Sir Wilfrid peeps at Christine Vole while she puts on some lipstick
Charles Laughton's concern and/dissapointment about his lack of conventional good looks has almost become a legendary common place about the man, even though, as I mentioned in another post, he coped with it better than it is generally assumed.
In fact, while he could despair at the fact that he might look into a mirror to find his reflection, instead of Gary Cooper's or Johnny Weissmuller's, he certainly appreciated when someone contradicted his views on his own apperance. Let Charles himself tell us one of such instance:
When I was rehearsing in "on The Spot" (1930), Edgar Wallace's play, in which I had to wear smart clothes and go around the stage kissing the women, I came home one night in a state of despair, sullen and nasty, and said to Elsa (Lanchester): 'I know they won't stand for this. I've got a face like an elephant's behind, and in this play I've got to do the big sex act'. She turned tround on me like the proverbial tiger-cat and whipped out: 'How dare you presume you're unattractive! Hold your shoulders back, keep your head up and smile, so I can keep my head up with other women'. Can you beat it? I owe her plenty.
Despite the fact that he was gay, Laughton wasn't unappreciative of women, and many women (that is, apart from Elsa) liked him in turn: I have come across many warm records of his friendship and appreciation of fellow performers and/or co-workers like Ruth Gordon, Bette Davis, Maureen O'Hara, Agnes Moorehead, Deanna Durbin, Shelley Winters, Ava Gardner, Belita, and Lillian Gish to mention a few. Merle Oberon or Myrna Loy would recall Laughton raising their own self-steem with gracious compliments. And, we have to say, Charles could be very perceptive describing women, but let's hear it from Night of the Hunter's author Davis Grubb :
I once remarked that Marlene Dietrich had always struck me as a strange and bewitched kind of genius. 'Yes,' Laughton sighed. 'There is a quality about Marlene that rather suggests jeweled whips'
Under such quizzical praise of the German star lies genuine admiration, and there's an extra element here, for beyond the professional appreciation, Laughton also owed a big one to Marlene. In Elsa's account:
"Knight Without Armour" was started at Denham (Studios) just before we finished "Rembrandt", and so we ran into Marlene Dietrich quite a lot. She is to me, and to Charles, I think, one of the few undisappointing film stars off– a pleasure to pass in a passage. One of the greatest moments in my life was when she said to a pressman that she would rather act a love scene with Charles than with any other actor in the world. This statement made headline news in an evening paper. When Charles read it he was wildly flattered, he threw the newspaper in the air and cheered himself. I was no lesss delighted by the indirect compliment to me. We had a drink on it.I somewhat regret that Marlene didn't get her wish fulfilled. Back then, her only link with Charles' work, was a sadly star-crossed project: While working in England, Miss Dietrich suggested Alexander Korda to give work to her former mentor Joseph Sternberg, and Korda gave Sternberg the job of directing "I, Claudius". Yes, "I, Claudius". Ouch.
Years later, Laughton and Dietrich would finally work together, not in any romantic scene, but certainly in good spirits in "Witness for the Prossecution". Where Laughton's stubborn Sir Wilfrid memorably confronts Dietrich's enigmatic, ice-cool Christine Vole in order to save poor Tyrone Power from the hangman's noose. Dietrich, who was helped by Laughton in rehearsals (I don't go into detail as to not spoil certain elements of the plot), wrote fondly of Laughton in her memoirs.
And to end with this little account of the mutual admiration society of Charles and Marlene, I'll end with a further (and intriguing) comment by Miss Lanchester about Miss Dietrich:
After meeting her in a Denham corridor one morning, Charles told me that in private life she had the art of casually putting on a very little makeup that looked slightly smeared, as if she had just got out of bed after a night of it. Obviously, these two should have got together somehow.
Hum... I wonder if that would explain Laughton's sighing when talking about Dietrich to Davis Grubb.
Oh, well, maybe he just got the story from Sternberg.
Note on sources:
Quotes are sourced from Elsa Lanchester's autobiographies "Charles Laughton and I" (1938) and "Elsa Lanchester Herself" (1983) and Preston Neal Jones' most commendable "Heaven and Hell to Play With: The filming of the Night of the Hunter" (2002)
This is one of the many posts I had half baked in the oven, so to say. I shouldn't have dared to give it the final push towards posting if the Self Styled Siren had not devoted a post on Marlene's lipstick and had started a MarleneFest on her own blog