Well, well... Here we have at last TCM's list of the films that lucky North Americans shall be able to watch in November, when our dear Charles shall be starring on that channel for a month.
Of these 18 films there are some unmissable by anyone who wants to know where Laughton's prestige comes from, some whose inclusion is questionable, and some which are inexplicably absent. Let's comment briefly on them.
Our lad Charles in a beautiful still taken during his early Hollywood days (Fellow Laughtonian Alceo has contributed with this wonderful 1932 picture from his collection)
Of these 18 features, we have two classics directed by Korda: his filmmaking may have become a bit dated, but Charles' performance as the Tudor king in The Private Life of Henry VIII is still the gold standard on the character (despite the recent "sexy Tudors on sweaty T-Shirt" trend), and his Rembrandt remains a sensible portrait of the struggles of a creator.
Despite recent historical revisionism depicting Captain Bligh as the hero of the story, Laughton's portrayal in Mutiny on the Bounty has connections with the real man: If the real Mr. Bligh was not the tyrant depicted in Nordhoff and Hall's novel, He was, as Laughton's Bligh, an excellent sailor (something quite forgotten in some later versions), a man isolated from his subordinates and crew, and a poor manager of human resources with an explosive temper. The real Bligh also had those bushy eyebrows ;p
Welcome are also the tyrannical Victorian father he plays in The Barrets of Wimpole Street, where he managed to manoeuvre past the Hays Code, by suggesting the more unwholesome aspects of father Barret's overprotectiveness of his daughter Elizabeth Barret, without the need of explicit dialogue. And his memorable Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which he makes trascend into a powerful metaphor of human suffering.
We also have his inimitable Sir Wilfrid Robarts Witness For The Prosecution, a man seriusly concerned with Law and justice, in spite of his unlawful penchant for smuggling forbidden pleasures. We'll also see him in a court in a minor Hitchcock, The Paradine Case as a corrupt, ruthless and concupiscent judge. We also have an earlier joint effort with the master of suspense, Jamaica Inn , again, it may not be a top-notch Hitchcock, but it has a suitably dark atmosphere, and an over-the-top, and fairly enjoyable, performance by film producer Laughton.
Lesser known movies and parts, but fairly worth of re-discovery, are given a chance. Among them we have the film version of the stage success that brought Charles to Hollywood, Payment Deferred, a film which certainly lets you know that it is based on a play, but Laughton's clerk which commits murder, in spite of being quite unsuited for crime, is a fairly strong composition. There is also his supporting role, and first Hollywood work, as a Northern tycoon in James Whale's riotously bizarre The Old Dark House, which is both the paragon and the parody of the "haunted house" genre. The tropical noir The Bribe, in which he plays a small-time briber with bad feet, is a film, and a performance, worth re-discovering. And Captain Kidd may lack the lavish production values of Mutiny on the Bounty, but certainly has a strong central performance.
As for some others, I find the TCM selection to be a bit odd at points, particularly considering that this monthly homage lacks some legendary performances, I mean, there is fun and charm in The Canterville Ghost, but it still makes you think what a film could have resulted if MGM had not watered down the original story by Oscar Wilde with circumstancial war propaganda and coarsened it with squaddy jokes (Think, for instance, in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir).
Young Bess, is posh -but not terribly exciting- costume drama, which I bet has been included to compare Laughton's performance as Henry VIII with his Oscar-winning performance of 1933. And one wonders why Salome is there: it is one of those films of the Somniferous Bible Epic genre, and not even Laughton's Herod can shake it up... I wonder why they don't show Cecil B. De Mille's The Sign of the Cross, instead: It's full of saucy pre-code naughtiness, bizarre fights at the Roman circus, and Claudette Colbert's Poppaea and Laughton's "wild Wilde Nero" (as Elsa Lanchester fittingly put it) really nail their characters (As with Henry, Laughton's Nero is pretty much the Nero to end all Neros: Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis was like an Ursuline nun in comparison)
But when one sees that turkeys like Stand By For Action and The Man From Down Under, films only suitable for a Laughton completist (and a very hardened one,) are included in a 18-film season (out of a filmography of more than 50), the reason is clear: TCM is programming what he's got in its stock, and The Canterville Ghost, Young Bess, Stand By For Action are all MGM productions... still, how far are these from The Barrets of Wimpole Street or Mutiny on the Bounty!! The reason for this is, in his thirties' films for MGM, Laughton worked for Irving Thalberg, an intelligent producer who had more appropiate ideas as to what to do with Laughton's talent than Louis B. Mayer. I have read that Mayer kept Laughton under contract at MGM out of respect for the late Thalberg, who was a friend of Charles. Yet Mayer was evidently at a loss of what to do with Laughton, otherwise, one can't understand how he miscast him in parts like the old Aussie warrior of The Man From Down Under (a part and film Laughton woefully -and adequately- described to a friend as "You Can't Keep The Wallace Beery Tradition Down"), or the old Admiral which becomes suddenly obsessed with obstetrics in Stand By For Action, which Laughton has left no option but to play in an avant-la-lettre Monty Pythonese fashion.
Honest, rather than including these last two, I'd rather go for the rarely screened Mayflower productions Vessel of Wrath/The Beachcomber and St. Martin's Lane/Sidewalks of London , or some rather good performances of Laughton in anthology films like If I Had a Million, Tales of Manhattan, O'Henry's Full House or, why not? recover the long-lost-in-some-vault The Blue Veil.
I won't extend my criticism, however, to Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, Hey! it's an Abbot and Costello film... You won't expect something like The Seventh Seal, won't you?
Actually I think that it makes for a fun double bill with Captain Kidd, and Laughton admired Lou Costello and wanted to work with him. You may consider it a silly movie, but I don't think it's actually that harmful... If you ask me, as far as Laughton doing comedy goes, I'd rather see him in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd than in Hobson's Choice... Oh, I know this may sound blasphemous to some of you (so here I'm rushing to my artillery-proof concrete parapet), but I have to confess that my feelings about the David Lean film are quite similar to SImon Callow's, or to what Groggy Dundee says in his blog .
Now, If I have complained about the inclusion of some films, it is because I feel they are stealing room to some really memorable performances which are let out... I suppose that the "films in stock" thing is the only explanation to that, but it still hurts that we have Stand By For Action, but lack This Land Is Mine , Island of Lost Souls , Les Miserables, Ruggles of Red Gap, The Big Clock or Advise and Consent... All I can say about that is.. ouch!.
Ouch, ouch, ouch!... And ouch!
Furthermore, Wouldn't it be a grand chance to broadcast the legendary BBC documentary The Epic That Never Was, containing tantalizing excerpts of Laughton as Emperor Claudius?
Lastly, and, understanding that the "Star of the Month" refers to actors, it wouldn't have been much of a stretch to include The Night of the Hunter? I mean, after all he could only direct that film... and then, Robert Gitt's Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter.
Oh well... It's good enough that Charles has a season of his films on TCM, but then... it could be even better!