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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Buddy, buddy


From left to right: Gary Cooper, Laughton, Jobyna Ralston, Jack Haley and Richard Arlen (circa 1933)

In the above picture, Gary Cooper smirks to the camera and leans over Charles in a chummy manner, and Charles looks quite happy. If you are interested in some background about this image, keep on reading.

1932. Charles and Elsa arrive to Hollywood after he's reached a suitable agreement with Paramount: A three year contract, two films a year, which will allow Laughton to combine film and stage work. Charles rightly expects that thanks to Paramount's money he will be able to afford non-commercial theatrical ventures (1), but is a bit surprised that, in spite of Paramount's pressing demands for him to hurry to the West Coast, he is left to wait in California with little to do.

While his friend Benn Levy works in the script of The Devil And The Deep (the film devised by Paramount to be his Hollywod debut), Charles and Elsa wander around Hollywood: it's a curious place, but both feel a bit homesick, specially her (2). Charles finds an occupation in snooping around and investigating about Hollywood studios' working systems, so different from his previous and fleeting film experience in Britain. And the difference between stage and screen acting! Charles realises that he must work hard in order to adapt his style to suit the camera, so he welcomes the opportunity of playing a small role in a film directed by his friend James Whale at Universal, The Old Dark House, which will be his first actual Hollywood film (if not officially).

Useful as his experience under Whale's direction is, he now faces the challenge of playing a lead role, pitted against one of Hollywood's more popular stars, Gary Cooper: a bit of tension would have been expected, all the more when the female lead was played by Tallullah Bankhead, who didn't precisely warm on Laughton (3). Miss Bankhead seemed to ignore the man who was to play her husband onscreen: her only declared interest in her Hollywood foray had been to meet Gary Cooper, with whom she expected to be able to strike up a friendship, if not, hum, more. However, if you think this is a landscape with a storm brewing, you're wrong.

Charles was, in fact, struck by a revelation when he saw Gary Cooper casually light a cigarette on the set:
I knew then that he’d got something I should never have, I went across the set and asked him to tell me how he did it. He looked shy and bewildered and said that I ought to know better than he did. I was from the stage and he was just a ham movie actor

... If you're reading between lines, it's evident that, well, Charles got a bit of a crush on Cooper, but his reasoning nevertheless contains a great truth: we might say that he realised what a film star's power was about, as opposed to character -or craft- acting. Some time later he would elaborate further his thoughts on the differences between Cooper's style and his own:
We act in opposite ways. His is presentational acting. Mine is representational. I get at a part from the outside. He gets at it from the inside, from his own clear way of looking at life. His is the right way, if you can do it. I could learn to do it, but it would take me a year to do what he can do instinctively, and I haven’t the time…

Laughton would in fact, take a stance in defending film acting such as Cooper's. Laughton's sincere praise wasn't an usual move at a time when it was fashionable among theatrical people to look down upon film actors, a practice that he would emphatically criticise in an interview in 1934:
Why must the so-called high-brows vilify them? For every popular screen personality there’s a sound, underlying reason… and a very good reason. Actors and actresses don’t just become stars because a producer puts them in a picture, or because they are beautiful. There’s a reason for their success. Each one has some unique something, important enough for the public, in large droves, to pay money to see. The public in general doesn’t analyse this appeal; they realise it subsconsciously

But back to 1932 and The Devil and The Deep: However bitter their enmity was onscreen, offscreen Charles and Coop became the best of pals. Richard Schickel describes the situation:
Worse than the silly (4) scenario were the working conditions. Cooper, in the midst of a salary squabble with the studio, was uncharactheristically sulky and, despite his reputation as one of Hollywood's leading studs, impervious to Bankhead's determined advances. She, in turn, took an intense dislike to laughton who, completing an unlikely triangle, was smitten by the gorgeous Cooper. Not that any overt homosexual advances were made, but laughton, envying him his easy naturalism, would go to his grave proclaiming Cooper one of the best actors he had ever worked with

It's fun to bear this in mind when you thing that in the film, Lieutenant Sempter (Cooper) is Diana Sturm's (Bankhead) lover, and that Mrs. Sturm still has a bit of love left for the overjealous husband who mistreats her, and Captain Sturm (Laughton) hates both intensely: In real life, is not unlikely that it was Tallullah the one that got crossed while Coop taught Charles how to smoke for the camera and, in spite of Charles' admission that he wouldn't have time to catch up with Coop's manner onscreen, he would soon prove his ability to incorporate into his own work some of what he admired in the Montanan's acting: just a few months later, in Island of Lost Souls, Laughton would show that he could have his way with cigarettes in front of a camera.

