Charles Laughton


Recollections of Quentin Tod in Hollywood - 1932

Courtesy of The Awakener ; Vol.X11, Vol.3 - page 9
Courtesy of The Awakener ; Vol.X11, Vol.3 - page 9

The next day, Baba visited Paramount Studios. On one lot, The Devil and the Deep was being filmed. Tod had known Tallulah Bankhead and the actor Charles Laughton in London.


Lord Meher Volume 5, Page 1648

Charles met Baba in Hollywood on the 31st May, 1932 at the Paramount Studios on the set of "The Devil and the Deep". Quentin Todd had known Charles in London and he introduced him to Baba. Charles then introduced Gary Cooper to Baba.

Charles Laughton

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Charles Laughton

photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1940.
Born July 1, 1899(1899-07-01)
Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom
Died December 15, 1962 (aged 63)
Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, United States
Occupation Actor, screenwriter, producer, director
Years active 1926–1962
Spouse(s) Elsa Lanchester (1929–1962)

Charles Laughton (July 1, 1899–December 15, 1962) was an English-American stage and film actor, screenwriter, producer and two-time director.

Laughton was best known for his historical roles in films, but he started his career as a remarkable stage actor, during a time when many serious stage actors despised the motion picture medium, seeing it only as a source of income. Laughton showed keen and serious interest in the pioneering possibilities of film, and later other media, such as radio, recordings, and TV, proving that quality work could be made available to audiences other than theatre-goers. He became an American citizen in 1950.



[edit] Early life and career

Laughton was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire, England, the son of Robert Laughton by his wife Elizabeth (née Conlon). His mother was a devout Roman Catholic and he attended Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school, in Lancashire, England.[1] He served during World War I (in which he was gassed) first with the 2/1st Battalion of the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Regiment[2] and later with the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.

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 at the Barnes Theatre, as Osip in the comedy The Government Inspector, in which he also appeared at the London Gaiety Theatre in May. Despite not having the looks for a romantic lead, he impressed audiences with his talent and played classical roles in two plays by Chekov, The Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters. He played the title role in Arnold Bennett's Mr Prohack (Elsa Lanchester was also in the cast), Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot in Alibi, the title role in Mr Pickwick after Charles Dickens, Tony Perelli in Edgar Wallace's On the Spot and William Marble in Payment Deferred. He took this last play across the Atlantic and in it he made his debut in the USA on September 24, 1931, at the Lyceum Theatre (New York). He returned to London for the 1933-34 Old Vic Season and was engaged in four Shakespeare roles (as Macbeth and Henry VIII, Angelo in Measure for Measure and Prospero in The Tempest). In 1936 he went to Paris and on May 9 appeared at the Comédie-Française as Sganarelle in the second act of Molière's Le Médecin malgré lui, the first English actor to appear at that theatre, where he acted the part in French and received an ovation.

Laughton commenced his film career in England while still acting on the London stage. He took small roles in three short silent comedies starring his wife Elsa Lanchester, Daydreams, Blue Bottles and The Tonic (all 1928) which had been specially written for her by H. G. Wells. He made a brief appearance as a disgruntled diner in another silent film Piccadilly with Anna May Wong in 1929. He appeared with Elsa Lanchester again in a "film revue," featuring assorted British variety acts, called Comets (1930) in which they duetted in 'The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie', and made two other early British talkies: Wolves with Dorothy Gish (1930) from a play set in a whaling camp in the frozen north, and Down River (1931) in which he played a murderous, half-oriental drug-smuggler.

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 then played a demented submarine commander in The Devil and the Deep with Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant and followed this with his best-remembered film role of that year as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross. He also turned out a number of other memorable performances during that first Hollywood trip, repeating his stage role as a murderer in Payment Deferred, playing H. G. Wells's mad vivisectionist Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls, and the meek raspberry-blowing clerk in the brief segment of If I Had a Million that was directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

His association with film director Alexander Korda began in 1933 with The Private Life of Henry VIII (loosely based on the life of King Henry VIII of England), for which Laughton won an Academy Award. However, he continued to act occasionally in the theatre, and his American production of Life of Galileo by (and with) Bertolt Brecht is legendary.

