The Duality of Ronald Colman

Ronald Colman, in all his diffident gloryI’ve never met anyone remotely like Ronald Colman (1891-1958). It’s better that way.

He had an impossible to replicate, highly theatrical blend of the lighthearted and the grave that sparkled behind his brown eyes–a quality that seems to have vanished from this world. Oddly, his quiet, often surprisingly modern style, (especially when compared with his screen contemporaries), seems to be overlooked today, whether he is acting in a playful role such as his first talkie,  Bulldog Drummond (1929), playing a disillusioned husband in Cynara (1932),  the touching  amnesiac in Random Harvest (1942) or in his deeply felt part as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1935). His characters, which he recognized were often shadows of an earlier time in British history even as he played them with such style, have an elusive grace  that was often imitated but uniquely his own.

Even when the circumstances of his movies present him in a dramatically incredible situation, on the steppes of Tibet or Devil’s Island or the streets of Paris, his ability to underplay, make his characters react in a believably human manner and still weave the romantic illusions that comprise the plots of many of his movies, along with his dark, gentle good looks, made him an actor worth watching to this day–at least to some of us.  Understandably, some who followed him may have tried to copy his wistful manner and that mellifluous, soft voice. Others tried to affect the lightness of touch that gave his comedic and dramatic roles such panache and depth, though most good actors eventually find their own path more sure footing. Many producers, beginning with Sam Goldwyn, whose relations with Ronald Colman were often chilly, were constantly trying to talk him into appearing in one project or another. When the original couldn’t be had, they settled for trying to craft a shadowy line of actors imported to Hollywood into a second Colman on screen. Wisely, the original, who was among the few stars who became more appealing after sound was introduced seemed to understand his own value almost from the first. Some of those paler imitations of the actor were a very young Laurence Olivier, who was encouraged to grow a Ronald Colman mustache and to ape the actor’s manner and voice for his 1932 appearance in The Yellow Ticket, and, in his numerous roles as a male accessory to several Warner Brothers actresses, George Brent seems to have been a doughy knockoff of Colman, as, at various intervals were Richard Greene, Ray Milland (in the decade before The Lost Weekend), David Niven and Brian Aherne.

Colman understood that as a commodity, scarcity was to his advantage, and he avoided overexposure, preferring to pick and choose his roles selectively. Among the roles that he reportedly turned down were that of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, Maxim de Winter in Rebecca, the lawyer who falls for Alida Valli in The Paradine Case, and the part ultimately played by Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Sadly, the cultural distance between his time and our brash age, as well as his selectivity and the lack of commercial release of many of his better movies on dvd, have all contributed to the general public’s unawareness of his gifted presence. Despite the man’s singular distinctiveness,  the implausible premise in more than one Colman film tries to make the audience believe that his characters had near lookalikes at every turn.

The first film role that tried to have two Ronalds in one movie was The Magic Flame (1928), directed by Henry King and featuring Vilma Banky, who was Colman‘s frequent co-star during the late silent phase of his career. This silent movie offered audiences the chance to see the actor as both a gentle clown and an evil Count, though, since only five reels of the eleven reel film are said to exist in the vaults of the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House in Rochester, we may never know how effectively he pulled off what sounds like a highly romantic dual role. The New York Time‘s Mordaunt Hall offered a tantalizing review of The Magic Flame when it was first released, found here.

Colman as Sydney Carton wondering "What might have been" in "A Tale of Two Cities" (1935)Later in his career, Colman‘s alleged resemblance to Donald Wood in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1935) entertained and moved audiences deeply as a drunken, cynical  barrister, Sydney Carton, whose misspent life is changed by his love for Lucy Manette (Elizabeth Allan).  Finding meaning in his ability to sacrifice himself for Lucy’s husband by using his slight resemblance to Wood to take his place at the guillotine during the French Revolution, his character of Sydney Carton discovers that he has an idealistic, noble nature as well as a base one, wasting his time in alcoholic pursuits that mask his loneliness.  After at least thirteen other versions have been produced of this story, this lavish, carefully rendered version of the classic remains the best, highlighted by the gem of an introspective performance by Colman, (set off so well by the fine characterizations of Blanche Yurka as Madame de Farge, Edna May Oliver as Pross, Basil Rathbone as the Marquis St. Evremonde and Walter Catlett as Barsad, among others). Reportedly an avid reader of Charles Dickens since boyhood, Colman‘s approach to the part of Sidney Carton is imbued with an appreciation for the character’s reflective nature, and Colman pulls off several bravura scenes of a man enmeshed in his own self-destruction, tragically self-aware as he explains when asked the rather staid Charles Darnay (Donald Wood) asks why he drinks: “You are smug, Mr. Darnay, when you ask why people drink, but I’ll tell you. So that they can stand their fellow man better, he chuckled bitterly. “After a few bottles, I might even like you.” After Darnay understandably leaves him in a huff, Colman, gazing into the mirror, asks himself reproachfully “Why treat the fellow like that? Is it because–he shows you what you have fallen away from?What you might have been…?”

