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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Marie Magdalene, a remarkable woman

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


Vanwall said...

Excellent series of Laughton/Dietrich near-collisions - they really did seem curiously made for each other in, a bejeweled manner, I seem to think. ;-)

He was one of my favorite wits, sometimes rivaling Oscar Levant, a rare feat - I can imagine him tossing that paper in the air, too, and that wonderful voice of his cheering, in a slightly self-mocking manner, I have no doubt.

Gloria said...


In her 1983 book, Elsa added that Charles danced a little jig as a celebration. It must have been a happy evening at the Laughton's Gordon Square flat.

Did you know that Elsa Lanchester was with Oscar Levant in the TV Show "Words About Music? She recalled " "we would talk music and battled with our wits. It was shattering to keep up with Oscar's mind"

This last line is a bit surprising, I thought that Elsa's acerbic wit had an extra workout at home, but then... yes I guess that Levant was quite a powerhouse to compete with, and, in fairness to Elsa, I have to say that probably Oscar found it hard to keep up with his own mind, too.

I've read Levant's 3 books, plus the Kahsners biography on him and the Marx tribute at "Harpo Speaks". The pianist from Pittsburg sure was a fascinating lad.

Vanwall said...

Yes, he was, and possibly the greatest American wit, IMHO; his humor was actually dry as the English ones, and he seemed to be more in their sphere of intelligent wit - Laughton, Sanders, and Levant prolly could've verbally destroyed anyone on the planet singly, and God help us if they had ever gotten together for a banter session.

Hah! Laughton jigging for joy! That's an image!

Gloria said...

LOL, I can imagine these Terrible Treesome in action!

What I like about Levant (well, the older one) is the way he assumes his mental estate. He is absolutely nuts and yet perfectly aware of his insanity: it takes nerve to act in a film like Minelli's "The Cobweb" when in real life you're being committed every then and now!

And, sane or insane, he had a wit to reckon, indeed. Not surprisingly, he alternated composing Tin-Pan-Alley songs with Schoenberg-esque compositions.

And Sanders. One day I will have to make a good post on the man. He worked in a couple of films also featuring Laughton, the sketch film "Tales of Manhattan "(In which they weren't in the same episode), and in "This Land is Mine", in which they are never in the same scene (with dialogue, that is): in this film (which boasts my favourite CL performance) Sanders plays an unusually tormented character.

As for Charles, I recall seeing a short excerpt from the 1959 Stratford season's "Midsummer's Night Dream" (as broadcasted for the USA), In it. Laughton as Bottom does an spirited bit of Morris dancing, looking extraordinarily agile for his age and girth. So the jig must have been something to see.

Incidentally, this version of MND featured Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave and Ian Holm, among others... Why there hasn't been a VHS or DVD release of that broadcast it is a mistery to me.

galileosdaughter said...

Excellent, excellent post! I've long enjoyed reading about Marlene's admiration for Laughton--in her marvelous book, "Marlene Dietrich's ABC" she has this entry on Laughton:
"I wish he would teach acting." Though of course, he did (and I think there's a good post to do about that, too!). I've always thought that because Laughton was sexually primarily attracted to men--often, young handsome ones- that he felt unattractive to other men. I think women, or certain women, found him very attractive indeed. I love the story about Jean Renoir's housekeeper Gabrielle and her fascination with him. For me TLIM is my favourite of his performances not just because of the role itself, but also for the chemistry he has with Maureen O'Hara. I really believe in his love for her.

And George Sanders's autobiography, "Memoirs of a Professional Cad" is also wonderful (though supposedly ghost written!)and witty. It strikes me that Laughton would have made a great voice-over artist in animated films--can't you see him as the Cheshire Cat? That Sanders lived to play Sher Khan makes me think that Laughton would have fit into that milieu rather well!

For Christmas I received an LP of Laughton reading from the Bible (my husband knows me well!) and which I find absolutely riveting--he brings it alive for me as no one ever has before--and I'm far from religious.