[edit] Film career

From the trailer for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Laughton soon gave up the stage in preference for a movie career and returned to Hollywood where his next film was White Woman (1933) in which he co-starred with Carole Lombard as a cockney river trader in the Malaysian jungle. Then came The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) as Norma Shearer's malevolent father; Les Misérables (1935) as Javert, the police inspector; Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) as Lieutenant William Bligh, one of his most famous screen roles, co-starring with Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian; and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) as the very English butler transported to early 1900s America.

Back in England, and again with Alexander Korda, he played the title role in Rembrandt (1936). In 1937, also for Korda, he starred in an ill-fated film version of the classic novel, I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, which was abandoned during filming owing to the injuries suffered by co-star Merle Oberon in a car crash. (Out-takes from this film provided the material for a BBC TV documentary in 1965 entitled "The Epic That Never Was," narrated by Dirk Bogarde.)

After I, Claudius, he and the ex-patriate German film producer Erich Pommer founded the production company Mayflower Pictures in the UK, which produced three films starring Laughton: Vessel of Wrath (1938), based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, in which Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester co-starred; Sidewalks of London, a story about London street entertainers that also featured Vivien Leigh and Rex Harrison; and Jamaica Inn, with Maureen O'Hara and Robert Newton, based on a novel about Cornish smugglers by Daphne du Maurier, and the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Britain before moving to Hollywood in the late 1930s. (Actually, 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.[3]) The films produced were not successful enough, and the company was saved from bankruptcy when RKO Pictures offered Laughton the title role of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Laughton and Pommer had plans to make further films, but the outbreak of World War II, which implied the loss of many foreign markets, meant the end of the company.

Laughton's early success in The Private Life of Henry VIII established him as one of the leading interpreters of the costume and historical drama parts for which he is best remembered (Nero, Henry VIII, Mr. Barrett, Captain Bligh, Rembrandt, Quasimodo and others); he was also type-cast for arrogant, unscrupulous characters (Quasimodo was an exception). In his modern-dress film roles in his 1940s movies his acting style often led to variable results, particularly in a number of roles for which he was not ideally cast.[neutrality is disputed] He played an Italian vineyard owner in California in They Knew What They Wanted (1940); a South Seas patriarch in The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942); an American admiral in Stand by for Action (1942); a butler in Forever and a Day (1943); and an Australian bar-owner in The Man from Down Under (1943).

Still, some of these post-thirties performances could be remarkable when he came across a good script or a perceptive director, such is the case of a cowardly school-master in occupied France in This Land is Mine (1943), by Jean Renoir, in which he engaged himself most actively,[4] in fact, while Renoir was still working in an early script, Laughton would talk to him about Alphonse Daudet's story "The Last Lesson", which suggested to Renoir a relevant scene of the film.[5]. He gave also an interesting portrait of a henpecked husband who eventually murders his wife in The Suspect (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak, who would become a good friend of Laughton.[6] He played sympathetically an impoverished composer-pianist in Tales of Manhattan, and managed to transmit the eagerness of a little man who suddenly gets his only big chance to have success. He would also star in an up-dated version of Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost (1944), and in spite of Wilde's original flavour being mangled in order to turn the story into a piece of wartime propaganda, he was able to recover the irony and weary melancholia of the character as Wilde originally devised him.

Apart from these, he would enjoy his work in two comedies he made with Deanna Durbin, It Started with Eve (1941) and Because of Him (1946). He also seemed to enjoy himself both as a blood-thirsty pirate in Captain Kidd (1945) and as a malevolent judge in Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1948). Laughton was on top form again as a megalomaniac press tycoon in The Big Clock (1948). He had supporting roles as a Nazi in pre-war Paris in Arch of Triumph (1948); as a bishop in The Girl from Manhattan (1948); as a seedy go-between in The Bribe (1949); and a kindly widower in The Blue Veil (1951). He played a Bible-reading pastor in the multi-story A Miracle Can Happen (1947) but his sequence was deleted and replaced with another featuring Dorothy Lamour, and in this form the film was re-titled On Our Merry Way. However, an original print of A Miracle Can Happen was sent abroad for dubbing before the Laughton sequence was deleted and in this form it was shown in Spain under the title Una Encuesta Llamada Milagro.

From the Young Bess trailer (1953).