Still later, on Christmas Eve, a drunken Carton meets Lucy Manette (Elizabeth Allan) and Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) on their way to church, where he joins them at their invitaion. In the unfamiliar setting, as Elizabeth Allan lights a candle for him, his face, registering doubt, regret and painful self-knowledge. Later, in one of the most effective moments of his film career, he stands in the snow after escorting the pair home, listening to the singing of carolers singing of the “joyful and triumphant” as he broods on his failings, watching the Christmas celebrants retire, one by one to the warmth of a home he has never known. Colman‘s wistful performance, culminating in his choice to do the “far, far better thing” was not even nominated for an Academy Award. Perhaps this was because as an independent actor with some contractual ties to 20th Century Fox at the time, MGM, which produced this excellent version of the novel, did not see any corporate advantage in pushing for his well-deserved nomination. Prior to A Tale of Two Cities the actor may have gotten by in some films with his easy manner and gentlemanly charm, but the fatalism and melancholy indicated his often hidden depth. Despite his later critical success in A Double Life (1947), Sydney Carton may have been his best work and favorite role.

The renunciation scene with Colman and Madeleine Carroll in "The Prisoner of Zenda" (1936)A year later, another role that once again exploited the appealing idea of Ronald Colman‘s duality allowed the actor to give an  equally splendid performance in novelist Anthony Hope’s then venerable 1894 warhorse, The Prisoner of Zenda (1936). Under the underrated John Cromwell‘s direction,  he played lookalike cousins, (an Englishman who had illegitimate ancestral ties to the royal house of a Ruritanian kingdom and a prince in line to ascend to the throne of this fictional European country). Despite all the preposterous episodes and broadly played characterizations inherent in such a piece, (and the frame by frame imitation of the film in 1952 version starring Stewart Granger and James Mason), this version of the story of the two Rudolfs, one a British major and another a king, is not only entertaining, but dramatically credible, thanks to Colman‘s own skeptical approach to the situation. Thanks to the star’s verve, lightness of touch and an unparalleled supporting cast, (especially Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Rupert), the piece becomes gradually more involving, until, inevitably, the renunciation scene between the commoner and the Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll), transforms the cardboard situation into a memorable moment of sharp, tender feeling, grounding the gossamer light film in something real.

Recently,  TCM ran one more rarely seen early talkie film starring Ronald Colman in a dual role in The Masquerader (1933).  His dual role in the film as a promising but troubled member of Parliament and his disaffected journalist cousin seems to have been one of the more challenging of his early sound career, as well a fine warm up for both A Tale of Two Cities and particularly The Prisoner of Zenda.

The Masquerader (1933), the second of three double Colman roles (not counting his split personality in A Double Life (1948)I was curious about this movie, which is based on a popular novel published in 1904 by Katherine C. Thurston, (which you can read here ) and was recently broadcast for the first time on TCM. The film was produced around the time when comments made by the producer precipitated Colman‘s final rift with his longtime employer Sam Goldwyn. After the producer intimated falsely to the press that the actor imbibed several nips prior to playing his more uninhibited scenes for the screen, his star sued the boss for libel, asking for $2 million in damages. Colman, while not a teetotaler, was a professional and understandably resentful over having himself described as a booze hound on or off the set. He broke with his long time boss, for better or worse, after a decade of simmering enmity erupted publicly between the two.  The case was eventually settled out of court, and Colman, true to his word, never worked for Goldwyn again.

Naturally diffident in public, Colman, who, by all reports was a loyal friend and enjoyed a very good time in the company of those he trusted, but the experience of a disastrous first marriage to a woman who dogged him for years and the Goldwyn attempts at publicity made him even more reluctant to step into the public spotlight off screen. Since his services as an independent player were in demand for many years after leaving Goldwyn, I’d say it was the right choice, though the role in The Masquerader certainly gave the actor a prime opportunity to show that Colman had a greater range than had previously been seen in his more restrained appearances.

As a film, The Masquerader, directed by film pioneer Richard Wallace, may belong to that school of British movies beloved by Hollywood in the 1930s, with the stylish upper crust straightening things out in society. Unlike many of the more simplistic of these types of films, this one exposes a part of reality a bit more forthrightly, utilizing alcoholism and drug addiction as well as adultery to tell its story. The film centers around a brilliant politician in Depression torn Britain, Sir John Chilcote, (Colman) who has alienated his party and his loyal wife (Elissa Landi) by his drug and alcohol use.
Colman as Sir John Chilcote, looking rather ragged thanks to his multiple addictions
Ronald Colman, (left), looking a bit ragged as a drug addicted alcoholic.

The film is set in the present day 1930s England, when dire labor and economic issues are desperately in need of remedy, (sound familiar?).  Colman‘s Sir John Chilcote as a brilliant if an erratic member of his party,  begins the film, blowing a chance to address the nation’s problems in a realistically recreated House of Commons. Hellbent on seeking out his next drink and fix,  I thought that Colman realistically played an arrogant, self-pitying man whose life surreptitiously centers around the pursuit of these vices, when he is not appeasing his rather vampish mistress (Juliette Compton), a character who does everything but allow steam to escape from her ears in her portrayal of this dark and decadent–but, truthfully, hardly alluring–lady.  Colman, having a fine time as the drug addicted Sir John Chilcote in "The Masquerader"The character of Chilcote gives Colman a chance to play a rare, thoroughly bad apple, which he performs with a maniacal relish. Colman, who had been accused of overacting by theatrical critics during his early stage career, gives this role an overwrought edge that makes his character insufferable and unsympathetic. The fact that he plays this with such unusual glee makes me wonder if he looked upon the role as a chance to break out of his usual gentle character or if he was acting out his increasing frustration with his work under the aegis of Sam Goldwyn.

