“UGLINESS which is as powerful as CHARLES LAUGHTON's can spell as great success as beauty, it seems...”
- caption to Laughton's picture in The Wonder Album of Filmland - A Beautiful Collection of Super Art Plates Comprising a Complete Pictorial Survey of Filmland, published in 1933.
Ugly? Well, yes, I suppose he was. But ugly is relative, isn't it? I mean, look at Fred Astaire. Look at a picture of Fred Astaire and imagine you have no idea who he is. Observe that massive cranium, almost medical-textbook in its bulbousness, the faint, sickly wisps of brilliantined hair, the nervous, distended eyes. Here, surely, is a gargoyle to rival Rondo Hatton.
But then you see him in Top Hat, see him move, react and relate, and you realise that what you mistook for one of the most unattractive people to have ever been born is actually the most attractive person to have ever been born.
It’s all part and parcel of our tendency to look at the curtains rather than the view from the window, the lamentable desire to see greatness in beauty, rather than beauty in greatness. Laughton, it seems to me, when he’s really alive on screen, really on fire, has as strong a claim to being beautiful as anyone in the movies. It’s some kind of movie star’s face he's got, that's certain; the camera can't get enough of looking at him, and he repays the attention with a dazzling repertoire of subtle effects.
Elsa Lanchester characteristically described him as "really better-looking than a lot of good-looking people who are so good-looking you could throw up."
And his associate Paul Gregory recalled that such was his insecurity about his appearance that there were times when he would literally hide himself away, "and yet I've seen him when he was absolutely, radiantly beautiful, and I told him that one time." The disclosure reduced him to tears: "It was just terrible, you know? It was like Niagara Falls because he didn't even cry lightly."
Laughton himself said in a 1935 Picturegoer interview: "Imagine a face like mine photographing so well! My features cut through the screen like a knife through cheese. It's sheer good luck, but who would have believed it?"
And there was a time, once, when a Hollywood producer like Paramount's Jesse Lasky could get wind of this magnetic, ugly man tearing up the stage in London and New York and to see in him potential for movies, a corner for him somewhere in the glamour factory yet, and to give him a Hollywood contract the kind of which many established stars went to bed dreaming (two years, three films a year and choice of roles), and to launch him as a ready-made star. Now, when stars are produced in laboratories and sliced from a big loaf it should be more salutary than ever to recall how Hollywood set about making a star from what to them must have seemed the most perversely unusual clay.
"Movie acting is simple: Feel it in your guts and then let it dribble up through your eyes." - Charles Laughton, 1932
I want to talk here about those films Laughton made in that first wave of Hollywood glory, before the certain star vehicles; before those laps of honour like The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, back when Paramount knew only that they had inherited an English actor unlike anything they had seen before and set about providing roles to match.
Watching films like Devil and the Deep, White Woman and, of course, De Mille's The Sign of the Cross., it's incredible to think how limited his previous screen experience had been. His triumphs had all been on stage (which suited the still-nervous talking Hollywood fine), but even in that arena he was a new as well as brilliant illumination: still only 33, with only six years of professional acting behind him.
His weight and his unusual appearance made him look older, of course, and he had already shown on stage that he could play virtually any age. But it was more than dexterity and versatility that earned him his ticket across the Atlantic, that was obvious. This was never going to be another George Arliss.
There is an intensity, and an unbridledness, a secretiveness, and yes, an almost voluptuous quality to him at this time, that is as unmistakable as it is hard to pin down, but which gives his performances a real edge of mystery and danger; a glint in his eye that, as he famously said, "they can't censor" (nor quite define).
It was clear from the start that Paramount had him in mind for a very particular kind of pre-Code villainy; morbid eroticists, seducers, decadents, neurotic egotists in thrall to their corrupted passions and pagan appetites, thwarted little men finding stature in madness and monstrousness, wielding the power they have forged for themselves in the distorting flames of defeat.
No other actor quite so thoroughly cornered the market in questioning whether flesh and soul are ever perfectly matched: his triumphant Quasimodo in 1939 was merely symbolic confirmation of what Paramount had spotted from the first: that it was in this misshapen Englishman, not in Paul Muni and certainly not anywhere in Universal's horror factory, that the true screen heir to Lon Chaney had been found.
And his Quasimodo survives the fade-out, what's more, because in Laughton there is not merely the capacity for tragedy and the monstrous, but for redemption also. He is not a monster so much as the potential for monstrosity: his performances plead for greater understanding even as they articulate the consequences of those pleas going unheard.