While discussing Laughton's early difficulties at working with Clark Gable a few years after in Mutiny On The Bounty, Simon Callow points at other factor that may have drawn Charles to admire Cooper:
(...)Gary Cooper's perhaps even greater beauty had not disturbed laughton in the least: he had frankly admired him, both as an actor and in physical terms. perhaps the key word, here, however, is 'beauty'. Cooper, with his ravishing androginy, full of lip, luxuriant of eyelash, gentle of manner, had -at least in his performing personality- found a perfect balance between his mascuine and feminine elements, which was no threat to Laughton. It was exactly the balance that he longed to achieve himself but which for most of his life resolved itself into a battle, rather than a blend

Unfortunately, Laughton and Cooper wouldn't work together in another film: while they both act in If I Had A Million, they do so in different episodes of this anthology film. A chance to do so came close when Charles considered Cooper to play Preacher Powell in The Night Of The Hunter, a role which was eventually -and memorably so- played by Robert Mitchum. Mitchum owned the role in such way that it is difficult to imagine any other actor playing Preacher... One still wonders, though, how Cooper would have fared in the same part.

Some links:
:: Girl Friday reviews the film
:: at Another review at Greenbriar Picture Show
:: Fictional Film Club makes an interesting -and entertaining speculation- about what a new collaboration between Laughton and Cooper could have been: The Trascendentalist

Sources:
Simon Callow's "Charles Laughton, A Difficult Actor", Elsa Lanchester's "Elsa Lanchester Herself", Preston Neal Jones' "Heaven and Hell To Play With", Richard Schickel's "Matinee Idylls" and a 1934 interview to laughton at PictureGoer

Notes:
1) In fact, this first stint at Paramount will help Charles afford to materialize an old dream: spend a season playing Shakespeare at the Old Vic (in 1933-34).
2) Elsa would recall, by the time they reached California "Charles was a nobody, and I was the wife of as nobody". Not long after she would return to London, leaving Charles alone: MGM shoot a film adaptation of "Payment Deferred", which Charles and Elsa had played on London and Broadway, but Maureen O'Sullivan was cast in the part Elsa had played in Broadway, which to the homesick Elsa proved to be the last straw: she swiftly returned to London, leaving Charles in California.
3) Curiously enough, for Miss bankhead was a good friend of Elsa... or maybe precisely because of that?
4) While the odd combination of a love triangle, mad jealousy, exotic settings and submarines may seem a bit contrived, the truth is that The Devil And The Deep mixes those elements with a certain charm... A contemporary film with the same ingredients (plus a few explosions to give the recipe a zeitgeisty zest), would probably give far more silly results.

15 comments:

Scott Hurst said...

Hey Gloria...
I'd like to sit down with you sometime and chart Charles' changing feelings towards the movies and movie actors.
I enjoyed this article about his work with Gary Cooper and I appreciate your quotes, too, to back up your observations. However, at a later point in time, and under different circumstances, of course, Charles rants about "pretty people" on screen and Tyrone Guthrie supports this view in A Life in the Theatre pg 244: : “Some of the finest performances on the screen - by Laughton, for instance, have been as operatic as all get-out. Whispering intimacy has long been a great cover-up for photogenic men and women with no acting talent.”
Any direct thoughts or quotes to back up the other side of the coin where Charles is concerned?

Gloria said...

