Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Very Public (Screen) Life of Charles Laughton

 I admit it: I’m in love with Charles Laughton. It doesn’t make a lot of sense—for one thing, he’s been dead for sixty years. And despite his long marriage to frequent co-star Elsa Lanchester, I’m not sure how much he liked girls anyway.  But in the course of his screen career (1928-1962) he was brilliant in such a wide range of roles that I’ve decided he was one of the best actors on the planet. For good measure, he also tried directing, helming a remarkable 1955 suspense flick called The Night of the Hunter.

 My personal obsession with Laughton does not involve such late-career Hollywood blockbusters as Advise and Consent (1962), Spartacus (1960), and 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution (for which he received his third Best Actor Oscar nomination). But I was duly impressed by his drunken bluster as the pater familias in 1954’s Hobson’s Choice, a whale of a man whose selfishness finally sparks a rebellion among his long-suffering daughters. Having seen Laughton play a tyrannical lout, I was not at all prepared for 1935’s Ruggles of Red Gap. In this charming film, directed by screwball-comedy expert Leo McCarey (see Duck Soup and The Awful Truth), Laughton is a Victorian manservant who stays loyal to a caddish English earl until he’s won in a card game by a social-climbing matron from a frontier town in Washington State. Polite, formal, veddy British, and totally self-effacing, Ruggles at first can’t get past his obligations to his new employers. Soon, however, the rough-and-ready locals have confused him with a Civil War hero, and are treating him with the kind of respect he’s never before enjoyed. Suddenly he has a new view of himself and his place in the world. Before long he’s quoting Abraham Lincoln, courting a local widow (Zasu Pitts), and planning to go into business for himself. Hooray for the democratic spirit!

 This is hardly the message of the film that won Laughton an Oscar. In 1933, he starred in a lavish British film, directed by Alexander Korda. The Private Life of Henry VIII, a rousing international success, was meant as Britain’s answer to the worldwide clout of the American film industry. The romantic epic, focusing on the ins and outs of Henry’s six marriages, launched major careers for both Korda and Laughton.

 This movie’s attitude toward English history is seen from the start, when Henry’s first marriage, to Catherine of Aragon is dismissed in a title card. Catherine was “a respectable woman,” we’re told, which is why she never appears onscreen. Instead, the action begins with Anne Boleyn’s execution, on trumped-up charges of adultery, quickly followed by Henry’s marriage to her successor, Jane Seymour. The script rides roughshod over actual historic facts (Henry did not wed Jane on the same day as Anne’s beheading), but takes great pleasure in surveying the gossiping ladies of the court, as well as the common folk who love watching their betters get their heads chopped off in the public square.

 Laughton’s Henry is a gluttonous tyrant given to eating with his hands and tossing chicken bones over his shoulder. But he’s not just a man of voracious appetites. Laughton shows us his vanity, his insecurities about his manhood, and his regrets. There’s also a wonderfully comic moment where, muttering “The things I’ve done for England,” he shows up to bed new wife #4, the homely German princess played by Elsa Lanchester. To their mutual relief, she’d rather play cards on their wedding night, and happily agrees to a divorce. This may not be genuine history, but it’s great fun.




  1. Hi Beverly, We need to put Movies aside for just One Moment (I read your last two pieces but am not astute enough to comment, as interesting as they were)- Hodges was elected to the Hall of Fame!!!! Glory Be. Bob. PS-I lived just 10 blocks from him WAY back then. Asked my Dad to drive by his house every time I got in the car. He did it many times.

  2. Really, Gil Hodges is in? I looked at a few articles, but they only talked about Ortiz (in) and Barry Bonds (out). Thanks for letting me know.

  3. It was an aside in the articles I read too but it’s true, 14 is now forever.

  4. I love many Charles Laughton films.I saw Hobson's Choice again recently and it is delightful. But its also fun to watch in that film the remarkable Brenda de Bangies who plays the vilaness with a heart in Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much". She kidnapped Doris Day's son. Laughton is in 2 other WWII favorites of mine "This Land is Mine" where he plays a heroic Frenchman with Maureen O"Hara costar. Una O"Connor is the scene stealer here as she was in "Witness". I also love "The Canterville Ghost" from MGM. And I especially love "The Big Clock", a very under appreciated film.

  5. Thanks, Richard, for these suggestions. I wonder if the Santa Monica Public Library has the treasures you mention.