Gloria said...

Glad you liked it, Galileo's daughter!

The issue of Charles' attractive is an interesting one. I just recalled an anecdote from Charles' first reding tour: according to Charles Higham book, the audiences were impressed, to the fact that women of diverse ages proposed to him (ignorant, or maybe just oblivious, that he has married already, LOL)... That is, if there were women who liked him, my guess is, probably more than a guy did, too.

I feel Simon Callow was right when he wrote that Charles didn't feel he could look attractive to a man he found attractive, and this might be his main dilemma... In this sense, he probably was overwhelmed when, having a crush as he did on Gary Cooper (it's obvious that it wasn't only Coop's natural way of screen acting what impressed him), Coop was quite friendly to him.

I have seen pictures of CL as a teen, and honest, the 12 or 19-year old Charles may not be Gary Cooper or Brad Pitt, but he's certainly not an ugly teenager. Charles feelings about his own looks surely owe a lot to an strict religious upbringing: even if he stopped believing/going to church after the war, the feeling that he was "sinning" never quite left him. And of course, this is speculation, but it might well be that in his youth, a violent rejection, or being derided by someone he liked might have made him even more shy about his looks.

TLIM is also my number one ;D, I regret he didn't work more with Miss O'Hara, as there's indeed electricity in the air when they appear onscreen together. And by the end she manages to convey that *SPOILERS AHEAD* she's quite in love with Albert Lory, too (and consider he had quite a competitor in the strapping George Sanders). I have a copy of Charles in which he says how he liked to work in this film, and also, his enthusiasm about "getting the girl" in the end... Which indicates he sort of got a boost from it, and again, the fact that he liked, for once playing a romantic hero -of sorts-, may indicate that he didn't feel so awfully bad about himself all of the time.

I think I could make a post about the TLIM-related contents of that letter... Do you think it would be interesting?

As for Sanders' memoir, I'd say that maybe the ghost writer may have put the stuff properly together, but from I have read in other Sanders books, quoting original letters, etc, the style, and the caustic wit, was all his own. You might like to read This interesting post about how he came to be cast as Shere Khan (the early sketches depicted a tiger more in the looks of Basil Rathbone). I think you're right that Laughton's versatile voice could have been a gift for the best of animators, still, in his lifetime, big-time stars weren't asked to dub animation pictures as they are today. Sanders or Peter Ustinov being notable exceptions back then.

I'm not a religious person myself, and I like Charles' Bible readings as well... I think the secret lies in the fact that Charles regarded his Bible readings, not as a religious act, but a literary one: he wasn't preaching, he was telling a story.

galileosdaughter said...

Gloria, so many interesting things all at once! Though Callow talks a lot in his book about Laughton's self-hatred and how he channelled this into performances like "Hunchback" and "Bounty", I think he rather neglects what I consider the more expressive and even bouncy Tiggerish aspect of Laughton, as so well described by a previous poster of him dancing a jig. I do love to watch him move, and if there is often a plaintive or even blustering quality to his persona there is always intelligence and wit, his saving grace. Who wouldn't want to hang out with Senator Cooley on a park bench?

Sanders was a witty man, and a self-aware one. And he, like Laughton had this "tragic sense of life" that makes their performances often much more powerful than their films. Peter Lorre had it, too. I do think there is an excellent post to be done about that letter--but then there are no shortage of excellent topics where Mr. Laughton is concerned. One I would like to see is a detailed look at "Sidewalks of London", a film that I think holds up rather well, especially in the very realistic street scenes.

Gloria said...


