R is for Rains
I don’t know if Claude Rains had a huge acting range, but what he did, he did exceedingly well. He was impeccably spoken, usually impeccably dressed and wearing a neatly clipped moustache, and had the best of manners. He was quite simply the politest and most cultured villain you might ever come across, and if the occasion called for it, he could sympathise with the hero and switch sides (as he famously does at the end of Casablanca, although it can be argued that Captain Renault is not really a baddie, just a pragmatist).
Audiences liked him enormously, and for many years he was a staple at Warner Bros, who put him in many of its prestige films.
When he was given a dud movie, he usually elevated it, bringing a wit and lightness of touch an otherwise dreary outing.
He was often a suave crook, but he also had a good line in kindly patriarchs and jovial villains, and he enjoyed himself enormously: he has an indecently good time playing evil Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Like many of the character-stars of Hollywood, Rains came to movies from the theatre. Before the First World War he had been a call-boy, occasional actor, and stage manager in London and Australia. After a stint in the Army he returned to the London stage and quickly found success as an actor. When he wasn`t performing, he was teaching at RADA (John Gielgud was one his students).
He moved to New York to work on Broadway, then got his movie break for director James Whale, who thought his voice was simply perfect for The Invisible Man. The film was a hit, and Hollywood press agents sold his second film – Crime Without Passion – as his debut because now audiences would actually get to see him.
His association with Warner Bros. began in 1936, and it`s where made his most memorable films: The Adventures of Robin Hood; Four Daughters; Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Juarez; Casablanca; Mr Skeffington; Notorious; King`s Row; Now Voyager. He worked frequently with Bette Davis and he was by far her favourite actor.
Rains was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor four times but never won.
BONUS: R is also for …
… Hollywood`s eternal man-child, Mickey Rooney, the all-round entertainer who was one of MGM`s biggest draws, whether as Puck, Andy Hardy, or Huck Finn.
… The best movie Holmes there ever was, the otherwise villainous Basil Rathbone, who seemed never more at ease then when he was crossing swords with the likes of Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn (all of Hollywood agreed that Rathbone was the most accomplished swordsman ever to grace the screen).
… Short, cunning, pugnacious, and highly underrated Edward G. Robinson, often stuck in gangster roles, which bewildered him somewhat (off-screen, he was a highly cultured man who spoke several languages and was an art collector).
… Another tough guy, George Raft, who could have had Bogart`s roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, but turned them down. Often a gangster in the movies, in real life he hung out with the Mob. It didn`t do him much good: he died penniless.
… And perhaps my favourite comic actress of all time, the incomparable Rosalind Russell.
… And Fred Astaire`s dance partner Ginger Rogers, who did everything he did, but backwards and in heels.