies,” written by a young Rod Serling. Perhaps Laughton’s most notable television moment occurred in September of 1956, when he served as substitute host on The Ed Sullivan Show and introduced Elvis Presley in the first of the singer’s three appearances.
Still, as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, Laughton stayed close to the movies. He played a British admiral in the Italian-American co-production of Under Ten Flags and played the cunning Graccus in Stanley Kubrick’s star-studded blockbuster Spartacus.
For his final film, 1962’s Advise & Consent, Laughton played Seabright “Seab” Cooley, a U.S. Senator who leads the opposition to a presidential cabinet nominee (Henry Fonda). In preparing for the role, Laughton had Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis read the character’s lines into a tape recorder so he could correctly imitate the Senator’s accent and rhythms. Laughton received favorable reviews for his performance.
By the time of the film’s release, Laughton was facing a challenge bigger than any role. In January of 1962 he had been hospitalized following a fall in the bathtub; during his stay in the hospital, he was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer. While he fought valiantly against the disease — determined to let the industry know that he was still capable of taking on acting jobs — the insidious disease rapidly took its toll and his weight dropped to 90 pounds. Billy Wilder had wanted Laughton to play the character of Moustache in Irma La Douce, and Laughton was eager to work with Wilder again, but it wasn’t to be.
Charles Laughton died on December 15, 1962 at the age of 63. His body was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California, in the Court of Remembrance. For his contribution to motion pictures, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Thanks to cable and streaming movie channels, Charles Laughton remains a familiar face to contemporary audiences and a favorite among impressionists — particularly his classic portrayal of Captain William Bligh and his famous bellowing of the line “Mister Christian!”
Of course, as should be obvious, Laughton proved throughout his career that he was no mere caricature; in the words of actor (and fellow Oscar-winner) Daniel Day-Lewis, Laughton “was probably the greatest film actor who came from that period of time. He had something quite remarkable. His generosity as an actor, he fed himself into that work. As an actor, you cannot take your eyes off him.”
Tune in to Those Were the Days on August 28 to hear Charles Laughton on the Lux Radio Theater production of The Suspect.
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