Laughton’s Choice

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.

Laughton Island of Lost Souls

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.

Laughton Hobsons Choice

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.

32 Responses Laughton’s Choice
Posted By Gene : August 4, 2013 10:58 am

Thank you Greg for this wonderful tribute to an actor who, indeed, was amazing. As you said Robert Shaw gave a brilliant performance as Henry VIII, and Hollywood has done it’s best to make him into a sex symbol over the last 10-15 years but Laughton’s performance is what is etched in our collective conscience. Laughton’s storied career goes to show that true talent can make a star of an actor. What culture defines as ‘good looks’ will only take someone so far. I would feel deprived without the performances he gave in Hunchback, Witness for The Prosecution, as well as his brilliant directorial vision in Night of The Hunter. His talent is rare, and his contribution to film is priceless.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2013 11:00 am

Gene, I’m not sure what it would take to redefine Henry VIII at this point outside of something with Game of Thrones level popularity. Just like Karloff’s monster and Robert Newton’s Long John Silver, Laughton defined the way to act/portray Henry and still does.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : August 4, 2013 11:57 am

despite Witness for the Prosecution being a courtroom drama,Laughton managed to give a witty performance as the curmudgeonly barrister that elevated it beyond it’s formula,most definitely a fore runner of that old PBS staple Rumpole of the Bailey

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2013 12:00 pm

Devlin, I feel the same way about it. And I wouldn’t have minded seeing what Laughton would have done with Rumpole, though I think Leo McKern was superb, I’d just like to see what Laughton would have done.

Posted By James : August 4, 2013 12:52 pm

Laughton also has a wonderful early role (his first American film, I think) in James Whale’s The Old Dark House.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2013 1:00 pm

I love OLD DARK HOUSE. It’s such a great movie with an exemplary cast.

Posted By mentoni : August 4, 2013 1:19 pm

“REMBRANT” was the one that got me.Imagine Laughton doing Lear or Macbeth

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2013 1:20 pm

You know, I never saw REMBRANDT. It’s one I’ll have to check out. Same production team as HENRY VIII. Anyway, I just put it in my queue.

Posted By Bart Stewart : August 4, 2013 2:03 pm

Laughton was such a genius. His Quasimodo tops that of the master, Lon Chaney. To think we could have had a long directing career from him if people hadn’t been so unfairly critical of his one attempt, Night of the Hunter. I don’t recall all the details, but the film (with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish) was so savaged in the press that Laughton swore off directing.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2013 2:05 pm

Bart, I would have loved to have seen other films directed by him. NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is too tantalizing. Seeing all the greatness on the screen, who knows what he could have achieved as a driector.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 4, 2013 3:04 pm

He gave one of his subtlest and most affecting performances in THE SUSPECT, and of course the most deftly underplayed comic performances in film history: his bit in I HAD A MILLION.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2013 3:05 pm

Richard, you just named two more movies in this thread I haven’t seen. Looks like there’s a lot of smaller or lesser known Laughton’s I need to catch up to.

Posted By gloriarfl : August 4, 2013 3:15 pm

Since you’ve mentioned White Woman, Henry VIII and Moreau it’s worth noting that between 1932 and 1933, a newcomer to films like Laughton was able to give a string of prodigious film performances on a row.

My favoritest Laughton performance is This Land is Mine, a film where he plays a coward and yet, as stressed by Simon Callow, he has the guts of playing him so in such unabashed way, that no leading man of the era would have had the courage of playing cowardice in such a demonstrative manner.

Incidentally, Mary Boland is screaming fun in Ruggles of Red Gap: one of the funniest portrayals of a pretentious noveau-riche I’ve seen in film.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2013 3:20 pm


Laughton had a true gift as an actor to not care what people thought of him. Usually, with an actor, that’s almost impossible but Laughton was fine with it. He’d look like a coward or a brute or a mad man without worrying what people would think.

Posted By Emgee : August 4, 2013 4:33 pm

I’d watch anything with Laughton in it, knowing that even if the movie isn’t great, he is.
Your remarks about hamming reminded me of the memories Peter Ustinov ( who could ham it up with the best of them, and did) had about filming Spartacus.
Laughton and Laurence Olivier, whose acting styles couldn’t differ more, ……well, let’s say they didn’t get on very well.
As soon as Olivier arrived on the set each morning, Ustinov could see Laughton wince. He would give Ustinov a wink and start hamming it up a storm, to the very vocal annoyance of Olivier.
Everyone else was delighted though. Laughtton, one of a kind.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 4, 2013 10:43 pm

Emgee, that’s hilarious! I never heard that story, thanks.

Posted By gloriarfl : August 5, 2013 5:48 am

“Laughton had a true gift as an actor to not care what people thought of him”

There’s an anecdote told by his brother Tom: he went to have lunch to a fashionable chic place with Charles, who at the time was playing a very, very nasty fellow in The Man With Red Hair, and he overheard a woman eating there say something nasty about Laughton (she obviously believed that the nastiness of the character to be Laughton’s own personality)

Tom was unnerved, Charles kept having his lunch, unfazed.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2013 5:50 am

Gloria, thanks for that story. I wasn’t familiar with it but it’s not surprising at all. It takes a certain amount of acting guts to play a lot of the roles Laughton did. Even Orson Welles, as he relates to Peter Bogdanovich in their recorded conversations, felt he had to turn down Quasimodo because he was afraid it would typecast him as a monster guy. Laughton had no such fear.