Relating Guthrie's quote, prior to that sentence, he is telling us about his staging of Schiller's Maria Stuart, with Irene Worth as Mary and Eva Le Gallienne as Elizabeth, and states how this version "made no concession to the prevailing theatrical fashion; it was, like the original, robustly and unashamedly 'ham?. With any but expert and highly assured performers it wold have been deadly. But the company at the Phoenix played it, with total disregard of 'Methodist? values(...). (...)critical and public acclaim for well-propelled 'ham' was a needed shot in th arm for a valuable element in theatrical life, which has for many years in America bee in a sad decline"

Thus Guthrie's remark here is not intended to criticise generically pretty but untalented film actors, but is aimed to the prevailing style then. A style used, by the way, by some actors who were quite goodlooking and very talented. What Guthrie criticises here (IMHO) is "methodism" as the only true religion of theatre, by vindicating the grand old style which is often -and unfairly- dismissed as "ham"... Note that, when referring to a more "operatic" (as opposed to "natural") style of screen acting, he not only mentions Laughton but also "Jannings, Kortner, pauline Frederick and many of the Russians"

And Guthrie was always a theatre man, when I read him I had the feeling that, like many colleagues of Charles' generation, he was disdainful of film, and thought that Laughton was wasting himself on cellulloid... Which is ironic, as today younger actors (from stage or screen) can discover and enjoy Laughton: thank the gods, they are less prejudiced than their predecessors and simply enjoy what's good when it's good, regardless of the medium. Laughton was then an advocate of film against the quite extended view of many of his contemporaries, if you remember the 1938 interview reproduced in Callow's book: he still had to *justify* why he was working in films!!

As for Charles changing his mind, what I can just now I recall right now is Laughton being critical of poor acting, or discussing style (i.e. his analogy of Strassberg's "Method" as a photography, as confronted to oil painting), or films not living up to the greatness of the medium: he had to work on a number of lesser films to pay bills (as many actors do), and it is quite reasonable that he resented that, but it is evident that the man that directed The Night Of The Hunter loved films.

I can now only think of his commento to Dieterle about having to fence with amateurs in Salome... Which reminds me of Ustinov's account of his scenes with Charles in Spartacus, and Laughton's pleasure when Ustinov surprised him with something unexpected: it's evident that he liked, using Emlyn Williams splendid analogy, catch fire and throw it back: in the light of this, working with an untalented performer wouldn't be for Laughton as much fun as working with another who knew how to thrust, feint and parry. But then he (famously) considered himself an amateur and, as Callow refers then and now, he didn't resent amateur actors working with him (i.e. Florence Bates)... He preferred them to unimaginative pros.

So I cannot recall right now now sentences like the ones you refer to: Can you refresh my memory?

David said...

Estupendo post, Gloria.
La verdad es que no recuerdo qué actor o director decía lo mismo sobre ciertas estrellas actuales en el sentido de que tenían esa cualidad que el público detectaba.
No conocía la foto, ni la amistad entre Laughton y Cooper o la admiración del primero por el método interpretativo del segundo.
Lo de Cooper en el papel del predicador. No sé... De todas formas, me da que no lo hubiera aceptado, porque de algún modo sabría que no le pegaba a su imagen. Aunque hubiera sido curioso, desde luego.
Un saludo.

Gloria said...

Hola David,

Aunque Laughton nunca renegó del teatro, su reivindicación de Cooper (y con él, el actor nativo al cine) no era el tipo de comentario habitual en aquella época por parte de aquellos que venían de la escena, que tendían a ver a los astros del cine por encima del hombro, claro que, como el coemntaba a Scott, también Laughton tuvo que aguantar mocos de algún colega o crítico teatral por "malgastarse" en el cine: Yo soy de la opinión que gracias a ese "malgasto" hoy en dia podemos seguir disfrutando de su trabajo.

Yo diría que en aquellos tiempos esta primeriza afirmación de Laughton sobre las stars de Hollywood era más cierta que ahora. He leído recientemente la autobiografía de Myrna Loy "Being and Becoming", en la que explica la panzada de películas que llegó a hacer desde papelines de corista hasta que gracias a la saga de "El Hombre delgado", los estudios dieron con la clave de una personalidad fílmica que a la Loy le sentaba como a un guante... Baste con decir que una de las compañeras de línea de coro de Myrna era una tal Lucille LeSueur (también conocida como Joan Crawford), otra que, papelín a papelín, llegó a primera línea de estrellato. Recordemos también que Gloria Swanson empezó como chica Sennet. Digamos que muchas de las primigenias estrellas hollywoodienses pasaban por un aprendizaje que, aunque diferente del de aquellos que llegaban al cine desde el teatro, también les enseñaba una correcta disciplina ante la cámara.

