Best known for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mutiny on the Bounty and Witness for the Prosecution.
Devil and the Deep
If I Had A Million
The Sign of the Cross
The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Vessel of Wrath
St. Martin’s Lane
They Knew What They Wanted
It Started with Eve
The Tuttles of Tahiti
Stand By for Action
Forever and a Day
This Land is Mine
The Man From Down Under
The Canterville Ghost
Because of Him
Leben des Galilei
On Our Merry Way (originally A Miracle Can Happen)
Arch of Triumph
The Girl from Manhattan
The Man on the Eiffel Tower
The Blue Veil
The Strange Door
O. Henry’s Full House
Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd
Sotto dieci bandiere
I have a face that would stop a sundial. ~ Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton was born July 1, 1899 in Scarborough, North Riding of Yorkshire, the son of Eliza (née Conlon; 1869–1953) and Robert Laughton (1869–1924), Yorkshire hotel keepers.
His mother was a devout Roman Catholic of Irish ancestry, and she sent him to a local boys’ school, Scarborough College, before sending him to Stonyhurst College, the pre-eminent English Jesuit school. Laughton served in World War I, during which he was gassed, serving first with the 2/1st Battalion of the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion, and then with the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.
He started work in the family hotel, while also participating in amateur theatre in Scarborough. He was allowed by his family to become a drama student at RADA in 1925, where actor Claude Rains was one of his teachers. Laughton made his first professional appearance on April 28, 1926 at the Barnes Theatre, as Osip in the comedy The Government Inspector, which he also appeared in at London’s Gaiety Theatre in May. He impressed audiences with his talent and had classical roles in two Chekov plays, The Cherry Orchard and The Three Sisters.
Laughton commenced his film career in Britain while still acting on the London stage. He also took small roles in three short silent comedies starring his wife Elsa Lanchester, Daydreams, Blue Bottles and The Tonic (all 1928) which had been specially written for her by H.G. Wells and were directed by Ivor Montagu. He made a brief appearance as a disgruntled diner in another silent film Piccadilly with Anna May Wong in 1929. He appeared with Lanchester again in a “film revue”, featuring assorted British variety acts, called Comets (1930) in which they sang a duet, “The Ballad of Frankie and Johnnie”. He made two other early British talkies: Wolves with Dorothy Gish (1930) from a play set in a whaling camp in the frozen north, and Down River (1931), in which he played a drug-smuggling ship’s captain.
His New York stage debut at the Lyceum Theatre on September 24, 1931 immediately led to film offers and Laughton’s first Hollywood film was The Old Dark House (1932) with Boris Karloff, in which he played a bluff Yorkshire businessman marooned during a storm with other travelers in a creepy remote Welsh manor. He then played a demented submarine commander in Devil and the Deep with Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, and followed this with his best-remembered film role of that year as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross. Laughton turned out other memorable performances during that first Hollywood trip, repeating his stage role as a murderer in Payment Deferred, playing H.G. Wells’ mad vivisectionist Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls, and the meek raspberry-blowing clerk in the brief segment of If I Had A Million, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. He appeared in six Hollywood films in 1932. His association with director Alexander Korda began in 1933 with the hugely successful The Private Life of Henry VIII (loosely based on the life of King Henry VIII), for which Laughton won an Academy Award. He also continued to act occasionally on stage, including a US production of The Life of Galileo by (and with) Bertolt Brecht.
Laughton soon gave up the stage for films and returned to Hollywood, where his next film was White Woman (1933) in which he co-starred with Carole Lombard as a Cockney river trader in the Malayan jungle. Then came The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) as Norma Shearer’s character’s malevolent father (although Laughton was only three years older than Shearer); Les Misérables (1935) as Inspector Javert; one of his most famous screen roles in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) as Captain William Bligh, co-starring with Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian; and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) as the very English butler transported to early 1900s America. He signed to play Micawber in David Copperfield (1935), but after a few days shooting asked to be released from the part and was replaced by W. C. Fields.
Back in the UK, and again with Korda, he played the title role in Rembrandt (1936). In 1937, also for Korda, he starred in an ill-fated film version of the classic novel, I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, which was abandoned during filming owing to the injuries suffered by co-star Merle Oberon in a car crash. After I, Claudius, he and the expatriate German film producer Erich Pommer founded the production company Mayflower Pictures in the UK, which produced three films starring Laughton: Vessel of Wrath (US title The Beachcomber) (1938), based on a story by W. Somerset Maugham, in which his wife, Elsa Lanchester, co-starred; St. Martin’s Lane (US title Sidewalks of London), about London street entertainers, which featured Vivien Leigh and Rex Harrison; and Jamaica Inn, with Maureen O’Hara and Robert Newton, about Cornish shipwreckers, based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, and the last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Britain before moving to Hollywood in the late 1930s.
The films produced were not commercially successful enough, and the company was saved from bankruptcy only when RKO Pictures offered Laughton the title role (Quasimodo) in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), with Jamaica Inn co-star O’Hara. Laughton and Pommer had plans to make further films, but the outbreak of World War II, which implied the loss of many foreign markets, meant the end of the company. Laughton’s early success in The Private Life of Henry VIII established him as one of the leading interpreters of the costume and historical drama parts for which he is best remembered (Nero, Henry VIII, Mr. Barrett, Inspector Javert, Captain Bligh, Rembrandt, Quasimodo and others); he was also type-cast for arrogant, unscrupulous characters.