Laughton made his first colour film in Paris as Inspector Maigret in The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949) and hammed it up enormously[neutrality is disputed] alongside Boris Karloff as a mad French nobleman in a version of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Door in 1951. He was a tramp in O. Henry's Full House (1952) in which he had a one-minute scene with Marilyn Monroe. He became a pirate again, buffoon-style this time, in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). He guest-starred in an episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour on TV which also featured Abbot and Costello and was notable for his delivery of the Gettysburg Address. He played Herod Antipas in Salome (1953, with Rita Hayworth in the title role) and repeated his role as Henry VIII in Young Bess (1953). He returned to England to star in Hobson's Choice (1954) directed by David Lean.

Laughton received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his role as Sir Wilfrid Robarts in the screen version of Agatha Christie's play Witness for the Prosecution (1957).

He played a British admiral in Under Ten Flags (1960) and worked for the only time with Laurence Olivier, in Spartacus (1960) as a wily Roman senator.

His final film was Advise and Consent (1962), for which he received favorable comments for his performance as a southern U.S. Senator (for which accent he studied recordings of Mississippi Senator John Stennis). Laughton worked on the film, which was directed by Otto Preminger, while he was dying from bone cancer.

[edit] The Night of the Hunter

In 1955, Laughton directed (but did not act in) The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish. The film is often cited among today's critics as one of the best of the 1950s,[7] and has been selected by the United States National Film Preservation Board for preservation in the Library of Congress. At the time it of its originally release, 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.[8]

[edit] Theatre

Laughton made his London stage debut in Gogol's The Government Inspector (1926). He appeared in many West End plays in the following few years and his earliest successes on the stage were in roles like Hercule Poirot in Alibi (1928, the first actor to portray Agatha Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot) - a stage adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) and William Marble in Payment Deferred, in which he made his Lyceum Theatre (New York) debut in 1931.

In 1926, he played the role of the criminal Ficsur in the original London production of Ferenc Molnar's Liliom (The play was musicalized in 1945 by Rodgers and Hammerstein as Carousel, where Ficsur became Jigger Craigin, but Laughton never appeared in the musical version). While Laughton is most remembered for his film career, he would keep working for the stage, as when, after the success of The Private Life of Henry VIII he appeared at the Old Vic Theatre in 1933 for a season of classic revivals. He appeared in roles like Macbeth, Lopakin in The Cherry Orchard, Prospero in The Tempest and had a major personal success as Angelo in Measure for Measure, but felt his appearance in the title role of Shakespeare's play Henry VIII was a mistake because audiences compared it with his Academy Award–winning film. At the end of 1936, Laughton played Captain Hook and Elsa Lanchester played Peter Pan in J. M. Barrie's play at the London Palladium.

In America, Laughton worked closely with Bertolt Brecht on a new English version of Brecht's play Galileo. Laughton played the title role at the play's premiere in Los Angeles on 30 July 1947 and later that year in New York. This staging was directed by Joseph Losey.

Laughton had one of his most notable successes in the theatre by directing and playing the Devil in Don Juan in Hell beginning in 1950. The piece is actually the third act sequence from George Bernard Shaw's play Man and Superman, frequently cut from productions to reduce its playing time, consisting of a philosophical debate between Don Juan and the Devil with contributions from Doña Ana and the statue of Ana's father. Laughton conceived the piece as a staged reading and cast Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead (billed as "The First Drama Quartette") in the other roles. It was Boyer instead of Laughton who won a special Tony Award for the performance, possibly because Laughton was well-known for not caring about awards and never attended awards ceremonies when he was nominated for or won one, including the Oscars. The performance, recorded complete by Columbia Masterworks, is now available as an MP3 download.

He directed several plays on Broadway. His most notable box-office success as a director came in 1954, with The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, a full-length stage dramatization by Herman Wouk of the court-martial scene in Wouk's novel The Caine Mutiny. The play, starring Henry Fonda as defense attorney Barney Greenwald, opened the same year as the film starring Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg and Jose Ferrer as Greenwald based on the original novel, but did not affect that film's box-office performance. Laughton also directed a staged reading in 1953 of Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body, a full-length poem about the American Civil War and its aftermath. The production starred Tyrone Power, Raymond Massey (re-creating his film characterizations of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown), and Judith Anderson. Laughton did not appear himself in either of these productions, but John Brown's Body was recorded complete by Columbia Masterworks.