Hoy en día esto ya no pasa así exactamente: aunque aún puede llegar al primer plano cinemátográfico un profesional curtido papeles secundarios (y/o en teatro y/o en televisión), como, pongamos, un Paul Giammatti, pero bastantes más veces, lo tienen mucho más facil chicos que anuncian calzoncillos, pongamos, Mark Whalberg.

Yo también soy de la opinión que Cooper hubiera quedado un tanto raro como predicador... Pero vaya usted a saber, que a veces los actores trabajando fuera de su registro habitual dan agradables sorpresas.

Eudora said...

Es curioso, Cooper es un actor admirado por muchos otros actores. Hace un tiempo le leía a Max von Sydow que a él le encantaba, aunque reconocía que podía no ser un gran actor.... Yo a Cooper le reconozco la presencia, pero eso es una cualidad accidental, como actor nunca me interesó especialmente, es de esos actores que siempre hacen el mismo papel....

Gloria said...

Si, el registro de Cooper como actor es ciertamente más limitado que el de Laughton, pero imagino que la fascinación que Coop puede despertar en Laughton o Von Sidow se debe a esa naturalidad que parece emanar de él sin esfuerzo... Digamos que este es un tipo de actor cuya fuerza está en su personalidad en la pantalla, mientras que un actor de carácter adopta una personalidad nueva en cada rol, como si fuera un cambio de maquillaje.

Imagino que Laughton estaba particularmente susceptible a descubrir el Factor Cooper (quiero decir, aparte de que lo encontrara muy guapo), ya que él era, a su manera, un actor que también sacaba bastantes cosas "de dentro": Trabajar con Cooper le supuso todo un master de como actuar ante la cámara, de proyectar la esencia del personaje sin un exceso de gesto y/o aspaviento: pese a su reputación "histriónica" Laughton valoraba (y practicaba) la sutileza.

Otra razón de Laughton para reivindicar al actor de cine, era que él mismo era tachado de amateurismo por algunos compañeros de profesión teatral un tanto cuadriculados.

ladybug said...

Hi Gloria:

This is off-topic, but I wonder if you know what, if anything, Mr. Laughton thought about George Sanders' performance in This Land is Mine?

Gloria said...

Hi Ladybug,

First, welcome to the blog, and... Well, a Laughton-related question is never off-topic, and more when George Sanders is one of my fave actors ;D

Sadly, I have not come accross any comment by Laughton about Sanders (and believe me, I'd love to), or by Sanders about Laughton related to This Land Is Mine...

I have, however, a bit of Jean Renoir's opinion on him. Quoted from Alexander Sesonske's article "Jean Renoir in America: 1942, This Land is Mine":

"The choice of George Sanders as Lambert was probably suggested by RKO. Renoir regarded Sanders as a 'pretentious fop, though a good actor", and Georges Lambert became a typical Sanders character, a rather eloquent and elegant cad"

I'd slightly disagree here with Mr. Sesonske, as IMHO, Sanders plays the character out of his better known tracks... Lambert belongs to the "not typical Sanders" category, right there with his role in The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry

ladybug said...

Hi Gloria:

Thank you for responding. I'm very sorry that neither Mr. Laughton nor Mr. Sanders ever spoke about the other. That's a shame. This Land Is Mine is one of my favorites and it disturbs me that Renoir did not like Mr. Sanders (admittedly my obsession). I actually thought Sanders did a great job of showing the conflicted emotions of Lambert. I've never considered the character a cad in the traditional sense (or any sense).

Uncle Harry is one of George Sanders' best films in my opinion and I may be one of two people in the world who is not bothered by the alternate ending.

But again, I admit to my Sanders' obsession and I am particularly drawn to films where Mr. Sanders' plays against type or even those where his cad persona has some depth.

Although I love them all (even the worst), I particularly love Summer Storm, Bel Ami, Scandal in Paris, Action in Arabia (a hoot), Uncle Harry, Green Hell (a double hoot), This Land Is Mine and the list goes on and on.

Thank you. I enjoy your site very much.

Gloria said...

Don't forget Viaggio in Italia (a personal favourite), All About Eve or Manhunt... as you say, the list goes on and on: have you seen A Touch of Larceny?

I'm not bothered about the alternate ending of Uncle Harry, myself... I(I must be the second of teh two ;D)

I don't know why Renoir thought so of Sanders (and we must consider that the quote is extracted, so teh original cotext might add something to his statement), generally Renoir is very sweet when talking about actors, I guess they weren't congenial for some reason or another: it well might be Sanders' habit of resting in his room or caravan while he wasn't shooting (Sanders wasn't generally inclined to socialise on the set). Renoir loved actors but also appreciated their feedback: For instance, he would discuss the part with Laughton quite often on and off the set, even at his home... Maybe he found Sanders uncommunicative?

I must say that there is a comment by Sanders about Laughton in "Memoirs of a Professional Cad", though not TLIM-related. Let me know if you want to read it, and I'll check where I have the book.

ladybug said...

Gloria, thank you. I cannot believe that first, I forgot Viaggio and second that it has been so long since I read CAD that Mr. Laughton is mentioned. I will look it up immediately. And I agree with All About Eve and Manhunt. There are so many and even the lesser ones (to be polite) usually have some redeeming feature somewhere in them (although I may have to watch them several times to find it).

What little I know of Renoir has always suggested that he was nice and considerate about his actors. But I haven't read enough about him to really know. As to Sanders' behavior on and off the set, I understand that it depended upon several factors. Brenda Marshall was concerned about working with him on Paris After Dark until about the third day of shooting when she discovered they mutually hated someone (unnamed in the article). From that point on she and Sanders got on great and she enjoyed watching him play pranks on the director, Leonide Moguy.

A Touch of Larceny is a fun film. I am also a James Mason fan (although not as obsessive).

It is a pity that Mr. Laughton never directed Sanders. Who knows, perhaps he would have truly found the actor lurking beneath the cad persona.

Gloria said...

Some of Sanders' working companions didn't get along with him, but then he had co-workers who were quite fond of him and loved him... So I guess it depended on congeniality, more than Sanders being some sort of super-villain of the sets ;D

I've come across a number of examples of writers being judgemental of Laughton because he didn't get along with an actor or actress of their liking... which is often erroneous: in some "enmity"cases, Laughton and the other person seem to have warmed to each other as the work went on, and in others, they simply didn't get on... But then there's also people who just loved working with him, so I guess that in this sense he was like most of us people are: sometimes you get along with people, sometimes you don't... And this doesn't mean you're an awful person (sadly, some film writeres still believe that writing "bad" about someone sells better than just doing your research proper).

So you see, For nothing in the world I'd pin the "awful man" ettiquette to Sanders... among other things, he went to work with Ingrid Bergman in the aforementioned film, when most people were blackballing Ingrid because of her going with Rossellini: this is for me worth of a knight with a shining armour.

Mason I also like very much: in fact "A touch of Larceny" is one of the earliest film memoirs of my childhood... So I can partly "blame" Mason for becoming a cinephile.

It is a pity indeed that Laughton didn't direct more movies after Night of the Hunter... The hypothetical possibility of Sanders being directed by Laughton sounds great ;D.

ladybug said...

I'm very glad that James Mason helped bring you to film. Without him, we might not have Rooting for Laughton.

I admit that I am a late-comer to learning more about Mr. Laughton, although I've always admired his work. Frankly his performance in The Barretts of Wimpole Street still gives me chills everytime I see it. It is amazing the range he has and yet what little I've read usually talks about his performances being too theatrical. Something I find in all actors, even non-stage actors, from time to time.

I agree that too much of what we read about how well Laughton, Sanders or others got along with their costars comes from people with no direct experience with the actors they are criticizing and the writer's bias is sometimes very obvious.

Unfortunately their word is accepted and becomes gospel (as we say in the South). It is repeated and repeated without being challenged, except by a few who have actually done their research. You have taken up the challenge on behalf of Mr. Laughton.

And I agree that George Sanders was not an awful man. A complicated man, yes. And while Rossellini drove Sanders to a near nervous breakdown, he did achieve his goal of getting a great performance from him. And I had forgotten that Bergman had been blackballed at the time this film was made. I find it one of her best as well. Yet I don't believe either Bergman or Sanders ever really knew how good this film is.

It is a shame that Mr. Laughton only directed the one film, a another great film that also sends chills through me. What he could have accomplished not only with George Sanders, but with so many others remains a dream. A wonderful dream.

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Anonymous said...

I think this was touched on in a previous post, but any thoughts on Laughton's production of "John Brown's Body"? It had an lp release as well. Has anyone heard that recording or have any information about availability?