One of his most significant early stage roles had been in A Man With Red Hair, adapted from Hugh Walpole's novel by Benn W. Levy in 1927. In it Laughton plays the eponymous Mr Crispin, ugly and insignificant and heir to a massive legacy of psychological corruption, or "a very gargoyle of obscene desires" as the Observer put it, taking insane revenge on the world that shunned him. In the climax he addresses his bound and gagged victims:
You who have laughed at me, mocked me, insulted me - you and all the world: now you are mine to do with as I will. An old, fat ugly man, and two fine young ones. I prick you and you shall bleed. I spit on you and you shall bow your heads. I can say 'Crawl' and you will crawl, 'Dance' and you will dance.
That Laughton drew on his own experience in playing such roles goes without saying. Whether as a child he had truly been deemed so ugly by his peers that they jeered and threw stones at him, as he once claimed, is anyone's guess, but there is no reason to think he would have found life easier than any other overweight homosexual aesthete growing up in England in the early twentieth century. It's certainly no surprise that he was unhappy at school, since, as Barry Norman observed, "in the entire history of the world no fat boy has ever been happy at an English public school, and a fat boy who was hopeless at games and interested in art, literature and wild flowers was clearly doomed to years of utter misery."
Then came the war, of which he clearly saw a great deal, though he rarely discussed it, preferring to keep it locked away with everything else. (In her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester recalls how in the Second World War, during which Laughton elected to stay in America and was rather absurdly criticised in the British press as a slacker, he would say privately "I was in the First World War, in the trenches, bayonetting men and getting gassed. I think once in a life is enough.")
Clearly, compared to the average young actor, here was an enormous depth of experience to pile alongside his precocious gifts. Already he had known much and seen much, and thought deeply.
"I was different from them all," Crispin explains in Man With Red Hair, "I was different from my father, different from all the world, and I was glad that I was different. I hugged my difference. Different... Different... Different."
This, with variations, is the Laughton Hollywood wanted and got: here is Nero, here are his tyrants from Island of Lost Souls and White Woman, outcasts from their own society reduced to building their own remote kingdoms in compensation, here even is his blank-faced drudge from If I Had a Million, blowing the most timid yet triumphant of raspberries at his boss when he learns he has inherited a million dollars from a stranger.
That this was how Paramount perceived Laughton is obvious from the first, in the vehicle they tailored especially to serve as his introduction to the American public: Devil and the Deep (1932), written by Benn W. Levy, author of Man With Red Hair.
. To introduce what the opening credits bill as 'the eminent English character actor', Levy wrote his man another monster, and one who again hides behind a veneer of respectability. In private Submarine Commander Charles Sturm's displays of savage, near-murderous sexual jealousy drive his wife (Tallulah Bankhead at her most languid) to the brink of despair, but to his friends and colleagues he maintains an air of affable respectability quite sufficient to fool them into thinking him the wronged party.
First, handsome Lieutenant Cary Grant shows interest and he wrecks his chances of promotion by having him transferred for inefficiency. But when she falls for his replacement (Gary Cooper) he arranges a more ostentatious revenge: to sabotage his own submarine, killing Cooper, Tallulah and everyone on board.
Coop saves the day, and the crew, but Sturm, now axe-wieldingly insane, locks himself in his cabin, where his manic, high-pitched laughter is silenced only as the rising waters fill his mouth.
Laughton's debut was hugely acclaimed, with raves like the following from Photoplay the norm rather than the exception:
This Charles Laughton – what an actor! He will give you a new thrill as you watch him almost steal the picture from Tallulah Bankhead and Gary Cooper. You’ll forgive him for doing it, too, because his portrayal of a jealous, crazed submarine commander who carries his wife and her lover to the bottom of the sea for revenge, is magnificent.
The odd film out in this batch is his second, The Old Dark House (1932), again written by Levy but with an infinitely lighter touch. Actually it was Laughton's first American film, made on loan to Universal when Devil and the Deep was briefly delayed, but only on condition that it be released second. Made for James Whale (who knew Laughton fairly well from England) it fails to conform to the model of Laughton that Paramount had constructed for America; it's a one-off, though another delightful and equally illuminating tour-de-force.
His late entrance is the film's happiest innovation; he looks younger than he ever did at Paramount - about his real age for once - in an expansive but realistic portrayal as a Yorkshire mill-owner seemingly so brash he doesn’t notice anything sinister about the house or any of its occupants, but in reality so insecure he has to pay Lilian Bond to be his travelling companion. (“He doesn’t expect anything – do you know what I mean by anything?” she makes clear towards the end of the film.)