As the straight arrow cousin who takes over his responsibilities (and his wife), Colman made the character’s dilemma interesting by emphasizing his constant and frequently comical confusion when trying to find his way around his “own” house, an awkward meeting with his mistress, or in attempting to make a speech in parliament. The comic and the dramatic elements of the movie blended surprisingly well, and, as a viewer, I found myself amused and moved by the end of the 75 year old entertainment, which, in addition to Colman in a dual role also features the always artful work of cinematographer Gregg Toland.

In one of those coincidences that only seem to happen in novels and movies of the period, while wandering homeward in a dense fog, a cousin of Sir John, also played by Colman, accosts Chilcote on a foggy street, chiding him for his disgraceful lack of self-discipline in public at a moment of national crisis, setting off a chain of events that lead to Sir John holing up in a rooming house and his cousin John Loder (not the bland actor of that period,  but Ronnie in split screen), taking his place splendidly, warming the hearts of his political cronies (led by and officious David Torrance) and winning over Elissa Landi‘s love once more by his gentle sobriety.

Elissa Landi around the time of "The Masquerader" (1933)Landi is perhaps best remembered for her role as the professional virgin in De Mille’s curious blend of the prurient and the overly reverent in The Sign of the Cross, the slightly cracked cousin of Myrna Loy in  After the Thin Man, and the beloved of Robert Donat in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). She could play her aristocratic role in The Masquerader with a refined aplomb that may have come naturally to her since she is rumored to be either the secret child of Empress Elizabeth (Sissi) of Austria or a direct descendant of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, (albeit, on the wrong side of the blanket either way). In her career in Hollywood, Landi‘s lady-like restraint on screen seems to have kept her from becoming a true star, and she eventually became a novelist and poet with many books published before her early death in 1948.

As the wronged wife who falls in love–she thinks–with her husband once again after the good Ronald Colman fills in for her actual tosspot hubby, she has some scenes of fine tenderness, though, imo, Colman could play a scene with a log and make it seem a romantic revelation of nuanced feeling to most flesh and blood viewers.

Next to Colman‘s tour de force role, the work of the familiar character actor, Halliwell Hobbes, as the longtime retainer of RC‘s upper class family was exceptionally good, especially in the scenes in which he tries to protect his dissipated “master” from himself, chiding him and reminding him quite forcefully that he will not be fired since his service is part of a proud family heritage. Truthfully, the most engaging relationship in the film is between Colman and Hobbes. As the dissolute character of John Loder (no relation to the bland secondary leading man of the period), Colman berates and relies on his man Brock (Hobbes). As his sober, if disaffected cousin who impersonates the M.P., Colman again relies on Hobbes for his sound guidance. Ocasionally, during The Masquerader I wished that Brock would not try so hard to maintain  the status quo of a class ridden society, but that’s probably the anarchic American streak in me. Halliwell Hobbes, who also pursued a fifty year theatrical career, spent much of his time on screen as a butler or enabler of some sort for the upper classes, such as a rule-bound clergyman in Waterloo Bridge (1940) or a doctor with some bad news for the patient, as he did opposite Colman again in The Light That Failed (1939). My favorite role for this character actor may have been Mr. DePinna in You Can’t Take It With You (1938). He played (in a perfectly straight manner eschewing all comedic mugging), the role of one of the blithe spirits who produced dynamite in the basement of the Vanderhof’s house. You can usually spot him, because Hobbes is the guy with the pet raven on his shoulder and the bewildered expression.
Halliwell Hobbes and Ronald Colman as dissipated master and far too loyal servant in "The Masquerader"I realize that to our modern ears most of the sort of roles that Halliwell Hobbes played sound obsequious and self-abnegating, but the way that Hobbes plays the character in The Masquerader denies any trace of the subservient. He is probably the most clear-eyed character in the entire production, seeing through the hypocrisy and the humbug of politics as well as the exceedingly tangled romantic lives of all the other characters while doing his duty with crisp efficiency and underlying concern for his ungrateful lord.

Refusing to give up on his depraved charge, Hobbes attends Sir John as his health falters, protecting him from himself, even while he props up the illusion of his public image, by encouraging his cousin to keep on playing Sir John. Btw, the drug addiction of Sir John Chilcote’s character is treated as a sign of moral weakness, probably brought on by his closeness to the unsavory mistress who has abetted his vice. Gradually, it becomes clear in the film that Colman‘s Sir John is hopelessly addicted to what the filmmakers, in their discretion, imply might be laudanum or might be morphine. The depiction of the outcome of this pastime is surprisingly raw for a movie of the period, though this would become harder to depict on American screens with this degree of frankness within a short time after this movie was made.

The fact that this movie was made in 1933, a year before the dead hand of the Production Code blocked all realistic (and entertaining) depictions of alleged negative human behavior on screen probably allowed Goldwyn to incorporate themes of real and implied adultery, political unrest among the working class, and addiction into this brisk 80 minute film. Since TCM was able to acquire this rare film along with such other Colman seldom broadcast movies such as Cynara in the last year for broadcast, and films such as The Prisoner of Zenda are finally being issued on dvd in recent years, I’m hoping that this is an indication of a possible renewal of interest in Ronald Colman‘s movies.

