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Quasimodo in America

Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor

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

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 his daughter), as she had done in London. Theirs was a strange marriage—her discovery of his homosexuality came well after the ceremony, and Callow thinks that she never really forgave him for it—but they stayed married, after a fashion, until the end of his life.

Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) made Laughton an international star. His Holbein-inspired performance was vivid and amusing and it earned him his only Academy Award. His next three films in Hollywood made his image familiar internationally: he played the tyrannical and incestuous Mr. Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934); the implacable Inspector Javert in Les Miserables (1935); and finally, Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), defying both his crew and the sea itself. A patriarchal horror show: three figures of repressive and repellent masculine authority, illustrating, like the Chinese mask in Brecht’s poem, “what a strain it is to be evil.”

In the same year he also appeared as the gentle butler hero of Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), one of the decade’s most popular comedies. His Rembrandt (1936)—for Korda again—was powerful and moving, probably the most convincing portrait of a great artist the movies have yet recorded. And like Ruggles it was one of the few roles in which Laughton didn’t exploit a repugnant aspect of himself.

These triumphs culminated in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)—in which the deformed Quasimodo (Laughton insisted on a particularly hideous and painful makeup) embodies not only physical repugnance but also a baffled and inchoate tenderness. Callow calls it Laughton’s greatest performance, “a yard-stick for all acting”—in spite of the mediocrity of the film itself. Clearly for Laughton this performance was some kind of apotheosis drawn from his lifelong obsession with his own ugliness. They wanted to crucify him—and now he let them. The burden of Quasimodo was his final challenge to the world of power and authority: the ultimate fat-ugly-faggot role, a Christ without the heavenly connections.

The last twenty years of Laughton’s life were less ambitious. Callow thinks that in some sense he gave up serious acting altogether after The Hunchback: “He climbed down from the cross, pulled out the nails, and made with uncertain steps for real life.” Although he continued to act until his death—usually in gruff but likable character parts—he had only one more major screen performance to give: in 1943, as the coward-turned-hero in Jean Renoir’s This Land is Mine.

In the meantime he began a new career as an avuncular-seeming reader and storyteller, traveling across America as an unofficial spokesman for culture and Beauty, reading from Shakespeare, the Bible, and Thomas Wolfe. With his staged readings of Don Juan in Hell in 1951 and John Brown’s Body in 1953, he became a “hot” new Broadway director, an “innovator” of middlebrow theater. His biggest success was his production of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial in 1954 (he helped Wouk to write it), with its notorious praise of militarism and blind obedience in the last act. (Eric Bentley called it “Captain Bligh’s revenge.”) Where Laughton the public figure had once been outré, he now wanted to be liked, it seemed, at long last. He was going out of the way to be beloved, in fact—almost as if something had gotten out of control. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, reading from the Bible and “introducing” Elvis Presley (Callow is particularly funny about this event).

But even in his more compliant years, he had some daring and remarkable achievements: his three-year collaboration with Bertolt Brecht on the text and production in 1947, of Galileo, one of the central events of modern theater; The Night of the Hunter in 1955, his late debut as a film director; and his even later attempts in 1959 at Stratford-Upon-Avon—“when he was old and fat and ill”—to play King Lear, a lifelong ambition, and (by most accounts) a moving and heroic failure.