In a brilliantly written and delivered monologue, he defends a perceived slight against his wealth with the story of how his young wife had died, he implies, of depression, after a cotton dress she had worn led to her being snubbed at a society party:
Well, Lucy worries about it. Gets it into her head that she’s going to hold me back… Well you may not believe it, but I know that’s what killed her. That’s what started me making money. I swore I’d smash those fellows and their wives who wouldn’t give my Lucy a kind word. Ha! And I ‘ave smashed ‘em… At least, most of them.
Once you’ve started making money it’s hard to stop. Especially if you’re like me. There isn’t much else you’re good at.
It’s a moment on a par with Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws: the movie stops for a moment, you admire it separately, then resume. However optimistic he was feeling about his new Hollywood career, Laughton must have seen the sort of things Paramount were lining up for him and felt the direction in which the wind was blowing; he would have known that characters this good-hearted would rarely be his to claim. And so he leaps into the chance to show us that he can be lovable too.
His rapid and completely convincing transition from anger to mockery to warm acceptance on learning that his protégée is ready to swap him for dishy war veteran Melvyn Douglas is a comparably fine moment. "I may not be this and I may not be that," he says at one point, "but you don't catch me pretending to be what I'm not."
Paramount loaned him again, to MGM for Payment Deferred (1932) in a role he had played on stage in London and New York, then cast him in that memorable cameo in If I Had a Million (1932) for Lubitsch, all of which was mere prelude to the most iconic role of this first Hollywood batch: Nero in De Mille's Sign of the Cross (1932).
That Laughton is the most glisteningly perverse constituent of the thing is no small achievement in a film awash in perversity and decadence, especially given his surprisingly limited screen time. If pornography is as much a matter of attitude as degree then surely this is pornography: it is a work of stunning tastelessness filmed with exquisite beauty, descending in its final quarter into voyeuristic sadism that is somehow of a piece with the lurid erotics that precede it.
And these two strands of the film are made flesh in the pudgy body of Laughton's Nero, plucking his lyre as Rome burns, almost sliding off his throne with post-coital languor ("My head's splitting; the wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!"), and submitting to the political manipulations of Claudette Colbert's Poppaea in exchange for her kneading his flesh like dough. (This is of course the film in which Colbert takes her famous bath in asses' milk, looking straight at the camera as she strokes the breasts that the surface of the liquid can only barely conceal, and which at times – if you pause, reverse, zoom, frame advance, pause again and sit back contentedly to admire your achievement only to realise that your girlfriend left the room ten minutes ago – it cannot conceal at all.)
The pressbook makes the film's focus more than clear: "Beautiful slave girls... courtesans... harlots... their only purpose to outdo each other in the orgiastic rites loved by a lustful Caesar. A flesh-mad emperor... Nero... painting the ancient city red with the warm blood of his victims... just for a sadistic thrill. Naked women... their helpless beauty pitted against the ferocity of frenzied animals... while Nero licks his lustful lips."
But the full extent of the film's explicitness was forgotten for decades. For years it was available only in a shortened version prepared for reissue in the early forties, with a silly new prologue and epilogue added set in a warplane flying over Rome, and much of the detail removed to conform with the Hays Code.
A far cry from its first run, when Hays himself demanded of De Mille what he was going to do about the film's lesbian dance and seduction scene, and the director replied: "Will, listen carefully because you might want to quote me. Not a damn thing." (His later, more considered explanation - "How are you going to resist temptation if there isn't any?" - is the key that unlocks virtually his entire oeuvre.)
The original, unedited version survived only as single print in his personal vault until its recent restoration. What it revealed is a film like little else prior to Pasolini's Salo in its combination of horror, degeneracy and an all-pervading sense of doom. There is a genuinely apocalyptic feel to the thing. A naked girl is tethered horizontally two feet from the ground as hungry crocodiles scuttle towards her, another is tied to a pole as a gorilla advances, her fate presumably an altogether different one, a battle is staged between gladiators and dwarves, an elephant crushes a man's head beneath its foot, and through it all De Mille cuts to Laughton and the other spectators salivating and laying wagers on the outcome.
From this to the unvarnished charnelry of Island of Lost Souls (1932) is but the daintiest step, yet after Nero it seems almost too easy to have cast Laughton in straight horror, and in so plainly malicious a guise.