Laughton returned to the London stage in May 1958 to direct and star in Jane Arden's The Party at the New Theatre which also had Elsa Lanchester and Albert Finney in the cast. He made his final theatre appearances as Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream and as King Lear at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959, although failing health resulted in both performances being disappointing, according to some British critics. The fact that he tried an unorthodox approach to the character of Lear, and was resented by some for having become an American citizen may have also something to do with the lukewarm critical reception, as well. His performance as King Lear came in for particular lambasting by critics, with many reviews saying that the portly actor looked more like Old King Cole than Shakespeare's creation, and critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that Laughton's Nick Bottom "...behaves in a manner that has nothing to do with acting, although it perfectly hits off the demeanor of a rapscallion uncle dressed up to entertain the children at a Christmas party". Unfortunately, although a British production of A Midsummer Night's Dream did air on television around this time, it was not the one with Laughton, but rather a 1958 production with Paul Rogers as Bottom.

Although he did not appear in any later plays, he continued to tour the U.S. with staged readings, including a very successful appearance on the Stanford University campus in 1960.

[edit] Recordings

Laughton's voice first appeared on 78-rpm records with the release of five British Regal Zonophone 10-inch discs entitled Voice of the Stars issued annually from 1934 to 1938. These featured short soundtrack snippets from the year's top films. He is heard on all five records in, respectively, The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Mutiny on the Bounty, I, Claudius (curiously, since this film was unfinished and thus never released), and Vessel of Wrath. In 1937 he recorded Lincoln's Gettysburg Address on a 10-inch Columbia 78, having made such an impression with it in Ruggles of Red Gap.

He made several other spoken-word recordings, one of his most famous being his one-man album of Charles Dickens's Mr. Pickwick's Christmas, a twenty-minute version of the Christmas chapter from Dickens's The Pickwick Papers. It was first released by American Decca in 1944 as a four-record 78-rpm set, but was afterwards transferred to LP. It frequently appeared on LP with a companion piece, Decca's 1941 adaptation of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, starring Ronald Colman as Scrooge. Both stories were released together on a Deutsche Grammophon CD for Christmas 2005. In 1943, Laughton recorded a reading of the Nativity story from St. Luke's Gospel, and this was released in 1995 on CD on a Nimbus Records collection entitled Prima Voce: The Spirit of Christmas Past.

A Brunswick/American Decca LP entitled Readings from the Bible featured Laughton reading Garden of Eden, The Fiery Furnace, Noah's Ark, and David and Goliath. It was released in 1958. Laughton had previously included several Bible readings when he played the title role in the film Rembrandt.

In an unusual move regarding a suspense thriller, Laughton was also heard narrating the story on the soundtrack album of the film that he directed, Night of the Hunter, accompanied by the film's score. This album has also been released on CD.

Also, and derived from the movie they made together, a complete radio show (18 June 1945) of The Canterville Ghost was broadcast which featured Laughton and Margaret O'Brien. It has been issued on a Pelican LP.

His wife Elsa Lanchester made three LPs in the 1950s: Songs for a Shuttered Parlour, Songs for a Smoke-Filled Room, and Cockney London. Laughton introduced the various numbers with spoken introductions on the first two and wrote the sleeve notes for the third.

A complete, two-LP Columbia Masterworks recording of the 1950 Broadway staging of George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell was re-released [Saland Publishing] in April, 2009. It is available only as a download from various vendors.

However, none of Laughton's other record albums has been made available on CD as yet. There is an especially notable one still waiting: a two-LP Capitol Records album that was released in 1962, the year of Laughton's death, entitled The Story Teller: A Session with Charles Laughton. Taken from the one-man stage shows that Laughton loved to appear in, it culls together dramatic readings from several sources. Three of the excerpts are broadcast annually on a Minnesota Public Radio Thanksgiving program entitled Giving Thanks. The Story Teller won a Grammy in 1962 for Best Spoken Word Recording.

[edit] Television

It should be noted that Charles Laughton was the first television host on CBS's The Ed Sullivan Show to introduce Elvis Presley to much of America, in 1956. Ed Sullivan had been injured in a car accident and Laughton filled in for him. That same year, Laughton also hosted the first of two programs devoted to classical music entitled "Festival of Music", and telecast on the NBC television anthology series. Producers' Showcase.

In 1959, Laughton appeared in the episode "Eleanor" of the anthology series The Joseph Cotten Show, broadcast over CBS.

One of his last performances was on the early-sixties b&w tv-show "Checkmate", in which he plays a missionary recently returned from China. He threw himself into the role, travelling to China for several months in order to better understand his character.[9]

Some of Laughton's TV appearances have appeared on You Tube, including being a 'mystery guest' on What's My Line.

