Quasimodo in America

Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor

by Simon Callow
Grove Press, 318 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton; drawing by David Levine

While he was directing the stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial in 1954, Charles Laughton, as Simon Callow recounts in his book, had severe problems with the star, Henry Fonda. One day Fonda, who was unhappy with both the play and his role (as Barney Greenwald, the prosecuting attorney), made a remark in anger for which Laughton never forgave him. During the rehearsals, Laughton made a comment about military behavior and Fonda turned on him and said: “What do you know about men, you fat, ugly faggot!” Laughton never spoke to Fonda again, not even ten years later when they were in a film together.

This is one of the many stories Callow tells that put the reader on Laughton’s side. Throughout his life Laughton had a propensity, it seemed, for provoking in others the stupidest, most self-exposing kinds of brutality. As a child too: “he was the kind of boy,” one of his contemporaries remembered, “one longed to take a good kick at.” But the Fonda story stands out not only because of its cruelty but also because it touches upon how much Laughton’s art, in his most deeply imagined performances, from Captain Bligh to Quasimodo, was concerned with such cruelty, and especially the forms it took in “the world of men.” Laughton’s own passionate opposition to systems of masculine authority—to “militarism, command, hierarchy”—is one of the things that makes him seem especially sympathetic now.

Laughton grew up at the beginning of the century in his parents’ Scarborough hotel, raised mostly by servants until he was old enough to be sent to a series of strict Catholic boarding schools. His ambitious mother’s Catholicism was as fierce as her business instinct (the hotel was a great success), and he grew to hate the Church—just as he would hate the army when he served an appalling year in the trenches during World War I. He was near a breakdown when he came home, and Callow tells us, quite plausibly, that he was never to lose “the darkness he brought back with him.”

He found some relief, it seems, in taking part in amateur theatricals in Scarborough; and after leaving the family business and studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he had his first great success on the London stage in the late 1920s—Solyony in The Three Sisters, the gangster chief Perelli in On the Spot, the murderous Mr. Marble in Payment Deferred, and so on—playing characters who embodied the darkest human impulses. These were the impulses of his audience too, he wrote to an actor who was about to play one of the roles on tour, adding that “they naturally want to crucify me for telling them so.” But they were also making him famous, and he was soon crossing the Atlantic to play Mr. Marble on Broadway, with his wife Elsa Lanchester again in the cast (playing…

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