Not that his mad jungle experimenter Dr Moreau considers himself wicked, neither are his motives merely the standard mad scientist fallback of all-for-the-good-of-science. Here, too, we sense the voluptuary behind the vivisectionist, the man half obsessed and half aroused by the taboos he is violating. Confronted by the hero in his lab like a hundred other mad doctors, his response is to lounge before his personable young accuser in a pose of mock-seduction on his operating table. ("You're an amazingly unscientific young man!" he says mildly.)
It's the casualness that's different, that is pure Laughton. Even when doing the standard Lugosi tour of the madhouse he inserts a characteristic note of bathos by way of punchline:
Those are some of my less successful experiments. They supply the power to create others, more successful. But with each experiment I improve upon the last. I get nearer and nearer. Mr Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God? I'm talking too much aren't I.
George Zucco's mad scientists would never have spotted or acknowledged that.
They call Laughton a ham; they say he 'over-acts'. Even if I knew quite what that meant, and I confess I don't really, still I say: show me another actor who surprises quite like Laughton, either by going much further than you expect him to, or by going elsewhere. If this is overacting, so be it.
That Island of Lost Souls is able to leave so potent an aftertaste is quite something after the porno-horrors of Sign of the Cross yet it surely does: along with Murders in the Rue Morgue it is pre-Code horror's most unabashed parading of sadism as entertainment. And Murders, at least, had gorillas and frock coats and Bela Lugosi going at it nineteen to the dozen. Here, in modern dress and with little conventional spooky atmosphere, no effort is made to distance the viewer from its atrocities; "it had all of the ingredients but little of the mood required," as William K. Everson put it.
It wallops you with torture, cannibalism and inter-species miscegenation; H. G. Wells, on whose novel it was based, protested loudly and the British censor banned the thing outright.
Yet Laughton would have been wasted were it otherwise. We do have him in outright gothic horror, with Karloff for company, in a 1951 piece called The Strange Door. It's not one of his more interesting performances because there's not much the script allows him to do with it: he can play straightforward horror-villains as well as anyone, better no doubt, but they don't give him the opportunity to do what he does best, which is to offer that curiously modern mixture of fear and revulsion that the more banal kind of monster does.
The gothic costumes and sets allow the audience room to breathe, but Moreau lets Laughton do what he does best: to go beyond the point with which the viewer is comfortable.
The climax, as his high-pitched screams inform us that his hybrid slaves, having rebelled against his rule and carried him into his own 'House of Pain', have now begun vivisecting him to death, is virtually without parallel in thirties horror, as, of course, is the miscegenation subplot. (Though both occur more elliptically in Murders in the Rue Morgue the same year.) Nervous memos from the Studio Relations Committee to Paramount chief B.P. Schulberg advising that that the film be abandoned ("for I am sure you would never be allowed to suggest that sort of thing on screen") were blithely ignored, but the film was turned down flat when the studio applied to the Hays Office to reissue it in 1935.
. White Woman (1933) is the last and in some ways the most interesting product of this initial campaign, though frequently ignored, partly because it was preceded by a return to the London stage and the triumph of Henry VIII, partly because it is usually written off as an ignoble potboiler unworthy of its star, who responds in kind by giving one of his most over the top and unconsidered performances.
The film is an insane mix of Rain, Red Dust and Lost Souls; at once compendium and culmination of his early American work. His character - Horace Prin, king of the river - is an egomaniac sexual sadist with a Zapata moustache and a natty straw boater, whose sense of invincibility is dependent on having complete control of all who come under his purview. Like Dr Moreau he is lawless lord of all he surveys, a tyrant and oppressor (his slaves not animal hybrids but what he calls 'ostile 'eathens; his staff are criminals on the run over whom he can exercise power like his assistant in Lost Souls). There is Nero here too, obviously, not least in the sexual appetites the pre-Code scenario writer need not obscure, yoked to the pathological sexual jealousy of Devil & the Deep's Commander Sturm. We even get a glimpse of a real man behind the performance - which is Prin's performance, not Laughton's - in a moment as unexpected as his speech in The Old Dark House:
You 'avent spent any part of your childhood in the slums have you, your ladyship? Well I have. If it don't take the 'eart out of you I don't know what it does. It makes a blooming king out of you.
Hard to imagine how the character was written, before Laughton got his hands on him, but he opts to play him as music hall cockney, and to deliver every single line of dialogue sarcastically, as here, when a member of his blackmailed staff announces his intention of returning to civilisation, to which Prin has seemingly acquiesced:
Well, pleasant journey to you, Hambly. My compliments to your family. You remember Anderson now, don't you? He 'ad to go 'ome, sudden like, just like yourself. Poor chap; he 'ad a bit of business with the crocodiles on the way down. We all missed 'im, didn't we, fellas? You might look in on 'is family, tell 'em how we missed 'im. When you gets 'ome.
