Today is the birthday of the unspeakably great Charles Laughton (1899-1962). This energetic monster of the stage and screen worked in his family’s hotel and served in World War One before studying at RADA. The first leg of his stage career lasted from 1926 through 1934 and included many of the great roles of Shakespeare, Chekhov, O’Casey and others (by the end of that period, already a movie star, he was a lead at the Old Vic). In 1927 he married Elsa Lanchester, with whom he was to co-star many times, and with whom he would remain married for the rest of his life. His first films were silents. One of these Picadilly (1929), pits him alongside sexpots Gilda Gray and Anna May Wong. His first talkie was the James Whale classic The Old Dark House (1932).
Corpulent, sensuous and thick-lipped, Laughton was the very personification of the American idea of “John Bull” and Hollywood typically cast him as evil pigs, parts that he clearly relished. Rarely has anyone ever made acting look like so much fun.Throughout the 30s, Laughton acted in a chain of roles that were indelible, iconic, inseparable from the man who created him, the hallmark of a star. These included Nero in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, Dr. Moreau in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Lost Souls, and the titular monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII (all 1932); Inspector Javert in Les Miserables and Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (both 1935); a monstrous criminal in Alfred Hitchcock’s last British film Jamaica Inn and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Note Dame (both 1939).
After the 30s, though he continued to appear in just as many films, critics began to turn against him. The verdict was that was he was doing a lot of phony overacting, but this was more likely a product of changing tastes than any change in the quality of Laughton’s work. In the 40s, the public began to turn away from the flamboyant and the theatrical, favoring realism and recognizability. Laughton’s brand of larger-than-life scenery chewing was just “too much” for many critics at the time; time and distance have rehabilitated him. I consider Laughton’s manner of acting more than legitimate; I think it is the way it should be done. At any rate, in the 40s and 50s, he tried some different things. He returned to the stage from time to time, as in the original production of Brecht’s Galileo (1947), a version of Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell (which he both acted in and directed, 1950), and the stage version of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (which he directed to great acclaim on Broadway, 1954). He also directed one movie, The Night of the Hunter (1955), based on a script by James Agee and now hailed as a masterpiece, but a critical and commercial flop in its day. He was experiencing a bit of a comeback in his last years, with well-regarded turns in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and his last role, as a Southern Senator in Advise and Consent (1962). Liver cancer took him in 1962.
Here he is, still in full form in his last role, Senator Cooley in Advise and Consent:
To learn more about show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc