Friday, September 9

Charles Laughton

I don't think I am overstating it when I say he was a legend in his own lifetime.  He was certainly no ordinary actor.  Intellectually and temperamentally complex, he was a perfectionist (frequently to the annoyance of his costars) who became more and more preoccupied with everything Laughton and less about anyone else as he aged.  At the same time, in an industry consumed with vanity, he detested his looks.  But more than anything, perhaps, were his feelings of guilt and inadequacy over being gay.
He endowed many of his performances, on stage and screen, with a depth and truth that many would say lifted them to great art. There is little question that he understood the majesty of kings, the tragedy of the broken and the blackness of murderers.  He understood being apart from everyone else. He was never one of the boys, never an insider.  He was a different kind of actor and a different kind of gay man.  In both areas, let it be known, he considered himself a failure.

He began life in fairly privileged circumstances as the often-snooty son of hotel owners.  He drew his first breath on July 1, 1899, in Scarborough, England.  He was primarily educated in all boys' schools and spent a great deal of his time being picked on.  He was a typical roly-poly, somewhat affected and very bright student whose life was sometimes sheer hell because of the taunts.  At the same time and in his early teens, he was servicing fellow students although not as secretly as he would have preferred.

As he grew a bit older, it was assumed by all that he would follow in the family business and become a hotelier and he began managing one of the family's signature locations.  He took a decided and permanent detour after his father's death, however, when he joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  He had already developed a passion for seeing plays, quickly concluding that I can do that.  It didn't take long for those at RADA to conclude that they had quite a genius among them.  Soon he took the London stage by storm, appearing in quite a number of different plays, including the classics.  Everyone was talking about him.

In one of those plays in the late 1920s, he met costar Elsa Lanchester with whom he would quickly share a flat.  They married in 1931 and would remain wed until the day he died.  In their Hollywood years, they would often be called Hollywood's Happiest Couple although I suspect there was some winking involved.  It was said they yelled and screamed. supported and ignored, loved and barely liked one another for all those years while they only had two things in common... flowers and sex with other men.

He is said to have detested children and movie magazines would claim that was why they were childless while the truth was they never had sex together.  She didn't learn of his homosexuality until two years after their marriage but she also didn't care.  She never worked close to as much as he did on the stage, but they shared a love of acting and were given to great bouts of discussion on the subject.  And to be clear, she reveled in being Mrs. Charles Laughton. Being married to the acting genius was good enough.

Shortly after their marriage, a play he was starring in was brought to Broadway.  In short time Americans caught on to what the Brits had known for a few years... this was one special actor.  Within record time Hollywood came-a-calling not with one offer but many.

Mr. and Mrs. Laughton

In 1932 he signed up for Devil and the Deep as a mean-ass sea captain.  He must have felt very safe in the company of Tallulah Bankhead and Cary Grant but it was another costar, Gary Cooper, for whom Laughton lusted.  He had it pretty bad for the lanky, laconic one.  It would not be the last time he went bonkers over a male costar.

He made six other films in 1932 but it wasn't until the next year that his fame busted wide open and he began filming one of his iconic movie roles in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Anytime I have seen or read anything on the English monarch I immediately think of Laughton.  He fired up the imagination of the Oscar folks and he won best actor, the first Brit to do so.

In 1934 he was Norma Shearer's overly-attentive father in The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  He was only three years older than she but with his portly body and, as he said, the face of a departing pachyderm, he knew that his success as an actor would always be based on playing character parts, even if they were occasionally leading roles.  He also knew that he would rise to the occasion in more menacing roles because it was often how he was off the screen.  He seemed to understand the darker psyche.  Ruggles of Red Gap, the following year, about an English butler brought to America and having a devil of a time learning American ways, proved that he was equally adept at comedy. 

He turned in a convincing Inspector Jarvet in Les Misérables in 1935 and was riveting as the overbearing Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, another signature role.  

I, Claudius (1937) became an unfinished film.  It's been said that Laughton and others thought he was oddly not very good, so the film was scrapped although it's out there somewhere in documentary form. It may be, too, that he left the film, something he was given to do. Laughton was always out of sorts when he began a film, chiefly due to his grave uncertainties.  For someone of his skills, he always said he had a horrible time getting under the skin of his characters.

In 1939 he made three films with Maureen O'Hara.  From the beginning they adored one another.  She was sparkling new in the profession and probably told him she thought he was a god... and that's all it took for him. Their first outing and Hitchcock's last before coming to America to greater acclaim, was Jamaica Inn.  I saw it for the first time late last year and found it to be a little gem of a crime caper.  It concerned a young woman who discovers her neighbors are involved in setting up shipwrecks for profit.  

But the next one is their biggie together as Esmeralda and Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  His hauntingly heartbreaking performance is surely his most well-known role. The last pairing with O'Hara was in 1943s This Land of Mine.  The story of a mild-mannered schoolteacher in a Nazi-occupied small town is a wonderful film, if a bit forgotten, and a wonderful role for Laughton, proving again his versatility.

He continued, too, with a delightful comedy role in The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942), as the head of an eccentric family, and as a crusty army sergeant in WWI Australia in The Man from Down Under (1943) where he actually spoke the line well, strike me flamin' pink. Charles!  You shocked me.

He went slumming as a rear admiral in the 1942 Robert Taylor naval drama, Stand by for Action, was charming in the fantasy title role of The Canterville Ghost and nailed it as a wife murderer in the film noir, The Suspect, both 1944.  He was great fun in the title role of Captain Kidd (1945).  You ain't lived until you hear blustery Laughton yell out har, matey.

