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 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.

Laughton was committed from the beginning of his career to an art of painful self-exposure. It’s no wonder that he felt at odds with the English theater of his time, with its stifling professionalism, its decorum and caution—and that he was drawn to America, where he could find, or so he thought, a recklessness matching his own. The country was not only freer of the class condescension he loathed in England, it was much less certain of what acting was or could be; he could boast (as he often did) that he was an “amateur.” Americans were more tolerant of self-absorption, were even capable of being impressed by it: after all, if “truth” isn’t inside you, if it isn’t a matter of “honesty” and “sincerity,” if it isn’t personal—what could it be? Laughton prefigures the Method, the most distinctively American acting style of our time: Marlon Brando is his descendant; so are the boy-men stars of the 1950s and 1960s, from James Dean to Steve McQueen—movie stars who projected a more narcissistic image not only of leading men but of men in general.

He felt at home in America, Callow tells us, almost from the day he arrived. Here, he imagined, he could have an impact beyond anything he might have dreamed of in England: first in the movies, with their vast popular audience—later by his public reading tours. The wide open spaces, whether in the landscape or on the faces of the Americans he read aloud to, were a sign to him of something to be filled (“Charles believed,” wrote Elsa Lanchester, “that in America people never stopped wanting to learn”) by the great thoughts and beautiful words he offered with such passion and earnestness. He was a teacher and prophet, Callow says. But, as with many of us, the America he experienced most acutely was the one he imagined.

Nothing makes this clearer, or in a more alarming way, than The Night of the Hunter, the one film he directed (its box office failure precluded any others), which Callow, among others, regards as a masterpiece. It is certainly a very personal work: Laughton not only directed but controlled every aspect of it, even to writing the screenplay (James Agee, who gets the credit on the screen, was too far gone in drink and illness to have earned it), adapting it from a bestselling novel by Davis Grubb. Set in a remote riverbank town in a timeless rural America largely derived from the films of D.W. Griffith (the actual time is the Depression), it is about two children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) whose widowed mother (Shelley Winters) marries an evil preacher (Robert Mitchum), who is trying to get some stolen money their dead father has left with the boy. After murdering their mother, the preacher pursues the children in their flight down river—where they are at last taken in and saved by the good-hearted widow Rachel (Lillian Gish). The story is told mostly from the children’s point of view, and the two of them are on screen more often than anyone else. What seems curious is how little real interest the movie seems to take in them.

Callow tells us (and Mitchum has told similar stories in interviews) that Laughton had difficulty on the set even being around the two child actors. He loathed the little girl from the start, it seems—especially after her grandparents got her to perform her “little French song” for him (“Dîtes-Moi” from South Pacific). And once the little boy started citing the acting awards he’d won (“Get that child away from me!” cried Laughton) Mitchum had to take over the direction of the children for the rest of the filming. The problem shows in the movie itself: the girl is coy, the boy is mechanical.

But this movie insists on being in praise of children. “Lord save little children, they abide and they endure,” intones Lillian Gish, as the benevolent widow who fills her house with waifs of all ages. “My soul is humble when I see the way little ones accept their lot,” she says at another point, to the camera and to us. “The wind blows and the rains are cold, yet they abide.” Remarks on the resilience of children are repeated so often that they begin to seem suspect. Do you know, says Gish to the little boy, that “children are man at his strongest?” The pseudo-Biblical rhetoric (much of it drawn from the novel) seems as empty of the concern it lays claim to as the movie itself finally is. Indeed, the clearest feeling the movie conveys is something quite different: there is a persisting under-current of sexual hysteria, suggesting less a child’s suffering than that of an unhappy grownup.

It seems clear that something has gone out of control when a townswoman at the church picnic proceeds to talk about her lack of sexual satisfaction during forty years of marriage (“I jus’ lie there thinkin’ about my canning”) as ringingly as if she were announcing a run for public office. The faces of the women listening to her are noncommittal, as the faces of the townspeople always are in this movie. The lines seem self-consciously addressed to us, the audience, not to the others in the movie. The film alternates between stiffly staged scenes and movie naturalism: just as the town and the river are both real (location shots of water and sky) and fake (a studio tank, a plasticene “riverbank,” a cyclorama), the characters’ talk has a regional sound but it is overlaid with self-conscious effects. “I feel clean now,” says Shelley Winters at the same picnic. “My whole body’s just aquivering with cleanness.”

That cleanness—induced by the preacher—is supposed to stand for sexual repression and madness, but they tend to merge in the movie. The preacher’s switchblade knife suddenly splits through his clothes, suggesting an erection; his fulfillment is murder. But since the film is so disconnected, we never know what causes this repression or what it means. The nightmare effects seem strangely out of proportion to the banal attitudes they are meant to convey. Its therapeutic-sentimental notions of health and sanity (“You were lookin’ for love, Ruby,” says Gish to her oldest, most troubled ward), and the reduction of human evil to pathology and repression contributes to the grandiloquent folksy-arty style that Laughton was evidently drawn to (his 1953 stage production of John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benét, his readings of Thomas Wolfe, etc.) when he set out to evoke the United States. In a way, the most American thing about Laughton’s film is its powerful will to innocence, in which Laughton’s real-life antipathy to the children in it becomes translated into a self-congratulatory benevolence, a fantasy of loving kindness. America had taught him something, it seemed, about how to handle his horrors.