If you’d like to read a very thorough description of this film scene by scene a friend, writing under the nomme de internet of “Ann Harding” has provided one in her dual language site along with many fine screen captures from this film. You might want to visit the portion of this  beautifully composed site discussing this movie, found here.  It was a pleasure to discover a new film featuring a favorite actor. The Masquerader (1933) is only available commercially on vhs (if you can find one) in the U.S. and the U.K.

Mr. Colman being naughty, courtesy of my friend, "Ann Harding" at http://annhardingstreasures.blogspot.com/

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Sources:
Aherne, Brian, A Proper Job, Houghton Mifflin, 1969.
Morley, Sheridan, Tales From the Hollywood Raj, The Viking Press, 1983.
Smith, R. Dixon, Ronald Colman, Gentleman of the Cinema, McFarland and Company, 1991.

38 Responses The Duality of Ronald Colman
Posted By Patricia : December 31, 2008 7:53 pm

No one on screen ever fell in love like Ronald Colman. Oh, to have someone look at me like as he gazes at Madeleine Carroll or Greer Garson!

Posted By Patricia : December 31, 2008 7:53 pm

No one on screen ever fell in love like Ronald Colman. Oh, to have someone look at me like as he gazes at Madeleine Carroll or Greer Garson!

Posted By jbl : December 31, 2008 9:43 pm

I shall certainly look forward to seeing THE MASQUERADER when it returns to TCM.

You have written about one of my favorite actors to listen to in movies. Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall have, I believe, the best speaking voices in British movies. Though with a substantially different sound, Basil Rathbone and Henry Daniell are also at the top of my list, just after Colman and Marshall. And I find I can’t ignore James Mason either.

We have some wonderful American voices as well, such as James Earl Jones and Gregory Peck, but I think the first four British actors I named above are best of all.

Posted By jbl : December 31, 2008 9:43 pm

I shall certainly look forward to seeing THE MASQUERADER when it returns to TCM.

You have written about one of my favorite actors to listen to in movies. Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall have, I believe, the best speaking voices in British movies. Though with a substantially different sound, Basil Rathbone and Henry Daniell are also at the top of my list, just after Colman and Marshall. And I find I can’t ignore James Mason either.

We have some wonderful American voices as well, such as James Earl Jones and Gregory Peck, but I think the first four British actors I named above are best of all.

Posted By Jenni : January 1, 2009 11:18 am

Wonderful post! I love Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and feel that the one starring Mr. Coleman, is indeed the best version ever filmed. I think I recall from reading a book about David Selznick, that he produced this film at MGM and early in his career as a producer, he favored making film versions of books he had enjoyed reading in his youth.

Posted By Jenni : January 1, 2009 11:18 am

Wonderful post! I love Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, and feel that the one starring Mr. Coleman, is indeed the best version ever filmed. I think I recall from reading a book about David Selznick, that he produced this film at MGM and early in his career as a producer, he favored making film versions of books he had enjoyed reading in his youth.

Posted By Ben : January 1, 2009 11:19 am

While we are extolling the wonderful screen presence of Ronald Colman….how about re-running his wonderful movie, Yolanda and the Thief…with Marlene Dietrich too.

Posted By Ben : January 1, 2009 11:19 am

While we are extolling the wonderful screen presence of Ronald Colman….how about re-running his wonderful movie, Yolanda and the Thief…with Marlene Dietrich too.

Posted By Ben : January 1, 2009 11:28 am

Sorry I meant “Kismet” +– (seeing Ronald Colman as the King of Beggars pursuing Marlena Dietrich is a real hoot) — not “Yolanda and the Thief”….also would love to see “Yoland and the Thief” too — another wonderful, amusing and delectable romp.

Posted By Ben : January 1, 2009 11:28 am

Sorry I meant “Kismet” +– (seeing Ronald Colman as the King of Beggars pursuing Marlena Dietrich is a real hoot) — not “Yolanda and the Thief”….also would love to see “Yoland and the Thief” too — another wonderful, amusing and delectable romp.

Posted By moirafinnie : January 1, 2009 1:10 pm

Hi Patricia,
From what I’ve read, few actresses who ever worked with Colman found him less than ideal to play a scene with, despite his general shyness on the set. His elusiveness and the quality of his acting seems to have lent the scenes with ladies such as Madeleine Carroll a lovely resonance. Rosalind Russell, who appeared in the unfortunately obscure, outlandishly plotted Under Two Flags (1936) with RC, caused multiple retakes in a romantic scene with him. Thinking that she may have offended her somewhat distant co-star in some way, she gargled with everything from Listerine to Arpege, hoping that he’d kiss her in character. Though insisting that they redo the action until Colman kissed her on the lips, it was an earlier take that director Frank Lloyd used, wisely recognizing the importance of camera angles and lighting more than the mood of the actors. Roz, who acknowledged later that Colman “knew cameras the way that Werner Von Braun knew rockets” learned to follow the experienced RC‘s lead for the rest of the movie.
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Hi Jb1,
I agree about the quality of the voices of such actors as Colman, Marshall, Rathbone and the others, as well as some actors today. I’d add Morgan Freeman, Russell Crowe and Christopher Plummer to the list of great voices around today–though the words so seldom match the quality of their instrument, it is often an overlooked aspect of their acting.
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Oh, Jenni,
I suspect that if Selznick were still with us, he’d be working on an adaptation of another classic. I sometimes think that the most satisfying films he did were those that were drawn from the books he grew up on, such as David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities.
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No problem, Ben.

