James Mason: Screen Villain and Friend to Silent Films


Today is the birthday of James Mason (1909-1984). With his strange, breathy voice, and oily, effeminate yet somehow dangerous demeanor, Hollywood loved to cast him as any number of Nazis, spies and arch criminals. But to the English, he was just a movie star. Starting out in the British film industry in the late 1930s, he was actually voted most popular male star there throughout the mid 1940s. The Duchess and I saw him in one of his Gainsborough pictures the other day, A Place of One’s Own (1945), in which he donned old-age make-up to play a kindly old gentleman who lives in a haunted house.

But in Hollywood, he played German Field Marshal Ernst Rommel in The Desert Fox and Brutus in Julius Caesar. He was so good as the supposedly villainous Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that I’ve always considered him the hero of that movie. He’s the dissipated movie star in A Star is Born. The commie spy in North by Northwest. The pedophile in Lolita. The scientist Polidori in the TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story, which terrified me as a kid.

Just as importantly, he was to perform two very important services to the silent comedy community. One, he moved into Buster Keaton’s old mansion and discovered copies of a lot of his old films, many of which were thought lost, and he had them preserved. Secondly he narrated Kevin Brownlow’s 1983 documentary The Unknown Chaplin. There are certain Chaplin scenes now I can’t think of without hearing Mason’s narration.

Now, to prove what a genius actor he was, here he is selling Thunderbird Wine:

Don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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