The Two Faces of Leslie Banks

Leslie Banks (1890-1952) succeeded in having an interesting stage and screen career despite a setback that might have discouraged hearts less stout: one side of his face had been disfigured and paralyzed in the Battle of the Somme. He learned to work with this limitation, to use it to advantage. He found that if he favored his good side, audiences would accept him as a handsome hero. If he highlight the damaged one, it would enhance his performances as villains. This is almost a sideshow level of self-exploitation yet it served Banks well on the legit stage and screen for decades.

Banks initially intended to be a man of the cloth, but after completing his studies at Oxford he purused another path. In 1911 he toured with Shakespearean actor-manager Sir Frank Benson’s company, playing Old Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, his first professional part. In 1912 and 1913, he toured England and North America with the husband-wife theatrical team of Eva Moore and Henry V. Esmond. This pair were the parents of Jill Esmond, the first wife of Laurence Olivier, with whom Banks would later work. World War One then intervened, with the results we have described. After the war and a period of rehabilitation, Banks was able to join the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, becoming a West End star by the 1920s. In 1924, he played Captain Hook in Charles Dillingham’s Broadway revival of Peter Pan starring Marilyn Miller.

Between 1930 and 1932 Banks performed on Broadway another half dozen times, leading to his first speaking film role, the villainous lead Count Zaroff in RKO’s memorable horror film The Most Dangerous Game (1932), with Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Noble Johnson. His cinematic output wasn’t huge, fewer than three dozen films over two decades, not a lot for the times, but he enjoyed memorable parts in some well known films. He starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and had a key role as the boss of a gang of cutthroats in his Jamaica Inn (1939). In 1937 he was in Fire Over England, the first film to pair Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Later he was to play the role of the chorus in Olivier’s Henry V (1944). The Tunnel (1935) was a sci-fi vision of the building of the first transatlantic tunnel (connecting New York and London). In 1940 Banks was in a couple of films with Robert Montgomery, both literary adaptations: Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, and Edgar Wallace’s The Door with Seven Locks, marketed in the U.S. as Chamber of Horrors.

Meantime, on the West End, Banks originated some notable stage roles, both title roles, that wound up as films with other stars: in 1934, Clive Of India (played by Ronald Colman in the 1935 movie); in 1938, Goodbye Mr. Chips (Robert Donat played the part in the 1939 film version, winning an Oscar). In 1949. he starred in the original Broadway production of Lost in the Stars. His last film was Madeleine (1950), directed by David Lean. That same year he was awarded a CBE. He died of a stroke a little over a year later.