I was trying to discern how you could be thinking of Fred Astaire and Ronald Colman simultaneously. Kismet (1944), while wildly over the Technicolor top, (especially in Dietrich‘s bizarre hair and costuming), at least provided Colman with another opportunity to play the streetwise rascal with a sense of humor–complete with the honeyed words and sleight of hand of a natural con man–as he did in the wonderfully done story (thanks to Preston Sturges’ script) of Francois Villon in the rarely seen If I Were King (1937). I hope that you’ll have a chance to see the latter someday if you haven’t seen it before. It is one of Colman’s best.
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Thank you for each of your comments.

Posted By moirafinnie : January 1, 2009 1:10 pm

Hi Patricia,
From what I’ve read, few actresses who ever worked with Colman found him less than ideal to play a scene with, despite his general shyness on the set. His elusiveness and the quality of his acting seems to have lent the scenes with ladies such as Madeleine Carroll a lovely resonance. Rosalind Russell, who appeared in the unfortunately obscure, outlandishly plotted Under Two Flags (1936) with RC, caused multiple retakes in a romantic scene with him. Thinking that she may have offended her somewhat distant co-star in some way, she gargled with everything from Listerine to Arpege, hoping that he’d kiss her in character. Though insisting that they redo the action until Colman kissed her on the lips, it was an earlier take that director Frank Lloyd used, wisely recognizing the importance of camera angles and lighting more than the mood of the actors. Roz, who acknowledged later that Colman “knew cameras the way that Werner Von Braun knew rockets” learned to follow the experienced RC‘s lead for the rest of the movie.
______________________________
Hi Jb1,
I agree about the quality of the voices of such actors as Colman, Marshall, Rathbone and the others, as well as some actors today. I’d add Morgan Freeman, Russell Crowe and Christopher Plummer to the list of great voices around today–though the words so seldom match the quality of their instrument, it is often an overlooked aspect of their acting.
______________________________
Oh, Jenni,
I suspect that if Selznick were still with us, he’d be working on an adaptation of another classic. I sometimes think that the most satisfying films he did were those that were drawn from the books he grew up on, such as David Copperfield, and A Tale of Two Cities.
______________________________

No problem, Ben.

I was trying to discern how you could be thinking of Fred Astaire and Ronald Colman simultaneously. Kismet (1944), while wildly over the Technicolor top, (especially in Dietrich‘s bizarre hair and costuming), at least provided Colman with another opportunity to play the streetwise rascal with a sense of humor–complete with the honeyed words and sleight of hand of a natural con man–as he did in the wonderfully done story (thanks to Preston Sturges’ script) of Francois Villon in the rarely seen If I Were King (1937). I hope that you’ll have a chance to see the latter someday if you haven’t seen it before. It is one of Colman’s best.
______________________________

Thank you for each of your comments.

Posted By Al Lowe : January 1, 2009 1:43 pm

I like Colman and have enjoyed his performances in Lost Horizon, Random Harvest and If I Were King. I missed Tale of Two Cities and would like to see The Masquerader.

Good post, by the way.

Moirafinnie, you mentioned that few actresses found Colman less than ideal to act with. I know one. And I know how good you are. I know you know this one too.

Ida Lupino, who played with Colman in The Light That Failed, could not have relished the experience.
In the PBS TV series The Men Who Made the Movies the film’s director, William Wellman, said Colman had favored another actress to play the part. He and Wellman went to the Paramount studio boss who sided with Wellman.

Colman was famous for not only knowing his own lines but knowing the whole script. During the filming of Lupino’s big scene Colman muffed his lines. Wellman gave him the benefit of the doubt, tried filming the scene again and Colman blew it again.

Wellman gave the company a ten minute break, took Colman to another set and told him, “You got a lovely face…But if you don’t behave yourself, I’m going to make a character man out of you.” When they filmed the scene again it went smoothly.

I hope TCM also shows The Light That Failed.

Posted By Al Lowe : January 1, 2009 1:43 pm

I like Colman and have enjoyed his performances in Lost Horizon, Random Harvest and If I Were King. I missed Tale of Two Cities and would like to see The Masquerader.

Good post, by the way.

Moirafinnie, you mentioned that few actresses found Colman less than ideal to act with. I know one. And I know how good you are. I know you know this one too.

Ida Lupino, who played with Colman in The Light That Failed, could not have relished the experience.
In the PBS TV series The Men Who Made the Movies the film’s director, William Wellman, said Colman had favored another actress to play the part. He and Wellman went to the Paramount studio boss who sided with Wellman.

Colman was famous for not only knowing his own lines but knowing the whole script. During the filming of Lupino’s big scene Colman muffed his lines. Wellman gave him the benefit of the doubt, tried filming the scene again and Colman blew it again.

Wellman gave the company a ten minute break, took Colman to another set and told him, “You got a lovely face…But if you don’t behave yourself, I’m going to make a character man out of you.” When they filmed the scene again it went smoothly.

I hope TCM also shows The Light That Failed.

Posted By Medusa : January 1, 2009 2:08 pm

I also love that he and his wife Benita Hume trod the boards as stars of their own radio show “The Halls of Ivy” in the early 1950s — episodes are available to listen to here: http://www.archive.org/details/hallsofivyOTRKIBm

There’s even an episode with Jack Benny as a guest!