Posted By swac44 : August 5, 2013 9:58 am

Glad to see a nod for White Woman, I saw it years ago at a classic film fest, and the film has stayed with me ever since. I keep hoping to catch it again, but it’s eluded me so far (I guess I could just pony up for a bootleg copy, but I’d prefer to see it under better circumstances).

Another historical character he got to define was Nero in Sign of the Cross, one of the most delirious examples of pre-code excess, thanks to C.B. DeMille, and one of the most delicious, with Laughton a good match for the display of Roman decadence.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2013 10:00 am

Swac, I don’t even think I’d ever heard of White Woman when it showed up on the AFI’s schedule a few years back but when I saw the listing, I knew I had to see it. I’d love to see it again, too.

I almost mentioned Sign of the Cross just for that wonderful and outrageous opening where they do the whole “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” literally and actually have Laughton strumming a harp while saying, “Burn, Rome, burn.” Love that.

Posted By tdraicer : August 5, 2013 11:57 am

Is there a more heartbreaking line in all of cinema than Laughton’s “Why was I not made of stone, like thee?”

Posted By Miz-tree : August 5, 2013 12:59 pm

Whenever I’m asked to do something I think is ridiculous or unreasonable, I love to intone “The THINGS I do for England!” (from The Private Life of Henry VIII.”

Can’t quite imitate Laughton though … no one could.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2013 1:01 pm

tdraicer, he’s sooo good as Quasimodo. It such a moving performance, in my opinion, it deserves more recognition.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 5, 2013 1:02 pm

Miz-tree, the amount of lines made great by Laughton’s delivery of them is a long one indeed. And no one can imitate Laughton.

Posted By Debbie W : August 5, 2013 1:32 pm

I have nothing to add to this, except to say that I loved reading this blog and all the comments. It was delightful. It’s a relief to know that other people spend time thinking about classic films to this extent — just like me! I was having a crappy day. I feel so much better now. Thank you, and thank you, Charles Laughton.

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 5, 2013 5:11 pm

Greg: Happy to suggest them; a bonus of an actor like Laughton’s prodigious range and output is that there’s often so much more out there to find. Agree that you can’t watch HUNCHBACK without realizing you’re in the presence of greatness. He has a great bit of business reciting “In the midst of life…” in CAPTAIN KIDD; and without it, would we have ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET CAPTAIN KIDD? Surely not.

Posted By Anonymous : August 5, 2013 8:26 pm

Wonderful choices everyone!

I would second the praise for REMBRANDT and THIS LAND IS MINE, both of which are favorites of mine. I think if I had to pick two of the most representative Laughton roles, these would be the ones. In them he underplays so admirably that I choke up just writing about them. In TLIM he is just an ordinary, unassuming man. No ham in sight. Lovely, lovely quiet performances. And his final speech in THIS LAND IS MINE ranks up there with Orson Welles’ final speech in COMPULSION. Just terrific FILM acting. Letting the camera come to him.

There are so many other Laughton performances that stand out for me. In RUGGLES last night, his reading of the Gettysburg Address is the best I’ve ever heard. Leave it to an Englishman to show us every nuance of meaning in this very American speech.

He is wonderful in PAYMENT DEFERRED, another milquetoast character, from 1932, but a weak man with a VERY deep dark secret.

And finally, I must mention Laughton’s incredibly creepy portrayal of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s bible-obsessed father in THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET. As you watch their relationship play out, you start to realize that perhaps there is more to the father-daughter relationship than there should be, but of course, it’s never mentioned. Laughton adds that backstory to the film, and it makes you understand WHY he’s so obsessed with his daughter’s goodness and purity, why he keeps her locked up in their home, because he’s fighting those evil impulses within himself. His distrust of men reflects his own horrible feelings. It scares me to death, but it’s such complex, fine acting, with the kind of depth usually reserved for Shakespeare, that I always watch when it’s on.

Posted By B Piper : August 5, 2013 8:30 pm

I have a definite soft spot for A & C MEET CAPTAIN KIDD. Not a great movie or a great performance but watching this immensely talented actor running around in his long-johns doing comic schtick with all the verve of an Edgar Kennedy or Jimmy Finlayson is a delight.

Posted By tdraicer : August 6, 2013 11:01 am

From what I’ve read Laughton apparently had great respect for Costello’s comedic talents, and enjoyed playing their scenes together.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 7, 2013 12:44 am

Well there’s another one I haven’t seen, A & C MEET CAPTAIN KIDD. And I’ve seen a lot of A & C but not that one. And I totally believe Laughton would like working with Costello. Laughton had such a gift for and love of comedy.

Posted By jbryant : August 10, 2013 4:01 pm

Love the article, but I can’t believe no one has mentioned that the film is not titled “THE Ruggles of Red Gap.” Ruggles is Laughton’s character. Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that the other central character is played by Charlie Ruggles (though his character is Egbert Floud). Or maybe you just mixed it up with another Laughton title, “The Tuttles of Tahiti”? :)

Anyway, “Ruggles” is my favorite movie, so I’m so glad that TCM has aired it a couple of times recently. I hope people are discovering it.

Posted By robbushblog : August 14, 2013 12:10 pm

Another great Laughton performance is his in The Big Clock. He plays a micro-managing, prissy, twitchy, fastidious magazine magnate who…Well, I’ll leave that to you to see if you haven’t seen it already. No Way Out was a remake of it (With several changes in plot), with Gene Hackman in the Laughton role. He is constantly, essentially, twirling his mustache if that’s a clue for you.

I also love him in Hobson’s Choice, a movie that I loved so much I tried to show it to my Anglo-loving mom and sisters who didn’t see it for the great movie it is.

And The Night of the Hunter is one I mention quite often in these blogs because I love it so much.

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