If one reads Preston Neal Jones' "Heaven and Hell to play with" there are a good number of anecdotes by cast, crew and other people involved in the film which reveal that Laughton was quite a guy to hang with. Of course, I'm sure he had his share unhappy/morose days (so generously described by Elsa), but, even if he had, as Burgess Meredith wrote, his share of deep sorrows, he was obviously capable of also being a good, warm friend of his friends, i.e. When Robert Siodmak had bad reviews of one of his films, Laughton would come to his place with a basket of fruit and say ""Robert, do you need a friend?" (Hum, not exactly the egotistical ogre which Elsa Lanchester and Paul Gregory enjoy to describe, huh?)

Sanders had an advantage over Laughton, this being not caring at all what people could say about him. I recently posted this anecdote at the Self-Styled Siren's:

"Brian Aherne tells the story that, during WW2, Nigel Bruce irately asked Sanders during a Brit party why he had not donated to some charity relief as any other decent Englishman in Tinseltown had done. Sanders unruffled answer was "because I'm a shit, that's why".

Sanders may come as the heartless bastard in the eyes of many present there, but to put in balance this, one must think that George and his family had to leave Russia after the revolution with little possessions, and George must have thought that no charity helped him back then.

Also, Bruce could be a bit annoying in his self-appointed role as watchdog of the British Raj: Elsa Lanchester recalls how, one day, Bruce came banging at her house, to irately blare to her and Charles Laughton that they had not contributed to a relief charity... After what must have been an exchange of looks of utter puzzlement between Charles and Elsa, they went into the house, and brought back to Bruce a letter of thanks from said charity: they had, as a matter of fact, contributed with a very handsome sum, only that they asked to remain anonymous (for them, it was a metter of actually helping, not getting publicity for having helped)

Bruce had, of course, to retire from the Laughtons' place with his tail between his legs. Served him well."

Laughton wasn't, in this sense, as non-chalant as Sanders. He was obviously concerned at/sensible about some vicious comments he had to hear/read when, i.e. touring in the early fifties in Britain with "Don Juan In Hell" (which was kept from playing in London with no solid explanation)...

I take note about a "Sidewalks of London/St. Martin's Lane" post... I tj¡hink that laughton's Mayflower films are unfairly forgotten: while they were not perfect movies, they have a good deal of interesting points. Indeed, the London portrayed in the film dissappeared.

Incidentally, it was comments like the one in this link about Vivien Leigh, that spurred me to write this Marlene post. You'll read at that link how "Laughton had a notorious history of getting along with few of his costars", and then, funnily enough, it continues to explain how the one who was actually difficult there was... Miss Leigh!!

I won't deny that laughton didn't get along with ALL his fellow players, but this link above puts in display that Laughton's "ogre" reputation doesn't stand the actual weight of evidence, if not getting along with some of his co-workers is a crime, blast, we all oughta be in jail!

Matthew Coniam said...

Top stuff; I love WFTP.
Came across these Billy Wilder quotes recently:

"(He was) this universal, interested, fascinating man - the complete Renaissance man, one who could talk engrossingly and knowledgeably about Impressionist painting and Burgundy wine, who could phone at eleven thirty at night and say 'You must come over straight away. I have a plant which will open at midnight and it only opens once a year and you must see it.' There was no way of saying 'Who the hell cares? I've seen plants open and close, no big deal.' Oh no, I had to be there."

"You know, when we had finished the principal photography there was only one thing left to do and that was to shoot the reactions of the jury to all the stuff that had happened during the trial.
Laughton came by the studio one day and asked what I was doing and I told him. He said 'How do you do that?' I said, 'Well, I'd have various shots of the jury from this side and that and they'd have to react to Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, to the judge, to you and blah, blah, blah.' He said 'Well, who's reading the lines off-stage?' I said 'I don't know, maybe the script girl or somebody.' He said 'Let me do it.' I said 'Charles, this is wearisome. This is a chore.' He said 'I must do it.' And there he was in a Hawaiian shirt and unshaven - you could still see his breakfast on his shirt - and he played all the parts and it was one of the most stunning displays of universal talent. He played Dietrich better than Dietrich ever was, he played Ty Power better than Ty Power, he was just fabulous, absolutely fabulous. I was enthralled. This was like a one-man football team. He played the goalkeeper and the striker and the referee too. It was fantastic, what he did...
My God this was an actor who brought with him a great big bag of stuff. He would discuss a scene with me and he would say 'I could do it this way,' and I'd say 'That's good.' Then he'd say 'Or I could do it this way,' and I'd say 'That's better.' And then came twenty more versions, and I'd say 'that's it, that's it', and the next morning he would arrive and say 'I thought of something last night. There's one other way.' And that that would be absolutely stupendous too."