Colman obviously had a voice MADE for radio! :-)

Posted By Medusa : January 1, 2009 2:08 pm

I also love that he and his wife Benita Hume trod the boards as stars of their own radio show “The Halls of Ivy” in the early 1950s — episodes are available to listen to here: http://www.archive.org/details/hallsofivyOTRKIBm

There’s even an episode with Jack Benny as a guest!

Colman obviously had a voice MADE for radio! :-)

Posted By moirafinnie : January 1, 2009 2:10 pm

Hi Al,
Good point about The Light That Failed, though Colman and Lupino were not required to have anything like a love scene, (more like a mutual “hate scene”!). Reportedly, most sources say that Colman favored Vivien Leigh for the role in The Light That Failed (1939), one of the best and least seen of Colman‘s films, (though it’s always puzzled me that Walter Huston seems quite wasted in his “friend of the hero” role in the touching Kipling story of an artist who is gradually going blind).

One note to remember is that according to both Wellman and Lupino, her unexpectedly vivid portrayal of the cockney slut who modeled for Colman‘s artist was not rehearsed with the other actors until the day of the shoot. Wellman, who was bowled over by the performance that she put on for him in his office and kept her away from the other actors, perhaps in part to manipulate the others into reacting to her in a fresh way, (even though that may have been anathema to Colman’s often careful preparations for his scenes). So, aside from wishing that Leigh could have played the part, some of the distance between Lupino and Colman may have been deliberately fostered by the director as well.

Colman‘s character, who did not have any love for Lupino‘s harridan artist model; was never in a love scene with her, but was, in a sense, her tormentor, requiring her to pose for long hours. The enmity between the pair was an asset for that scene and was, by director Wellman‘s admission, manipulated in part by him, according to his memoir, “A Short Time For Insanity”. Wellman later wrote that “I was a wild guy. I’m housetrained now and have been for some years; however, the time during which I directed Light was my wildest time of all. A lot of people didn’t want to work for me, nor did I want to work with them.

“Now we come to Mr. Colman. He and I didn’t like each other from the very start. When they called me in and said they wanted to do this film with him, I said I loved the idea of doing Light but I though Wellman and Colman wasn’t such a good idea…I was a crazy guy, and he was very much the gentleman…he proved very hard to know.”

In any case, I think that Colman‘s frantic intensity in that scene may have been fed by his contretemps with the director and an honest reaction to Ida‘s pulling out all the stops. After the incident that you referred to with Lupino, the actress became a frequent guest at the home of Colman and his wife Benita Hume and they were friends from then on, and very active in British war relief efforts together.

Hi Medusa:
Thanks for adding the link to the Colman‘s Halls of Ivy, a radio show that they performed on together and briefly appeared on television in 1954 in the roles. You’re so right about his voice being MADE for radio.

You can listen to more Colman radio appearances at the link below too, including an aural version of A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol! I found that listening to some of his radio programs the skillful color and nuanced shading that he gave words was especially noticeable, bringing his characters to life in a way that is sometimes sharper than it seems in the movies. Thanks for adding the link, Medusa!

Btw, Happy New Year to All!
http://www.classicmoviefavorites.com/colman/ivy.html

Posted By moirafinnie : January 1, 2009 2:10 pm

Hi Al,
Good point about The Light That Failed, though Colman and Lupino were not required to have anything like a love scene, (more like a mutual “hate scene”!). Reportedly, most sources say that Colman favored Vivien Leigh for the role in The Light That Failed (1939), one of the best and least seen of Colman‘s films, (though it’s always puzzled me that Walter Huston seems quite wasted in his “friend of the hero” role in the touching Kipling story of an artist who is gradually going blind).

One note to remember is that according to both Wellman and Lupino, her unexpectedly vivid portrayal of the cockney slut who modeled for Colman‘s artist was not rehearsed with the other actors until the day of the shoot. Wellman, who was bowled over by the performance that she put on for him in his office and kept her away from the other actors, perhaps in part to manipulate the others into reacting to her in a fresh way, (even though that may have been anathema to Colman’s often careful preparations for his scenes). So, aside from wishing that Leigh could have played the part, some of the distance between Lupino and Colman may have been deliberately fostered by the director as well.

Colman‘s character, who did not have any love for Lupino‘s harridan artist model; was never in a love scene with her, but was, in a sense, her tormentor, requiring her to pose for long hours. The enmity between the pair was an asset for that scene and was, by director Wellman‘s admission, manipulated in part by him, according to his memoir, “A Short Time For Insanity”. Wellman later wrote that “I was a wild guy. I’m housetrained now and have been for some years; however, the time during which I directed Light was my wildest time of all. A lot of people didn’t want to work for me, nor did I want to work with them.

“Now we come to Mr. Colman. He and I didn’t like each other from the very start. When they called me in and said they wanted to do this film with him, I said I loved the idea of doing Light but I though Wellman and Colman wasn’t such a good idea…I was a crazy guy, and he was very much the gentleman…he proved very hard to know.”

In any case, I think that Colman‘s frantic intensity in that scene may have been fed by his contretemps with the director and an honest reaction to Ida‘s pulling out all the stops. After the incident that you referred to with Lupino, the actress became a frequent guest at the home of Colman and his wife Benita Hume and they were friends from then on, and very active in British war relief efforts together.