He didn't close out the 40s with some of his best films.  My favorite of the bunch was 1947's The Paradine Case but this second film with Hitchcock was not considered so successful at the time.  I do believe it's had more of a following in later years.  He played a judge in a murder trial.  His demeanor, theatrics and ballsyness were perfect for courtroom dramas as he would prove 10 years later.

Closeted gay actors, married or not, found ways to come out to one another.  In the 1940s being secretive about it had a certain urgency but Laughton and Tyrone Power became good friends.  Power was in awe of Laughton in their shared vocation and Laughton was so nuts about the beautiful Power that guards were let down.  It's doubtful that they ever had sex together although they did get together as often as they could to indulge in an activity that is not exactly sexual but would be too abhorrent for Google's tastes and for many readers.  The two would work together in plays and give readings and of course one day would make a film that showcased both of their talents like few of their other films.  

He began bringing extremely handsome young men to his film sets. He often gave them jobs to substantiate their presences or at least said they worked for him. What sexual adventures he had were bought and paid for.  If others talked, they didn't speak to Laughton. No one would have dared. Laughton rarely spoke of it himself to anyone except, oddly, his wife. Power, too, was an exception.  Just as strong as his lust for beautiful, young men was his self-loathing for how he was which began as early as he realized he was Catholic.  That meant guilt and he carried it with him his entire life. 

I first saw Laughton in 1951s The Blue Veil. Jane Wyman starred as a governess to various children over the years and I absolutely loved its unabashed sentimentality at the time, although I confess I almost don't remember Laughton.  He certainly hit the lowest point of his movie career when he again played Captain Kidd in 1952s Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd.  What was he thinking? 

Young Bess: Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, Laughton, Jean Simmons

In 1953 he played kings in two movies that costarred Stewart Granger, a bisexual actor for whom Laughton developed one of his frequent crushes. The first film was Salome in which Laughton played King Herod and then there was Young Bess, in which he again portrayed Henry VIII.  Both of these films, little more than fanciful Technicolor gorgeous fiction starring gorgeous actresses (Rita Hayworth as Salome and Jean Simmons as Elizabeth I) helped me fix Laughton in my mind as someone I wanted to watch out for. Little did I know at the time that his career was petering out but I thoroughly enjoyed catching up on his earlier work.

He is one of those actors that, no matter how many are in one scene, I could not take my eyes off him.  He was always up to something.  Even when it was his job to listen, his eyes were blazing or he was shaking his jowls.  If he was quiet in a scene, he was generally irked or pouting or plotting his next move.  He was a specialist at befuddlement which could easily turn into irritability.  In so many films he started sentences in a low voice and wound up yelling at the end of them.  It was great fun to watch him boil. 

In 1954 he directed Henry Fonda on Broadway in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. Fonda, who in real life didn't much resemble the kind, thoughtful characters he played, had a falling out with Laughton and called him a fat faggot.  The ruckus made the rounds at Hollywood soirees.  Laughton was likely so grossed out at the exposure that he accepted an assignment to direct his first (and only) movie, allowing him to remain in the background.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) is another one of those films that I have mentioned lately in these pages that was not successful at the time of its initial release.  Its chilly reception is likely why Laughton never directed another.  Today it is considered one of the finest films of the 1950s and one of the best thrillers.  It concerned a wacko preacher who murders his new wife and then menacingly stalks her two young children to recover some hidden loot.  

It was one of Robert Mitchum's best roles and he always said ol' Charlie was the best director he ever worked with.  There was a story going around for years that said Laughton hated kids so much that he asked Mitchum to direct the many scenes involving the kids. Not likely.

Blistering as Sir Wilfred in WFTP

With apologies to Captain Bligh, Quasimodo and Henry VIII, I think his work as the crusty English barrister, Sir Wilfred Roberts, in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) is the best work he ever did. Nearly every scene he was in is thrilling, but none more so than when he winds up a long speech by screaming liar at Marlene Dietrich. Defending Tyrone Power on a murder charge with words written by Agatha Christie and adapted by Billy Wilder is simply breathtaking.  He got to work in a film for the 10th time with Mrs. Laughton and also with two other gay/bisexual actors, one of whom was a dear old friend (Power) and the other a relatively new and exciting friend (Dietrich). I say all three were the best they ever were in this fine film.

Laughton was never idle for long.  He loved his flowers and everything Japanese.  He had truckloads of books all over his home and there were always actors who came by to sit at the feet of the great master.  And of course there were the plays.  There were always the plays.  He also had some television performances but not many.

He still had two very good films left in him.  He was fourth-billed in the large and impressive cast of Spartacus (1960).  More portly than ever, he played Gracchus, a Roman senator who plots the defeat of a group of slaves.  As Julius Caesar is handsome John Gavin and he and Laughton play some erotic scenes in the baths with Gavin bare-chested and draped in a towel. Laughton probably flubbed his lines so there would be more retakes.  He was quite enamored of the younger actor but weren't we all?

With Laurence Olivier & John Gavin in Spartacus

He was another kind of a senator, one from Washington D.C., that he played in his final film, Advise and Consent (1962).  The old scene-stealer was marvelous in a crumpled white suite and shuffling manner espousing his southern deep-fried homilies and quips. The story, astonishingly not dated, concerns a young senator with a possible gay past. Oh my, wasn't ol' Charlie getting to be the brave gay blade?

He actually had been finding life a lot easier on the gay issue because in 1960 he and Lanchester moved next door to writer Christopher Isherwood and his partner, Don Bachardy, in Santa Monica.  Those two opened up some spaces for Laughton to look at his life in more accepting ways.  They were so open and he was so not but he was enjoying the change and relaxation.  

Unfortunately his newfound happiness was not to last because he passed away from kidney cancer 10 days before Christmas in 1962 in Los Angeles. Charles Laughton was 63 years old.

Next posting:
Her fabulous 40s movies 

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