Definitely the greatest!

Gloria said...

Matthew, I love Billy Wilder's recollections of Charles! I imagine you know the one when Charles, fatally ill, "acted" healthy to convince Billy Wilder that he'll be able to play Moustache in "Irma la Douce"

It is generally assumed by film historians that Charles was a pain in the ass to whichever director was working with him, assuming that Joseph Sternberg's difficulties with Charles in "I Claudius", or Hitchcock in "Jamaica Inn" were universal, and always the actor was to blame in such cases...

Still, I've come through a number of directors' references of enjoying the time they worked with Charles... You've quoted Wilder, and I could add Lubistch, Jean Renoir, Henry Koster, Robert Siodmack or Otto Preminger: all of them had warm memories of Charles.

Maybe it's time for film historians to balance the portrait?

Matthew Coniam said...

Exactly - it's not that Laughton was particularly difficult, just had his own definite opinions on things. Obviously, with directors like Sternberg and Hitchcock, who don't like any interference at all from 'mere' actors, there's going to be a bit of friction. But my understanding is that Charles was far from the only one at fault with I Claudius, and on Jamaica Inn he was a little annoying but no more - plus he was producing it so he may have been especially anxious.
By the way, my post on CL is now up at Movietone!
Best, Matthew

Gloria said...

Your Movietone post is just awesome: I read it before going to work, and I almost got late, he, he... (not that I regret it), I'll try to comment it ASAP.

As for Laughton and his difficulties, I don't mean that he was right and the directors wrong... When I check the facts I see that, as Renoir used to say "everybody has his/her reasons", but since the usual tale is that "CL was the difficult one" I of course arque in favour of his reasons: when one reads all the accounts (and not only teh director's( one may find a good number of reasons to stand for Laughton, i.e. he may been over-insecure working in Claudius, but Sternberg wasn't an angelic guy... I recently read a book of interviews by Joseph Mankiewicz, and he describes Sternberg as a huge eccentric and megalomaniac.

As for Claudius, I wonder if things would have gone better if teh shooting hadn't been cancelled because of merle Oberon's accident... Elsa Lanchester always said Charles used to be particularly insecure in the early stages of a shooting.

In fact, the more I think it, Possibly many directors today would prefer an actor whose main "difficulty" was, as in Charles' case, that he had opinions of his own, and was concerned about giving the best possible: we've known, after all, of capricious stars who were difficult, and, sadly, not in order to give a good performance.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Glad I found your blog via a comment you made on my own. I'll be adding to my blog-roll and reading regularly.

Julio said...

ADORO esta película... está increíble, aunque la escena del monóculo en el despacho -he revisado la película muchas veces-, para mi gusto, está algo forzada y no resulta del todo realista, pero bueno...

A Wilder se le perdona todo!!

Gloria said...

Ja, ja... bueno, no creo que pasen esta película en las facultades de Derecho como "Documental".

Aunque para mí la verosimilitud en este caso es lo de menos: a mí lo que me gusta es la comedia, que para eso es de WIlder ;D... En el fondo, todo el caso de la defensa de un hombre acusado injustamente nos es mas que un MacGuffin: creo que la verdadera película trata de cómo Sir Wilfrid escamotea alcohol y tabaco (y vaya usted a saber si algo más...) ante las narices de Miss Plimsoll