Simon Callow, himself an extraordinarily fine actor,1 has “prepared” Laughton almost like a part he was about to play. The book itself is an inspired and revealing performance. And it turns out, partly because of Laughton’s own complexity and depth, to be more instructive on the subject of acting than Callow’s previous book, Being an Actor (1984). The monstrousness Laughton shows in characters like Bligh and Javert, the hatred and self-loathing, were, Callow argues, always something he found in himself. That is how he could make monsters almost as moving as they were repellent, drawing the audience in through his intensity and pain. Where other actors like Olivier seem almost to hide behind the parts they play, Laughton found a way, in even the most improbable and impenetrable guises (Quasimodo, for example), to expose himself. He had no interest, Callow tells us, in acting that was merely realistic. His Mr. Barrett was far from what the real Victorian patriarch could have been like—far even from the character in Rudolf Besier’s play. The turbulent inner life that Laughton drew upon when he conceived his roles seemed to require in his performances a kind of “super-realism,” involving an exaggerated behavior that became a kind of gift to impersonators everywhere, and was often mistaken (as Callow would have it) for hamminess. It was this larger-than-life style that endeared Laughton to Brecht, who took it for a confirmation (yet one more) of his own antinaturalist theatricalism.

What finally endears Laughton to Callow, however, is something quite different, something Brecht the materialist would reject: what he calls Laughton’s “high seriousness”—not only his painful earnestness about acting but the moral ambition of his performances. “Every character an actor plays,” Laughton once said, should reflect “the god in man.” Callow accepts this without a hint of skepticism. With his interest in tradition and evaluation and moral standards, Callow is in the F.R. Leavis line: he believes in “great” acting, and is concerned to identify it.2 “Some half dozen of Laughton’s performances of the Thirties,” he writes, “are of an originality and intensity that set them apart from the work of almost any other actor of the century.” Callow is at his most persuasive both as a writer and a critic when he is evoking these performances for us: Captain Bligh, his mouth “downturned with rage and self-disgust,” vainly attempting “to be charming” for some visitors to his ship; or Mr. Barrett contemplating the “radiant openness” of his invalid daughter, like “a succubus ogling an ocelot.”

The book has many subtle and exact descriptions of what Laughton does on the screen. As Henry VIII, “he is capricious but there isn’t the slightest suggestion that Henry’s beheadings were due to blood-thirstiness. He is of open countenance, unhesitatingly self-confident.” But Callow seems not quite to trust these passages to make his case. He always gives in, before he’s done, to outbreaks of capital letters (“being Charles Laughton on Behalf of Humanity”), or intimidating diction (“matrices of human experience”) and florid sentiment (“to exalt the human soul and to heal the damaged heart”). “Every scene that Laughton plays” in The Hunchback, Callow tells us, “is informed by this sense of relation to the whole of mankind’s life.”

But surprisingly, considering the provocation, Callow puts you so much on the side of Laughton and even of his excesses that you may accept Callow’s excesses too. He is a generous observer, as well as a shrewd one, and his sense of acting as a high vocation is moving. Those half dozen performances in 1930s films that he believes show Laughton’s greatness (as Henry VIII, Mr. Barrett, Captain Bligh, Javert, Rembrandt, Quasimodo)—all (except for Mr. Barrett) currently available on commercial videotape—turn out to be just as remarkable as he says they are.

But his larger claims for Laughton—as “a hero of acting” who pushed the art “further and deeper” than anyone of our century—are hard to accept. There is something troubling about Laughton, in my view, that Callow, for all his exhaustiveness, never really touches on, and it limits Laughton’s achievement. But if Callow’s book doesn’t persuade you of Laughton’s greatness it is fascinating about Laughton’s pursuit of that greatness—and especially about his relation to America, his adopted land.

  1. 1

    Last spring in London Callow played the “title role” in a seven-and-a-half-hour West End production of Goethe’s Faust—to great acclaim. It’s also worth noting that he once recreated Laughton’s famous role of Perelli (unsuccessfully, he tells us) in a West End revival (1984) of On the Spot.

  2. 2

    Callow is a reminder of how much of the contemporary English theater is still, against all odds, preoccupied with such standards—and how many English theater artists were shaped by their exposure as students of Leavis’s Cambridge lectures. Peter Hall says in his 1978 Diaries that “all the textual seriousness” of his own work comes from Leavis: “and there is a vast band of us. Comical to think that Leavis hated the theatre and never went to it. He has had more influence on the contemporary theater than any other critic.”

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