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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

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

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.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The last of Ben Harper

"I'm going now, children... Goodbye"

While most obituaries about the recently deceased Peter Graves remember his work in the TV series "mission impossible", many of you may also remember him as Ben Harper, the good man whose only day of dishonesty takes him to the gallows, a short but relevant role in The Night of the Hunter...
I was working with John Ford in a picture. One day I started to say: "About this scene. This part I'm playing. I think that–" Ford snapped me shut. "Don't think in my picture, " he growled. Moving from Ford to Charles was like moving from hell to heaven

So stated Graves when asked about his memories of The Night of the Hunter. Laughton is sometimes pointed as a "difficult" actor by some directors, but Peter Graves' comment makes evident that even actors without a feisty reputation on the sets resented being treated by directors as if they were objects. It should be no surprise that, when Laughton was behind the camera, wouldn't forget what it felt like to be in front, and in consequence, be considerate towards them, to the point that he wouldn't interrupt takes with a "Cut!", and keep the camera rolling, in order to preserve his actors' concentration (this curious proceeding, by the way, left a remarkable lengtht of precious celluloid).

Laughton directs Preacher trying to convince Ben Harper about making a substantial donation to his holy cause

I'll give you again a link to a recent interview with Peter Graves .

Plus a few homages in the blogosphere: Plumas de Caballo , Bright Lights after dark , Screensavers , Edward Copeland on Film.

...And in the online press: The Guardian , The New Yorker , The Times , The New York Times , Los Angeles Times , El Pais.