Today: February 25, 2024

Charles Laughton

There was a period in the 1930s, when Charles Laughton (1899-1962) was just about the most bankable star in the movie business.

There was
a period in the 1930s, when Charles Laughton (1899-1962) was just about the
most bankable star in the movie business.
His stage
reputation was similarly formidable. As late as 1959, when it was announced
that he was to play King Lear at Stratford, which also featured the likes of Sir Laurence Olivier, Paul Robeson and Dame Edith Evans, it was his name that grabbed the newspaper headlines.

It’s all a far cry from his standing today, when the
difficulty of obtaining his films on DVD reflects, if not a descent into
obscurity, a considerably reduced critical gloss. To modern eyes, Laughton,
pudgy-faced, jowls a-wobble, with a shapeless pudding of a body, seems the
antithesis of what a star should be. With those looks, he was never destined
for the romantic leading roles, of course, but in his heyday he was one of the
only character actors who vied for public popularity with heartthrobs like
Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. Now, with the release in the Masters of Cinema
series of two of his films from the early 30s, The Island Of Lost Souls (1933) and Ruggles Of Red Gap (1935), it seems timely to celebrate his career

It’s actually not unreasonable to claim that in The
Island Of Lost Souls, The Private Life
of Henry VIII
(1933), Rembrandt
(1936), Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)
and The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(1939), Laughton laid down some of the most memorable performances in cinema
history. Even in his later years, when he was considered to have succumbed to
ham acting, he was the best thing in the flabby Stanley Kubrick-directed epic Spartacus
(1960), outshining the likes of Olivier,
Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons
and Peter

Laughton was a Yorkshireman and, despite eventually
moving to the US after success on Broadway brought him to the attention of
Hollywood, traces of the accent always remained. His voice was a thing of
beauty – low, languid, sensuous,
yet capable of rising to explosive heights to achieve shocking affects. He
could trap audience attention with the merest sideways flicker of his eyes, and
he was surprisingly agile and rapid of movement for a large man.

In The Island Of Lost Souls, he is mesmeric. This is
a film which, of almost all the horror films of the early ‘30s, is one which
can still be watched today as a convincing drama, rather than as a mere
historical curiosity. While much of its appeal lies in the foggily atmospheric
photography of Karl Struss, and the terrifyingly convincing mutants – one of
whom is played by Bela Lugosi (“Are
we not men?” – “What is the law?”), it is essentially Laughton’s film. As Simon Callow, his biographer, says
in an accompanying interview on the DVD, this is Laughton in his favoured area
of “anguished sadism”, going in far deeper than any other actor of the time
would have dared.

Famously, Laughton was distressed by his personal
appearance, considering himself to be ugly, and a sense of personal repulsion
here, as in many of his other performances, creates an instinctive sympathy in
the viewer. While Dr Moreau is a repulsive, evil human, rejoicing in his House
of Pain from which chilling screams pierce the night air, Laughton manages to
make him weirdly attractive, and his whip-cracking finale is both gripping and
distressing. In fact, The Island Of Lost Souls was considered so disturbing, it
was actually banned from being screened in Britain until the 1950s – deemed to
be “against nature.”

In fact, Laughton often sailed close to the wind with
his performances. In The Barretts Of
Wimpole Street
(1934), he played a father whose protective feelings towards
his daughter strayed dangerously close to suggestions of incest. “They can’t
censor the gleam in my eye,” he memorably remarked of his portrayal. In the
bawdy British-made romp, The Private Life of Henry VIII, his rendering of the
monarch was memorably earthy, burping as he chewed on chicken bones, before
tossing them over his shoulder and declaring “Refinement’s a thing of the past
… manners are dead.”


Ruggles Of Red Gap was lighter territory, with
Laughton, cast as an English valet who ends up in a lawless American frontier
town. Proving he could handle comedy as well as drama. In the film, he delivers an inebriated
recitation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which touched American
hearts, and ensured this was one of his most successful roles, at least in box
office terms.

Unfortunately, Laughton’s commitment to his acting
came at a considerable personal cost, and the strain caused him to effectively
tone down the serious projects from the early 1940s, turning instead to
readings and directing others on stage, while cheapening his screen reputation
by appearing in films such as Abbot And
Costello Meet Captain Kidd
(1952) – though, of course, even in these films
he was still fascinatingly watchable.

And there were, amongst the fodder, still some
worthwhile film credits. He was excellent as a publishing tycoon in The Big Clock (1948), and starred in
the David Lean-directed Hobson’s Choice (1954). His last role
was as an Old South American senator in
Otto Preminger’s Advice And Consent
(1962) and, inevitably, his was the
dominating presence, even though by then he was dying of cancer. He died in
December of that year, but time has not dimed the intensity of those early
celluloid performances, and he deserves to remembered as one the greatest movie
talents to have emerged from British theatre.

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