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Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton (July 1, 1899 – December 15, 1962). Laughton was born in Scarborough, England. He started work in the family hotel business, while participating in amateur theatricals in Scarborough. Finally allowed by his family to become a drama student at RADA in 1925, Laughton made his first professional stage appearance on April 28, 1926. By all accounts, Laughton was a giant of the theatre, his performances were widely praised and he rose to stardom quite quickly.

His New York stage debut in 1931 immediately led to film offers and Laughton’s first Hollywood film was ‘The Old Dark House’ (1932) with Boris Karloff in which he played a bluff Yorkshire businessman marooned during a storm with other travellers in a creepy mansion in the Welsh mountains. He turned out a number of other memorable performances during that first Hollywood trip, most notably playing H.G. Well’s mad vivisectionist Dr. Moreau in ‘Island of Lost Souls’ (1932). Laughton humorously claimed that he couldn’t go to a zoo for the rest of his life. He based the appearance of his character, Dr. Moreau, on his dentist.

His association with film director Alexander Korda began in 1933 with ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII, for which Laughton won an Academy Award, the first British actor to do so. However, he continued to act occasionally in the theatre, and his American production of ‘life of Galileo’ by (and with) Bertolt Brecht is legendary. Laughton soon gave up the stage in preference for a movie career and returned to Hollywood where he starred in ‘White Woman’ (1933), ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ (1934), Les Miserables’ (1935) and ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1935) as Captain William Bligh, one of his most famous screen roles, co-starring with Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian; Gable had no chance oppssite the powerful Laughton, acted off the screen in every scene together.

‘Jamaica Inn’ (1939), Hitchcock’s last film in the UK before he went to Hollywood. Laughton more or less usurped direction of Jamaica Inn from Hitchcock, changing his own role from a minor character to the principal villain. Hitchcock later complained that he had not directed the film, but had “refereed” it. Laughton followed that with one of his greatest roles, as the title role of Quasimodo in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1939). Laughton gave a beautiful, moving performance. I love this version of the story.

He continued to work throughout the forties and returned to England to star in ‘Hobsons’ Choice’ (1954) directed by David Lean. Kevin Brownlow’s biography of David Lean (1996) reveals in Chapter 26 that Lean was a great admirer of Laughton and briefly considered him for the part of Colonel Nicholson in ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, hoping that Laughton would lose weight for the role, though in the end it went to Alec Guinness.

Laughton made the excellent ‘Hobson’s Choice’ (1954), ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ (1957) and had a supporting role in ‘Spartacus’ (1960).

In 1955, Laughton directed (but did not act in) one of my favourite movies, ‘The Night of the Hunter’, starring Robert Mitchum. The film is often cited among today’s critics as one of the best of the 1950s, and has been selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress. At the time of its originalrelease, however, it was a critical and box-office failure, and Laughton never had another chance to direct. The documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter by Robert Gitt(2002) features preserved rushes and outtakes with Laughton’s audible off-camera direction. Mitchum later stated that Laughton was the best director he had ever worked for.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Elsa Lanchester « socialpsychol

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