From early in my film-going career I was a fan of Charles Laughton. So I was very pleased to be offered a review of this new volume. David Redfern’s earlier book was ‘A Letter of Introduction: The Life and Films of James Stephenson’ (BearManor Media, 2013), the British born performer who worked in Hollywood and even won an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Letter (1940). Now Redfern turns to the even more famous British actor who worked here and in Hollywood. Laughton, in life and on screen, was a larger than life character. He was a fine actor on stage and screen though in the latter case he could (as is noted in this book) perform over the top. The study provides a brief résumé of his life and career but it mainly details and discusses the fifty four films in which he was involved.
This has required long and extensive research. Even as a fan I have not seen all his screen appearances. Some of his earliest ones are believed lost: some are only available in film archives: a number that do survive are rarely seen in the cinema: whilst the most popular do tend to be available on 35 mm and in digital facsimiles. The author has viewed all the possible titles and researched those that are lost.
The films are set out chronologically. Each title has full production details including the craft and actors uncredited. He also includes information on the available versions of the film. There is a full synopsis and then a production commentary. The latter includes contemporary comments and extracts from reviews. With the sound films he has included ‘taglines’ taken from studio publicity and contemporary reviews There is also selected dialogue from many of the films; sadly Laughton’s films were not always served with the most literate dialogue. He includes details of the career of Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s long time partner and fellow actor who appeared on stage and on screen with him in numerous occasions.
I have seen the three titles in which Laughton appeared in supporting roles to Elsa Lanchester, directed by Ivor Montage: Blue Bottles (1928): Day Dreams (1928): The Tonic (1928). We only get glimpses of Laughton but these short films, really part of an avant-garde cinema, are worth seeing, though such opportunities are rare. Ivor Montagu remains a fascinating figure from the silent era; his relationship with other progressive filmmakers, like Sergei Eisenstein, is an important but marginalized space in British cinema. Some lost or rare British commercial titles bought Laughton to the attention of Hollywood and Paramount Pictures. The Devil and the Deep (1932) has an early appearance for Cary Grant: a powerful but really too forceful performance by Laughton: and an incredibly complicated and implausible plot.
The 1933 The Private of Henry VIII was a key title in developing Laughton’s film career winning him an Academy Award. There are details of the director’s, Alexander Korda, thoughts on working with Laughton.
“Although he later complained, “Charles needs a midwife, not a director”, he and Laughton hit it off, at least initially.”
As with many colleagues Laughton was seen as a talented but demanding associate.
The other outstanding characterizations of the 1930s must include Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1936), with a tagline “The flaming pages of history record the grandest adventure of all time”: Javert in Les Misérables (1935), for which “Laughton trudged through slime and mud fo9r shots representing the Parisian sewers”: as Rembrandt (1936), who receives the line “Vanity of vanities. All in Vanity”: and a personal favourite as the title character in The Hunchback of the Notre Dame (1939), tagline “Magnificent Beyond Compare”. There is a quote of the famous line,
“Quasimodo :”Why was I not made of stone like thee?””
addressed to the cathedral gargoyles in the outstanding closing shot.
There is also director, William Dieterle with his comments on Laughton;
“Charles |Laughton is the most eccentric person I have ever met.”
There were British films in this period, including St. Martin’s Lane (1938), a portrait of London Buskers: and the less satisfactory Hitchcock production Jamaica Inn (1939). Also less outstanding would be as Captain Kidd (1945) or the repeat Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). But then there is Hobson’s Choice (1954) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957); both films which lit up my film going in the 1950s. Both enjoyed direction by major artists, David Lean and Billy Wilder.
I only caught The Night of the Hunter (1955) in the 1960s: a masterwork which sadly was Laughton’s only foray as director; though as the author notes, along with fellow co-stars, he had directorial inputs on The Man in the Eiffel Tower (1949). But the 1955 masterwork is of a different order;
“steeped in images that are memorable and striking. And yet at the same time, the hypnotic nature of these images is often complex and difficult to fathom.”
He notes the importance of the artifacts, including out-takes, bequeathed by Elsa Lanchester to the American Film Institute.
With all of these the author offers an extended commentary drawing out the virtues of Laughton’s performance and interesting detail on the course of the productions. He ends, as did Laughton’s career, with the very fine Advise and Consent (1962). The author notes the studio poster publicity which asked;
“Are the men and women of Washington really like this?”
A question that would be unnecessary today.
The study reminds one just how varied was Laughton’s career as well as the way that it went up and down, both in the quality of the performances and in the success or otherwise of the releases. The individual assessments are clear though. I did not agree with all of them; I remember liking They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and liking Laughton’s performance. But the comments made me want to revisit the film and reappraise it.
The appendices are thorough and useful We find the ‘short’, ‘unreleased’ and ‘re-edited’ films with ‘unfulfilled projects’. There are lists of both amateur and professional stage appearances. And a selection of Laughton’s work on radio, television and recordings. Then we have three Appendix on films listed by studio, performance and cinematographers; the last is very interesting. Finally we have the Chapter Notes: a Bibliography: and a General Index. There are a number of illustrative stills and photographs, usually about a column wide [two columns a page] and the definition of these is good.
I was happy to read a comprehensive and detailed study of Laughton’s film work. Some of the titles I have seen in recent years, notably The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Witness for the Prosecution; they stand up really well. And the book is encouraging me to seek out more of his other titles. He remains a key and iconic character from the days of studio production.
Charles Laughton A Filmography, 1928 – 1962
David A. Redfern. McFarland & Company, Inc. 2021
2013 pages with illustrations.
Available in print and as an ebook.