Charles Laughton — Gentle Titan (1940) 🇺🇸
When Charles Laughton, mighty man of movie drama, talks out of turn, the result is a salty interview packed with dynamite, like this!
by Malcolm H. Oettinger
Charles Laughton doesn’t like Hollywood society but in every other respect considers it an honest place. This reverses the usual reports on the mad Mecca of the movies. It is customary to curse the front office, the producers, the supervisors and the terrible demands of the publicity department, then coo about Norma, Marlene, Connie and Ronnie. But this Laughton is different.
“Fear rules Hollywood,” he said. “And snobbism of the most vicious sort. People hesitate before accepting a mere dinner invitation for fear the right people may not attend. They debate going to a premiere. Who will be there? Who is behind it? It’s all very silly and a trifle nauseating. Elsa and I go where we please, choose our friends with a free hand, and confine our acting to the screen.
“If I may say so, ‘we’ll live and pray and sing and tell old tales and laugh at gilded butterflies and hear poor rogues talk of court news; who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out, — as if we were God’s spies.’” He smiled at the patness of the quotation. “That bit from King Lear, act five, scene three, indicates that Shakespeare had a horrible premonition of present day Hollywood.”
To interpolate a speech from Lear into ordinary conversation might seem presumptuous, not to say hammy, in any one but Laughton, or perhaps Barrymore. But the British star rendered it so naturally that it fitted in.
He is a large, spreading man with pendulous lower lip, lop ears and unruly hair, who makes you forget his appearance once he begins to talk. He is evocative, stimulating, witty in a sly fashion, and at home in many fields.
Since we had met in Hollywood five years ago, when he was doing one of his lesser portrayals in “The Barretts,” he had taken a fling at producing his own pictures, Mayflower Productions, with Eric Pommer, once the guiding genius of UFA, as his partner. The war put an end to this activity, with both partners contracting with RKO to deliver two pictures a year.
“In London we tried to do only the sort of pictures we liked,” said Laughton, “and we approached them with enthusiasm born of belief in them. Propaganda had no place in our productions nor were we concerned unduly with that mystic control, box office.”
Did he find producing with his own money very different from previous picture work?
“Certainly not,” said Laughton blandly. “I’ve always had a pretty fair understanding of production problems. I’ve seen the advisability of shooting fifty men from such an angle as to make them look like a mob of five hundred, marching troops past the camera and photographing them five ways for a montage effect — similar economic strokes of genius. And I’ve always realized that time is money. That a shooting schedule had to be maintained. My people have always been owner-drivers, you see. The family has three hotels in England. I was supposed to be a hotel-keeper myself but I was a vast disappointment; I became a strolling player.” He rubbed his face sheepishly. “In a Mother Goose panto, of all things!”
When he talks he phrases his thoughts precisely, and clothes them in diction that is a caress to the ear. He swears only occasionally, but salts his observations with original, bawdy passages that linger in the memory. “I don’t believe anyone has ever accused me of temperament,” he says. “Only Leo McCarey, a fine director if ever there was one, planned with me to rid ourselves of a peculiarly odious supervisor by having me feign temperament. That worked out very satisfactorily. This meddling fellow had no ideas to offer, you see. He simply botched things. Mind you, most of the men in charge are efficient chaps. But this lad was a bounder. We agreed that whenever he came on our set Leo would take him to one side and explain that I was one of those terribly temperamental foreigners, hard to handle, touchy, all that. Then he would escort me, storming, from the set, and we would retire to my dressing room for a drink. By the time we returned to the set our friend the termite would be gone.”
After our interview there was a portrait sitting scheduled. “Why should anyone want to take my picture?” groused the tubby tragedian. “Why should I ask?” he countered. “If there were no dismal tasks like sitting for stills and the like, acting would be altogether too perfect. I suppose it’s the law of compensation. We have fun doing ‘Sidewalks of London’ and scaring little children in Hunchback, then we must pay for it by participating in the bloody ballyhoo.”