Hi Medusa:
Thanks for adding the link to the Colman‘s Halls of Ivy, a radio show that they performed on together and briefly appeared on television in 1954 in the roles. You’re so right about his voice being MADE for radio.

You can listen to more Colman radio appearances at the link below too, including an aural version of A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol! I found that listening to some of his radio programs the skillful color and nuanced shading that he gave words was especially noticeable, bringing his characters to life in a way that is sometimes sharper than it seems in the movies. Thanks for adding the link, Medusa!

Btw, Happy New Year to All!
http://www.classicmoviefavorites.com/colman/ivy.html

Posted By Al Lowe : January 1, 2009 5:10 pm

It’s funny that you should bring up Halls of Ivy.

After the incident involving Lupino, Wellman and Colman, Halls of Ivy featured a character who was a bad guy. His name was Wellman.

Moriafinnie, with all due respect – which, of course, you have earned – I think that we are going to have to agree to disagree. I know I sound like Sidney Falco buttering up J.J. Hunsecker or one of the flunkies schmoozing the Godfather but I am sincere.

Wellman made his comments, which were pretty much the way I reported them, for a PBS show and a book that was written by Richard Schickel and published later.
Wellman said he made allowances that maybe Colman was blown away by Lupino and so quickly did a second take and again Colman forgot his lines. The reason Wellman thought it was on purpose was “Colman is like Stanwyck. She doesn’t know only her own part but she knows the whole script. Got one of those retentive memories that is absolutely fantastic.”

Colman was one of the best loved actors in Hollywood and it doesn’t surprise me that he later made friends with Lupino and even with Wellman. But he was a human being and not a perfect person. I have wondered how many of the great stars will be allowed to enter the gates of Heaven. Not many – unless God grades on a curve and that is what we are all hoping for.

I have written many articles as a free lance newspaper reporter. And it never surprises me when people try to change what they originally said because of reactions from others. Sienna Miller did some filming in Pittsburgh and referred to the city by a terrible nickname in an interview for a magazine (Rolling Stone, I think). She tried later to say it was out of context. How can it possibly be out of context?

So it wouldn’t surprise me if Wellman tried to change his story later.

I believe I started responding to the Morlocks last January and I have enjoyed myself and have appreciated the great writing you all do.

Yes. Happy Holidays to everybody!

Posted By Al Lowe : January 1, 2009 5:10 pm

It’s funny that you should bring up Halls of Ivy.

After the incident involving Lupino, Wellman and Colman, Halls of Ivy featured a character who was a bad guy. His name was Wellman.

Moriafinnie, with all due respect – which, of course, you have earned – I think that we are going to have to agree to disagree. I know I sound like Sidney Falco buttering up J.J. Hunsecker or one of the flunkies schmoozing the Godfather but I am sincere.

Wellman made his comments, which were pretty much the way I reported them, for a PBS show and a book that was written by Richard Schickel and published later.
Wellman said he made allowances that maybe Colman was blown away by Lupino and so quickly did a second take and again Colman forgot his lines. The reason Wellman thought it was on purpose was “Colman is like Stanwyck. She doesn’t know only her own part but she knows the whole script. Got one of those retentive memories that is absolutely fantastic.”

Colman was one of the best loved actors in Hollywood and it doesn’t surprise me that he later made friends with Lupino and even with Wellman. But he was a human being and not a perfect person. I have wondered how many of the great stars will be allowed to enter the gates of Heaven. Not many – unless God grades on a curve and that is what we are all hoping for.

I have written many articles as a free lance newspaper reporter. And it never surprises me when people try to change what they originally said because of reactions from others. Sienna Miller did some filming in Pittsburgh and referred to the city by a terrible nickname in an interview for a magazine (Rolling Stone, I think). She tried later to say it was out of context. How can it possibly be out of context?

So it wouldn’t surprise me if Wellman tried to change his story later.

I believe I started responding to the Morlocks last January and I have enjoyed myself and have appreciated the great writing you all do.

Yes. Happy Holidays to everybody!

Posted By kittypackard : January 2, 2009 7:17 pm

Exquisite post!

Posted By kittypackard : January 2, 2009 7:17 pm

Exquisite post!

Posted By moirafinnie : January 3, 2009 8:00 am

Oh, Al,
I am sorry if I gave the impression that I thought Colman was “a perfect person”–far from it. Nor do I think we are really that different in our points of view.

Essentially, I was trying to explain that I believed, based on my interpretation of Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies segment on Wellman and the director’s own autobiography, that Wild Bill–in his impatience with Colman’s “apparent forgetting” of his lines–was using the coolness between Colman and Lupino to evoke a better performance from both. Sorry if I didn’t express it clearly.

Posted By moirafinnie : January 3, 2009 8:00 am

Oh, Al,
I am sorry if I gave the impression that I thought Colman was “a perfect person”–far from it. Nor do I think we are really that different in our points of view.

Essentially, I was trying to explain that I believed, based on my interpretation of Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies segment on Wellman and the director’s own autobiography, that Wild Bill–in his impatience with Colman’s “apparent forgetting” of his lines–was using the coolness between Colman and Lupino to evoke a better performance from both. Sorry if I didn’t express it clearly.