There is all you need here already for grim melodrama, especially at a studio with no qualms about supplying the kind of horror imagery American cinema would henceforth be denied for thirty-five years, as when we see in explicit detail a severed head being thrown through a window and rolling across the floor. But we haven't reckoned on the explosive final ingredient: the white woman herself.
She's Carole Lombard, and white she most assuredly is, like a marble ghost. Dressed alternately in white and black sheath dresses she looks almost unhealthily pale (and preposterously so, given the tropic location); the skin is porcelain, the hair is platinum melted to the contours of her head. Only the dark slash make-up of lips and eyes bring definition to the glowing haze.
Prin's attitude towards her is difficult to work out: dazzled on first appearance and tempted by the prospect of another over whom he can exercise control (her husband committed suicide after discovering her sexual infidelity; she's now a café singer facing extradition) he offers her marriage in exchange for no more harassment from the authorities. She accepts, but by the time we next see them arriving at his river home a wall of disgust has already risen between them.
That Prin wants her principally as a trophy is obvious ("'Ere, you greasy beggars, you 'ave the 'onour of beholding Mrs Prin," he says to his assembled staff; "She's lovely isn't she?") though we are left in no doubt of her responsibilities when he proceeds to order her into the bedroom.
Yet his ardour seems to cool almost immediately; though he threatens murder to the men who instantly flock to her, he does so lazily, as if going through the motions merely, and he makes little effort to deny her the opportunity for romantic encounters. (Charles Bickford's bluff overseer is a particular delight: "You can do a lot worse in this hole than give me a tumble," he tells Lombard; "I've watched those big eyes of yours - and other things!")
Prin's end comes through hubris and that speciality of the actor: the slow, painful, visible slide from extreme mental instability to unequivocal madness. So often his characters are not mad but skirtng the condition's edge, only to fall at the last. Think of Sturm in his submarine or, later, Sir Humphrey Pengallon in Jamaica Inn, leaping to his death from a ship's crow's-nest before first informing the crowd below to tell their children they were present when the great age ended.
Here, trapped in his fortress home with only Bickford for company and death inevitable, the pair opt to play cards, but when Bickford is killed in his chair by a poison dart Prin sees this as just one more betrayal ("You ungrateful 'ound!"), and ends up screaming in his face:
Soft! That's what you was! All of you! Mush! Eh! Can you 'ear me from where you is now, Ballister? If the flames ain't roaring too high maybe you can 'ears me. Eh? I'm Prin, king of the river! I always was king and I'm stayin' king, and you can laugh that off! I'm Prin! King of the river! King of the river and king of everything in it, under it and alongside of it. King! KING!
Whereupon he calmly steps outside to take a fatal spear in the gut. White Woman may not have the sobriety of high art, and Laughton may have taken its lead role on in the spirit of a lark, but it is much more than a mere programmer: it's one of the strangest damned things you ever saw, actually. And Laughton's performance is amazing.
Think where he is at this point: he's been to Hollywood, conquered it, stolen all the notices from under the noses of his co-stars, from De Mille even, went back to England, re-asserted himself on stage and is now poised to wow two continents simultaneously as Henry VIII... confident, I would say is the word. This is an incredibly confident performance.
He's having fun but he's not sending it up; he's turning it into something as unique as he is. Laughton biographer Simon Callow (who, like the few others to have even noticed the film, has little praise for it), at least points out that there is nothing whatever suggestive of Laughton's performance in Prin as scripted: he's a "conventionally cruel river trader". What you see on the screen is all Laughton.
A year later, when Sidney Franklin, director of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, nervously asked his star how he saw his role, Laughton replied impatiently "as a monkey on a stick". In other words: I know exactly what I'm doing, sit down and you shall see me do it.
His apprenticeship served, now he was off and running, and that career, alternately triumphant and frustrating (for too often frustrated), could begin in earnest.
In the films that followed, I've never seen Laughton give a bad performance. I've seen White Woman and Captain Kidd and Jamaica Inn and Salome and Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd, but I've never seen Laughton give a bad performance.
Billy Wilder, who oversaw one of his greatest ones in Witness For The Prosecution, was in no doubt either: "My God, who was there better than Laughton? Nobody. There has never been anybody that even came close."