Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 4, 2013
Tonight on TCM, The Ruggles of Red Gap plays at eight as a part of Mary Boland’s Summer Under the Stars Day. Boland was a great character actress, to be sure, but the real reason I mention The Ruggles of Red Gap is because of Charles Laughton, an artist so talented it’s almost hard to believe. He was equally at home as a villain, a hero, a historical figure, a ghost, a cobbler, a barrister or any other number of roles he mastered, in both supporting and lead roles, including a single turn as director so extraordinary it outdoes the entire oeuvre of most other directors. If Charles Laughton hadn’t existed, we would have needed to invent him.
One of the first early thirties movie I ever saw was The Private Life of Henry VIII, directed by Alexander Korda and released in 1933. It starred Laughton, of course, as the infamous King Henry VIII and he took home Best Actor for his portrayal. His performance as Henry set the standard for the look and feel of Henry portrayed onscreen ever since. Even when someone like Robert Shaw redefined the role with his brilliant and energetic portrayal in A Man for all Seasons, it was Laughton’s performance that still defined the man. For most actors so definitively playing a role such Henry VIII, it would probably be a short career. How much more can you do with an actor that looks and fits the part of Henry VIII? Well, when it’s Charles Laughton, the answer is “as much as you can.”
In the very same year he gave an even better performance in an even better movie, The Island of Lost Souls, but since it bore the stigma of horror/sci-fi, it didn’t get him as far as the historical epic. As Doctor Moreau, Laughton portrays a mad man who’s obsessed with perfecting his human-animal hybrids on a lonely island where he can carry out his horrifying surgeries. What made Laughton so good in the role of a megalomaniacal doctor was that Laughton didn’t shoot for the first row, he shot for the rafters and usually hit the target perfectly. There’s a lot more talent to hamming it up than most people understand and Laughton had a talent for it unlike most other actors I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t an average ham, he was a honey-glazed, clove-stuffed prize ham with a pineapple slice and a cherry on top. And again, that’s not an insult, it’s a compliment. Most actors who try to ham it up come off badly but Laughton made it big and bold and exciting. He twirled his metaphorical mustache as a villain time and time again and, somehow, it always seemed original.
But that’s not to say he always hammed it up. He didn’t. The point is, when he wanted to, he could ham it up better than anyone but when he wanted to pull it back, he could, masterfully. I think my favorite performances of Laughton run the gamut from his early work to his late work, from the big to the small.
One performance I never saw until a few years ago was his great turn in White Woman with Carole Lombard and Charles Bickford. I took it in at the AFI and was endlessly entertained by Laughton’s antics. His character, Horace Prin, is not only a selfish, abusive jerk but he actually has a big bushy mustache and Laughton actually does twirl it. He’s at odds with Lombard and Bickford on a ship on a jungle river headed to a rubber plantation he runs. He blackmails everyone who slaves for him and has betrayers killed without remorse. He’s a vicious guy and yet very likeable, only because it’s Laughton.
After 1933, and his newfound fame thanks to Oscar, Laughton got bigger and better parts, the kind so famous everyone knows them: Javerts in Les Miserables, Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The first two cemented his expertise as the heavy and the third proved he could play sympathetic beautifully. But there were so many other performances in Laughton’s career where he was neither heavy nor ham. Films like The Canterville Ghost and Hobson’s Choice are two favorites where Laughton plays men conflicted by choices in their lives that brand them as cowards or curmudgeons.
In The Canterville Ghost, he’s a knight who fled from a challenge on the field of honor only to be bricked into his hiding place in his father’s castle and cursed to never rest until another Canterville performs bravely for him. His cowardice follows him through the ages until he’s finally befriended by a little girl and a distant relative who eventually frees him from his ghostly bondage. Laughton is sweet and charming throughout and the film is an entertaining romp.
Later performances, like Witness for the Prosecution and Advise and Consent saw Laughton take on serious portrayals that played more sedately next to the earlier work from the thirties and forties while still being the most charismatic performances in their respective movies by far. By the end, it was clear that his Oscar for The Private Life of Henry VIII was either premature, given how much he did after that outweighs it, or a preemptive career Oscar where the Academy somehow knew what was coming and decided to just get the Oscar out of the way.
There really aren’t many actors who had the same type of career as Laughton and when, in the fifties, he tired of the pace of acting and wanted to try his hand behind the camera, he transformed James Agee’s screenplay for The Night of the Hunter into a beautiful, haunting and terrifying journey through childhood. It really is a masterpiece of filmmaking so filled with stylistic choices that ran counter to what was going on in film in 1955 that it, sadly, had little to no impact on the cinematic landscape and left Laughton disappointed and discouraged.
He shouldn’t have been. It’s a great film from a great director who just happened to direct only one film. And he was a great actor with a knack for comedy, drama and practically every other genre there is that fits into those two all-encompassing genres. He took the roles he wanted and played them to the hilt. It was his choice as an actor and one that made him a star. Not many people who look and act like Charles Laughton become stars but he did and for that we can be eternally grateful.
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