The Night of the Hunter is far from displaying the kind of lowbrow vitality Laughton had admired in Hollywood when he first arrived there. He had “a passion for slapstick,” Callow says, and a craving to be involved in “a genuinely Popular Art.” When he received the 1933 Academy Award (for Henry VIII) he made the startling announcement that it should have gone to Walt Disney. “There’s your great man,” he said, pointing to him, “great because he is simple and unaffected.” The incident suggests the way he understood American life; he liked to recall how the tough talk of his first New York cab driver made Elsa and him, just off the boat from England, laugh out loud with delight. (“We laughed because we knew we were free to say the same kind of thing, too,” he said.) At a stuffy London dinner given in his honor, when an American next to him made an irreverent comment, he found himself wanting “to get back to New York so bad I could taste it.”

American irreverence delighted him. The English versions of irreverence—Noel Coward, for example, whom he avoided, or Gertrude Lawrence, whom he detested—seemed pale and snobbish by comparison to Walt Disney—or to Leo McCarey, the man who directed the early Laurel and Hardy comedies, whom Laughton described in the mid-1930s as “the greatest comedy mind now living.”

Ruggles the butler was his favorite role. And yet he was not good at slapstick or even at comedy in this film. Working with an ensemble of some of Hollywood’s most “gloriously funny” performers (i.e., Charles Ruggles, Mary Boland, ZaSu Pitts, Roland Young, Maude Eburne) Laughton seems ponderous, like “a highbrow on holiday.” Even worse, he is plaintive—giving the role an emotional intensity, a “depth of feeling,” as Callow acknowledges, that is “quite out of place.” The intensity is understandable in this case: Ruggles is not only a man in “service” (as Laughton had felt himself to be in his family’s hotel) but an Englishman who learns to love America and who finally chooses it over his native land. Laughton even manages (it was his idea) to recite the Gettysburg Address—in what has become the movie’s most famous scene.

The intensity is understandable but it is nearly fatal to the poise of the movie. It’s not just that Laughton is not suited to slapstick comedy, or that he draws our attention “to complexities which are irrelevant.” It’s that he doesn’t have enough impersonality for broad comedy, and as Ruggles he gives almost the same feeling of an intrusive personal involvement as The Night of the Hunter does.

Such tendentiousness made him seem out of place not only in comedy but in Hollywood too—where the dominant tone and style often put him at a disadvantage, for example in 20th Century Fox’s Tales of Manhattan (1942), directed by Julien Duvivier—the first big “all-star” omnibus film since Paramount’s If I Had a Million, ten years earlier (in which Laughton also appeared). The movie follows a tailcoat as it passes in a downwardly mobile direction from owner to owner: going from Charles Boyer in the first story making love to Rita Hayworth in a Long Island mansion (where he is shot by her husband Thomas Mitchell)—to Paul Robeson in the final one, singing and praying with Ethel Waters in a Catfish Row–style shantytown.

Of the five episodes, Laughton stars in the middle one, but the first two are the most assured and stylish. In his episode, Laughton is a poor and struggling composer making a living by playing barroom piano, until the maestro of a major orchestra (Victor Francen) offers him a chance to conduct his music. The sequence is vintage Laughton, involving as it does the public humiliation that takes place while he is conducting—the tailcoat splits up his back and the fancy-dress audience laughs and jeers at him. But the maestro saves him and the concert by removing his own coat, and in the end Laughton triumphs.

When the episode opens, Laughton is at his piano in the empty saloon—looking reproachful and suffering over the boogie-woogie the bartender (Dewey Robinson) is paying him to play. Then in closeup, doing his befuddled eye blinks, he sneaks in some phrases of the “longhair stuff.” No use—the bartender yells at him; and he resumes playing the jazzy music and grimaces into the camera with one of those go-ahead-and-kick-me faces—defiant, ingratiating, and full of self-loathing all at once. The scene jars because it intrudes self-pity into the middle of the film, and self-pity is what the best Hollywood movies of the time kept firmly at bay.

That self-pity is disabling, I think, and though Laughton sometimes transcends it—Captain Bligh and Henry VIII are obvious instances—it reverberates somewhere in most of his roles. He breaks a compact that movies of his time made with their audiences: not necessarily that stars and leading players should be beautiful or even dignified, much less serene and imperturbable—but that they should preserve a certain impersonality, a kind of detachment not only from us but from themselves, as Charles Boyer, Paul Robeson, and even Edward G. Robinson do, for example, in Tales of Manhattan.

There is often something wheedling about Laughton—something that makes you want to turn away from him. Even his seriousness as an actor, it seems to me, was often compromised by his self-consciousness—and more obviously by his unending, lifelong obsession with his ugliness. That concern, as it turns out, is one of the things that make him seem most contemporary, but it also limits him.

It is worth remembering that men in Laughton’s time were not supposed to be concerned with their looks. Laughton was an exception to this pattern, or so it seemed. He suffered visibly from his fatness on the screen. How different he seemed from other “fat” men in the movies: Edward Arnold, Charles Coburn, and Eugene Pallette among them, benign patriarchs of the great romantic comedies. The rounder they were, the more bodiless they seemed. Their fatness, far from being a defeat by the flesh, was a kind of triumph over it—a refusal of narcissism. But it was exactly Laughton’s narcissism that made a problem, for example, when George Cukor cast him as Mr. Micawber in MGM’s David Copperfield (1934); Laughton couldn’t quite convey a geniality toward the children, and especially toward Freddie Bartholomew’s David. He was replaced (and triumphantly) by W.C. Fields—who truly hated children. It wasn’t, we may assume, that Fields was a “warmer” sort of father, only a less self-involved one. One of the advantages of being or imagining yourself to be a father, of course, is that you can stop hoping to be, even stop despairing of being, the beautiful and adored son. Laughton never could, it seems—Callow calls him “a disappointed narcissist.” But it is the pain of this disappointment that Laughton the performer too often asks us to look at, in those moist and pleading eyes. The humiliation, as it turns out, is contagious.

This Issue

February 15, 1990