[edit] Private life

Following Laughton's death in 1962, Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester wrote a book alleging that they never had children because Laughton was actually homosexual.[10] Actress Maureen O'Hara, a friend and co-star of Laughton, claimed that Laughton had told her that his biggest regret was never having children of his own. Laughton also told O'Hara that the reason that he and his wife never had children was due to a botched abortion which Lanchester had early in her career while performing burlesque. Lanchester mentioned in her autobiography Elsa Lanchester Herself having two abortions in her youth (one of them, a child from Charles),[11] though she didn't mention whether this left her incapable of becoming pregnant again.

Lanchester appeared opposite Laughton in several films, including Rembrandt (1936) and The Big Clock (1948). She wittily portrayed Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife, as a dumb-as-a-fox gamine opposite Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII. They both received Academy Award nominations for their performances in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – Laughton for Best Actor, and Lanchester for Best Supporting Actress – but neither won.

In 1950, the couple became American citizens. The cremated remains of Charles Laughton are interred in the Court of Remembrance courtyard, at Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

[edit] Awards and nominations

Laughton won the New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Mutiny on the Bounty and Ruggles of Red Gap in 1953.

Academy Awards

[edit] Filmography

[edit] Theatre

[edit] Actor

first appearance, debut on the London stage (aka The Government Inspector)
police drama, he is the first actor to play detective Hercule Poirot
debut on the New York stage
police drama, Laughton is also the director (American version of Alibi)
drama, Laughton is also the director
comedy, Laughton is also the director
classic tragedy

[edit] Director

police drama, Laughton also acts in the play.
drama, Laughton also acts in the play.
with Judith Anderson
comedy, Laughton also acts in the play
drama, with Henry Fonda, transferred in 1954 to the screen by Edward Dmytryk

[edit] Producer

musical revue, with Harry Belafonte

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ "July 1 Almanac." Retrieved August 12, 2007.
  2. ^
  3. ^ International Movie Data Base.
  4. ^ Lourié, Eugene "my work in films". Lourié, who worked after hours to work in the decors, one found Laughton working after hours to get used to move on the scenery.
  5. ^ Sesonske, Alexander "Jean Renoir in America: 1942, This Land Is Mine"
  6. ^ Dumont, Hervé "Robert Siodmack"
  7. ^ Ebert, Roger (1996), "Review: Night of the Hunter", Chicago Sun-Times, 
  8. ^ Robert Gitt in The Guardian, June 6, 2003 "Charles Laughton directs The Night of the Hunter." Retrieved October 25, 2008.
  9. ^ Booklet/Insert, "The Best of 'Checkmate'", Timeless Media Group
  10. ^ Houseman, John. The Bride of Frankenstein. The New York Times. 17 April 1983. Access date: 12 August 2007.
  11. ^ Lanchester 1983, p. 336

[edit] References

  • Brown, William (1970). Charles Laughton A Pictorial Treasury of his Films. New York: Falcon Enterprises. 
  • Callow, Simon (1988). Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 0802110479. 
  • Higham, Charles (1976). Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0385094035. 
  • Jones, Preston Neal (2004). Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter. New York: Limelight Editions. ISBN 0879109742. 
  • Lanchester, Elsa (1938). Charles Laughton and I. London: Faber and Faber. p. 271. 
  • Lanchester, Elsa (1983). Elsa Lanchester Herself. London: Michael Joseph. ISBN 0718123093. 
  • Lyon, James K. (1980). Bertolt Brecht in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 019502639X. 
  • Parker, John (ed), (1947). Who's Who in the Theatre 10th revised edition. London. pp. 892–3.. 
  • Singer, Kurt (1954). The Charles Laughton Story. London: John C. Winston Company. 
  • Tell Me a Story (1957) and The Fabulous Country (1962). Two literary anthologies selected by Charles Laughton. They contain pieces which were presented by him in his reading tours across America, with written introductions which give some insight about Laughton's thoughts. This selection presents texts from the Bible, Charles Dickens, Thomas Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, and James Thurber to name just a few.
  • Diverse authors, articles in The Stonyhurst magazine: Charles Laughton at Stonyhurst by David Knight (Volume LIV, No. 501, 2005), Charles Laughton. A Talent in Bloom (1899–1931), by Gloria Porta (Volume LIV, No. 502, 2006)