He largely moved away from historical parts when he played an Italian vineyard owner in California in They Knew What They Wanted (1940); a South Seas patriarch in The Tuttles of Tahiti (1942); and an American admiral during World War II in Stand By for Action (1942). He played a Victorian butler in Forever and a Day (1943) and an Australian bar-owner in The Man from Down Under (1943). Simon Callow’s 1987 biography quotes a number of contemporary reviews of Laughton’s performances in these films. James Agate, reviewing Forever and a Day, wrote: “Is there no-one at RKO to tell Charles Laughton when he is being plain bad?” On the other hand, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times declared that Forever and a Day boasted “superb performances”.
C. A. Lejeune, wrote Callow, was “shocked” by the poor quality of Laughton’s work of that period: “One of the most painful screen phenomena of latter years”, she wrote in The Observer, “has been the decline and fall of Charles Laughton.” On the other hand, David Shipman, in his book The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, said “Laughton was a total actor. His range was wide”.
Laughton played a cowardly schoolmaster in occupied France in This Land is Mine (1943), by Jean Renoir, in which he engaged himself most actively; in fact, while Renoir was still working on an early script, Laughton would talk about Alphonse Daudet’s story “The Last Lesson”, which suggested to Renoir a relevant scene for the film. Laughton played a henpecked husband who eventually murders his wife in The Suspect (1944), directed by Robert Siodmak, who would become a good friend. He played sympathetically an impoverished composer-pianist in Tales of Manhattan (1942) and starred in an updated version of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost in 1944.
Laughton appeared in two comedies with Deanna Durbin, It Started with Eve (1941) and Because of Him (1946). He portrayed a bloodthirsty pirate in Captain Kidd (1945) and a malevolent judge in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1948). Laughton played a megalomaniac press tycoon in The Big Clock (1948). He had supporting roles as a Nazi in pre-war Paris in Arch of Triumph (1948), as a bishop in The Girl from Manhattan (1948), as a seedy go-between in The Bribe (1949), and as a kindly widower in The Blue Veil (1951). He played a Bible-reading pastor in the multi-story A Miracle Can Happen (1947), but his piece wound up being cut and replaced with another featuring Dorothy Lamour, and in this form the film was retitled as On Our Merry Way. However, an original print of A Miracle Can Happen was sent abroad for dubbing before the Laughton sequence was deleted, and in this form it was shown in Spain as Una Encuesta Llamada Milagro.
Laughton made his first color film in Paris as Inspector Maigret in The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949) and, wrote the Monthly Film Bulletin, “appeared to overact” alongside Boris Karloff as a mad French nobleman in a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Door in 1951. He played a tramp in O. Henry’s Full House (1952). He became the pirate Captain Kidd again, this time for comic effect, in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). Laughton made a guest appearance on the Colgate Comedy Hour (featuring Abbott and Costello), in which he delivered the Gettysburg Address. In 1953 he played Herod Antipas in Salome, and he reprised his role as Henry VIII in Young Bess, a 1953 drama about Henry’s children.
He returned to Britain to star in Hobson’s Choice (1954), directed by David Lean. Laughton received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his role in Witness for the Prosecution (1957). He played a British admiral in Under Ten Flags (1960) and worked with Laurence Olivier in Spartacus (1960). His final film was Advise & Consent (1962), for which he received favorable comments for his performance as a Southern US Senator (for which accent he studied recordings of Mississippi Senator John C. Stennis).
In 1955, Laughton directed The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish, and produced by his friend Paul Gregory. The film has been cited among critics as one of the best of the 1950s, and has been selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress. At the time of its original release it was a critical and box-office failure, and Laughton never directed again. The documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter by Robert Gitt (2002) features preserved rushes and outtakes with Laughton’s audible off-camera direction.
In 1927, Laughton began a relationship with Elsa Lanchester, at the time a castmate in a stage play. The two were married in 1929, became US citizens in 1950, and remained together until Laughton’s death. Over the years, they appeared together in several films, including Rembrandt (1936), Tales of Manhattan (1942) and The Big Clock (1948). Lanchester portrayed Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife, opposite Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII. They both received Academy Award nominations for their performances in Witness for the Prosecution (1957)—Laughton for Best Actor, and Lanchester for Best Supporting Actress—but neither won.
Although Laughton’s bisexuality has been corroborated by several of his contemporaries and is generally accepted by Hollywood historians, actress Maureen O’Hara, a friend and co-star of Laughton, has disputed the contention that his sexuality was the reason Laughton and Lanchester did not have children. O’Hara claimed Laughton told her that he had wanted children but that it had not been possible because of a botched abortion that Lanchester had early in her career of performing burlesque. In her autobiography, Lanchester acknowledged two abortions in her youth—one of the pregnancies purportedly by Laughton—although she didn’t mention whether she had been rendered infertile. According to her biographer, Charles Higham, the reason she did not have children was that she did not want any.
Charles Laughton died on December 15, 1962 from renal cancer. His body was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills)
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