Talking about Charles and "This Land Is Mine" in the comments with fellow blogger Solaris, we ended talking about George Sanders and James Mason, and how these enjoyable performers (and feline film cads) almost set a construction company to make houses for rich widows... and from this to Mason's own love for cats (of which he would produce fine sketches).
All right, I have a lot of pending stuff to post, but, hey, it's summertime and ... hey! I feel right now like indulging in a bit of trivia... Today: Charles and cats!
Charles and Elsa with the household's cat (early 1940's)
It seems that Charles (and Elsa's) relationship with cats started when Charles first arrived in Hollywood: while he was doing films, Elsa was unoccupied. To ease her feelings of loneliness while he was at work, Charles bought Elsa a little black cat, whom they named Nero . Nero (who liked to plunge into the swimming-pool at The Garden of Allah) was only the first of many cats owned by the couple. Another cat named Louis followed Nero in the Laughton's household: he was named after Louis XVI , the role Irving Thalberg wanted Charles to play in Marie Antoinette (though when the film was finally shot, Charles had other commitments and the Capetian was finally played by Robert Morley , in his first film role). As it happens, Charles and Elsa would always keep cats from then on, and it earned the couple a reputation: people even left kittens at their home for adoption!
The first Laughton kittens: Nero (left) and Louis (right)
Elsa was there before!
You may not know it, but Elsa Lanchester considered, for a long time, to stage an act reading and performing excerpts from T.S. Elliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats", eventually making a song version with her piano accompanist Ray Henderson. However, due to the author's denial to see his book staged as "a vaudeville act", the Lanchester-Henderson version was never performed. Most of you may be familiar with a later adaptation of this book... In the light of this, I think that Elsa and Henderson's version well deserved a chance.
Le gros chat
When director Jean Renoir came to the USA, he met in America another French exile who was very close to him: Gabrielle Renard, a cousin of her mother who, as a teenager, had come to the Renoirs' household to "help". Her help mainly consisted in taking care of little Jean (no small feat!). It was Gabrielle who introduced the future film director to guignol, films and melodrama. Gabrielle, besides her babysiting duties, would also model for Jean's father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Gabrielle was in California with her husband, the painter Conrad Slade, and her son Jean.
Now, in Hollywood, Jean also met a British actor named Charles Laughton, who happened to own a painting by his father. The Briton had been often in France, loved the country and spoke fluent French. They became close friends.
Since Jean saw Gabrielle frequently, Laughton also got to see her on quite a number of occasions. Gabrielle was, according to Renoir, a woman of great vitality, who, like the French people of her era, had a healthy interest in romantic liaisons (and loved to talk about them)... Had she been in the mood for frivolity, Renoir wrote, she would have gone for his friend Laughton, whom she affectionately called "the fat tomcat". Laughton was proud of that nickname, and he would purr to Gabrielle to honour the epithet.
Albert's courtship scheme
Albert feeds the kitty
And since we are talking about Renoir, let's remember "This Land Is Mine and Albert Lory's sly courting technique. Albert is shy as can be, but his master plan to conquer Louise Martin's attention is cunning. Louise has a cat. The cat escapes every night and enters Lory's home. Albert treats the feline with the best of his attentions, including a dish of hard-to-get milk (incidentally, Albert's mother positively hates the cat). When Albert meets Louise about to go to school, he lovingly tends the runaway to her beloved. Not that she notices. Hum, OK... It's a long-term plan. In the meantime, the four-legged cupid gets a daily dose of milk...Oh, wait! maybe it is the cat the one with the master plan!
Albert returns the fugitive to Louise: "What's new, pussycat? Woah, Woah"
While Renoir was developing the film's story, he would be often in touch with Laughton... In fact, film historian and Renoir expert Alexander Sesonske mentions that it was a conversation between actor and director about Alphonse Daudet's story "La Dernière Classe" which suggested to Renoir an ending -and the lead actor- for the film. I wonder if the feedback between both men also suggested the cat bussiness in the script... and maybe hinted at the animal's casting? Call it a speculation from my side, but the cat in the film looks quite like the cat which appears with Elsa and Charles in the first image of this post! Unfortunately, imdb doesn't credit the cat performer, so I cannot tell for certain, ha.
Endnote on sources
Well, that was quite an impromptu trivia post... and coming from someone who is allergic to cats' hair! Among the sources gleaned for its ellaboration, there's Jean Renoir's "My Life and My Films", Elsa Lanchester's 1938 and 1983 books "charles Laughton and I" and "Elsa Lanchester Herself", and Alexander Sesonske excellent vindication of "This Land Is Mine" as one of the most interesting American films of Renoir (published in the all-Renoir issues 12-13 of "Persistence of Vision")