Posted By Suzi Doll : January 3, 2009 3:28 pm

Interesting that you should call this post “The Duality of Ronald Colman,” because my favorite Colman movie is A DOUBLE LIFE in which he plays an actor who can’t separate his onstage characters from his own personality. Colman is excellent in it. I have not seen the movie in years; the one and only time I saw it was when I showed it on 16mm film in one of my classes. I picked it at random from a catalogue because I had never seen it and knew nothing about it — that way I could see it as my students saw it. It turned out to be the class’s favorite film of the semester, and none of them had ever heard of Colman prior to seeing the film. Thanks for calling attention to a star who deserves a DVD package.

Posted By Suzi Doll : January 3, 2009 3:28 pm

Interesting that you should call this post “The Duality of Ronald Colman,” because my favorite Colman movie is A DOUBLE LIFE in which he plays an actor who can’t separate his onstage characters from his own personality. Colman is excellent in it. I have not seen the movie in years; the one and only time I saw it was when I showed it on 16mm film in one of my classes. I picked it at random from a catalogue because I had never seen it and knew nothing about it — that way I could see it as my students saw it. It turned out to be the class’s favorite film of the semester, and none of them had ever heard of Colman prior to seeing the film. Thanks for calling attention to a star who deserves a DVD package.

Posted By Stephen : January 5, 2009 7:28 am

I’ll just put in my plug for 1934′s Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, possibly the best one in the series, and also the hardest to see (probably due to some rights issue). It’s the perfect template for an action/adventure/mystery with great pacing and Coleman in fine light-hearted form. It’d be nice to see this one resurface in some form.

Posted By Stephen : January 5, 2009 7:28 am

I’ll just put in my plug for 1934′s Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back, possibly the best one in the series, and also the hardest to see (probably due to some rights issue). It’s the perfect template for an action/adventure/mystery with great pacing and Coleman in fine light-hearted form. It’d be nice to see this one resurface in some form.

Posted By Andrew : January 5, 2009 10:12 am

Great topic for a subject worthy of a revival of interest. Ronald Colman’s Bulldog Drummond (1929) was great fun, since he resolutely refused to accept the idea that the melodrama should be played straight. I’m not a particular fan of the overall drama of A Double Life however. I think Colman was great, (particularly his glassy-eyed last moment on screen), but it seemed unnecessarily lugubrious and had a bit too much of that Freudian air that permeated Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s. I suspect that Ronald Colman was awarded an Oscar for that role in recognition of the body of work he’d created over three decades.

Posted By Andrew : January 5, 2009 10:12 am

Great topic for a subject worthy of a revival of interest. Ronald Colman’s Bulldog Drummond (1929) was great fun, since he resolutely refused to accept the idea that the melodrama should be played straight. I’m not a particular fan of the overall drama of A Double Life however. I think Colman was great, (particularly his glassy-eyed last moment on screen), but it seemed unnecessarily lugubrious and had a bit too much of that Freudian air that permeated Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s. I suspect that Ronald Colman was awarded an Oscar for that role in recognition of the body of work he’d created over three decades.

Posted By JC(NYC) : April 26, 2009 1:42 am

Query: Who is speaking the first line of this article: “I’ve never met anyone like Ronald Coleman.”?

Thank you.

Posted By JC(NYC) : April 26, 2009 1:42 am

Query: Who is speaking the first line of this article: “I’ve never met anyone like Ronald Coleman.”?

Thank you.

Posted By moirafinnie : April 27, 2009 10:03 am

JC asked:
Query: Who is speaking the first line of this article: “I’ve never met anyone like Ronald Coleman.”?

I am speaking as the author of this piece.

Posted By moirafinnie : April 27, 2009 10:03 am

JC asked:
Query: Who is speaking the first line of this article: “I’ve never met anyone like Ronald Coleman.”?

I am speaking as the author of this piece.

Posted By TED JOHNSON : February 18, 2011 6:31 pm

i WOULD LOVE TO SEE THE MASQUERADER WITH RONALD COLEMaN MADE IN 1933. iT HAS THE CAR i HAD IN 1947.a 1928 HISPANO-SUIZA THAT WAS MADE FOR gRACE MOORE.

Posted By TED JOHNSON : February 18, 2011 6:31 pm

i WOULD LOVE TO SEE THE MASQUERADER WITH RONALD COLEMaN MADE IN 1933. iT HAS THE CAR i HAD IN 1947.a 1928 HISPANO-SUIZA THAT WAS MADE FOR gRACE MOORE.

Posted By Sheila Bryans : March 29, 2016 10:42 am

Moira Finnie, I wanted to say how much I appreciated your blog. I have a huge interest in Colman and am greatly saddened that he is overlooked. He was a highly influential figure in his day. I was interested in the comments re:’The Light That Failed’ Wellman’s working method of the time and Lupino’s performance. I am unsurprised Colman, and no doubt the rest of the cast, were thrown off focus when the director allows a leading cast member to work with an established, prepared cast late on, keeping Lupino away from the rest could only lead to an unhappy working enviroment, Fluffing lines is unsurprising. I say this having worked in theatre and tv for 14 years, my sympathies are with Colman, very difficult to work under those conditions. In fact Colman wanted Vivian Leigh for the Lupino role. She got a better deal with Scarlett. There is real interest in Colman on the web I hope it continues to broaden. Again many thanks for your excellent appraisal.

Posted By Gail : September 15, 2017 4:45 pm

Mr. Colman was and always will be my most favorite actor.

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