Outside a horde of autograph seekers rose out of the ground to plague Mr. Laughton for his signature. Silently, rapidly, he wrote his way into the waiting car. En route he entertained us with a repertoire of limericks classic in concept and pregnant with double entendre. One short observation I remember:
There are two parts to every horse
One of which is rather coarse.
“There is, you know, a distinctly British brand of humor,” Laughton commented, “that I should like to try in a picture some time. There is the story, for example, of the old duke who was virtually a fixture in the window of a swank, conservative club, and was finally induced to travel in the subway to see how the other half lived. He was led down the stairs, all amaze, bought his ticket, and watched the ticket-chopper punch it. ‘I say, my good fellow,’ he asked, ‘how long have you been down here?’ ‘Ten years, sir,’ said the ticket-chopper. ‘And you’ve been doing this all that time?’ queried his lordship. ‘Yes-sir,’ says the attendant. Me lord gazes at the ticket in his hand in admiration. ‘Well, I must say, you do it very nicely.’ “
To the accompanying polite laughter Laughton explained that that was the essence of British humor. It’s off-beat, he pointed out, ending in a thud, while American humor ends at the top of the laugh. That he understands American humor as well as British was beautifully demonstrated by his performance of Ruggles in “Ruggles of Red Gap.” He had to fight to be permitted to make that picture and the company was shunted to leftover sets and vacant corners of the lot to do it. “All during the memorable Gettysburg address,” said Laughton, “hammering could be heard from the RKO lot next door, and only one take was free from this interference.
“‘Ruggles’ is my favorite of all pictures,” says the Englishman, “because it presents British and American viewpoints sympathetically, and because it enabled me to show my very genuine affection for America, although I wish you would consider that off the record.” So sincere was his remark that it must stay in, nevertheless.
At the studio photographers were ready in force, and a receptionist with pretty legs waved Mr. Laughton toward an elaborately arranged dressing-room. Where the average star would have made a dash for the make-up table, the imperturbable Englishman waved it aside, and stalked in to the brilliantly lighted studio, looking like a busman on a holiday. He was asked to pose in a dark coat rather than the light one he was wearing. His secretary produced a brown, tweedy sport coat that looked as if it had been slept in, kicked about, and finally discarded.
“This should do, eh?” said Charlie, holding it across his arm in Bond Street salesman manner. “It’s hairy and British, what they expect, isn’t it?” He slipped it on without further ado. A lock of hair hung over one eye, his face was shiny, his tie rumpled, but that was the way Laughton was going to be photographed, if at all.
They had unearthed a prop Corinthian column which they suggested he lean against, pensive chin in hand, eyes seeking a far-off land. “Yes, yes, of course I understand,” said Laughton agreeably, “you want good old number three.” He eyed the camera with a fine sneer. “When I was a King in Babylon, and you were a Christian slave,” he murmured softly.
After the portrait had been completed, Laughton was asked to do a series of character shots, and sitting cosily at a table he proceeded to recall Captain Bligh, Javert and others in an unforgettable gallery of characterizations. When lie wanted one particular expression he repeated a speech from “Payment Deferred,” which set him perfectly for the pose he was seeking.
“I’m no good at these blasted stills,” he remarked, “and I hate to do them.”
His picture in work is “They Knew What They Wanted.” He wants most of all to do a domestic comedy with his wife, Elsa Lanchester. “Something honest and simple, similar to ‘The First Year’ but with deeper implications, please.”
Address your scripts to Mr. Laughton, and rest assured that if he gets his hands on the one he has in mind, the resulting picture will be worth seeing. When he’s good, he’s the best.
“I’m no good at these blasted stills,” says Charles Laughton. But, above, he seems to be enjoying this one with Carole Lombard, who is his co-star in the new picture, “They Knew What They Wanted.”
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Source: Screenland, October 1940