L is for Laughton
Since the beginning Hollywood always had a stock of British imports who found great success: Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Cary Grant, Greer Garson, David Niven, James Mason, and so on. But during the Golden Age there was one English actor who loomed larger – literally and figuratively – than them all: Charles Laughton.
He was, by some critics’ estimates, the best screen actor that Britain ever produced, even if at times he could chew the scenery with aplomb. He was a larger-than-life actor who was a supremely talented character-star, and he seemed to move effortlessly between tragedy and comedy.
Of course, like any great actor, he made dud movies and was offered bad roles and did junk for money. But thankfully he also left us with a handful of truly memorable performances: Henry VIII. Ruggles. Rembrandt. Quasimodo. Captain Bligh. Inspector Javert.
At first glance there was little about him to suggest he would become a major box-office draw. First there was the matter of his appearance, with a face resembling nothing less than that of a self-satisfied toad (he himself described it as looking like an elephant’s behind). On a good day you could say he could be mistaken for Ralph Bellamy’s older, less attractive brother. Then there was the voice, which was seldom anything other than superior, sometimes gruff, often fairly amused.
He arrived in Hollywood with a solid reputation on the English stage (“Britain’s greatest character actor” is how the publicists described him). He and his wife Elsa Lanchester were not sure if moving to the United States was a good idea; they were both successful in the British theatre and both had made some films in the UK.
His first several Hollywood movies were not huge successes, but he regarded them as valuable lessons. He made The Devil and the Deep with Gary Cooper (he liked Cooper but felt somewhat inadequate next to him, thinking Cooper a naturally gifted actor). He was Nero in DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, reportedly angering the director by playing the part for laughs, and deliberately hinting at Mussolini in his performance. Then he played the mad scientist Dr. Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls.
Alexander Korda brought Laughton and Lanchester back to Britain to make the film that would earn Laughton his first Oscar: The Private Life of Henry VIII. It’s probable that most people’s ideas of the Tudor king are based on Laughton’s performance of him as a hearty, gluttonous boor.
He followed that with The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and agreed to play Micawber in MGM’s David Copperfield, before deciding he was wrong for the part (he persuaded the studio to replace him with W.C. Fields). Then came Ruggles of Red Gap in a role that has been aped many times: a stuffy English butler stuck among American rustics.
Then came three films in a row which secured his standing as the greatest screen actor of his time: Les Miserables, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Rembrandt.
Rembrandt did not do well and was not liked by critics, but Laughton’s performance was highly praised, with many thinking it the best work he ever did (David Shipman noted that “he tried hard not to appear to act”).
He teamed up with Hitchcock for Jamaica Inn, then was Quasimodo in what is still the best version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Later films in his career were marked by a certain bombast (a Laughton trademark), and he seemed to take roles to suit his persona. However, there was still fire in his belly in Witness for the Prosecution.
His final performance was as a wily Southern senator in Advise and Consent.
Laughton directed only one film, the frightening, overwrought Night of the Hunter, with a terrifying performance by Robert Mitchum as a psychopathic preacher intent on finding hidden money, terrorizing the children who he thinks know where it is.
The film is a heavily symbolic fantasy, consciously arty, but it has great visual flair. Laughton hated children, so Mitchum himself directed many of the scenes with the kids.