Tag: Charles Laughton

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Carry on Henry as Korda’s comedic historical epic cements the popular perception of the monarch

Director: Alexander Korda

Cast: Charles Laughton (Henry VIII), Elsa Lanchester (Anne of Cleves), Binnie Barnes (Katherine Howard), Merle Oberon (Anne Boleyn), Wendy Barrie (Jane Seymour), Everley Gregg (Catherine Parr), Robert Donat (Thomas Culpeper), Franklin Dyall (Thomas Cromwell), Miles Mander (Wriothesley), Laurence Hanray (Thomas Cranmer), John Loder (Thomas Peynell)

“A Great Guy With His Chopper” was the tag-line for Carry On Henry starring Sid James as a smirking, rogueish Henry. But it might as well have been the tag-line for this Oscar-winning film, that pretty much cemented the public’s perception of Henry VIII as a lusty, fun-loving king, chucking chicken legs over his shoulder when he wasn’t busy marrying wives. Korda’s handsomely filmed Tudor epic is more knock-about farce than history but was the then most successful British film ever (the first to be nominated for Best Picture) and scooped an Oscar for Laughton as the Merrie Monarch.

The Private Life of Henry VIII skips over the meat of most Henry flicks. Catherine of Aragon is dead (the films comment on her in the opening credits describes her story as being “of no particular interest”, news to scholars of the English Reformation) and with Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) prepping for her head to be lopped off with a sword. From there history is left firmly behind as Bluff Hal flirts with Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) – who has eyes for his pal Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat) – marries Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) who uggs up to get out of it – and ends up as a hen-pecked old guy under a blanket, bossed around by Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg).

For those interested in history, don’t expect to find out anything here. Despite walk-on parts for the headline names of the Henrician reign (Cromwell, Cranmer and others dance around the margins) and some impressive sets and Holbein-influenced costumes, this is really a cheeky-comedy, popping gags at the monarch’s famed lothario. Just as well then that the gags are all pretty good, the pace kept up and the energy of all involved adds hugely to the sense of fun.

A lot of that is, of course, led by Laughton as Henry VIII. Laughton charges around, hand on hips, legs splayed and peppers every other line with outbursts of crude laughter and childish tantrums. Laughton, in short, has a whale of time, piling into every scene with lusty relish. There is a twinkle in his eye throughout even the film’s most laboured gags (the sequence of Henry spitting and throwing food over his shoulder while bemoaning “There’s no delicacy nowadays…Manners are dead!” would easily outstay its welcome without his delighted playing of it).

What’s also striking about Laughton’s performance is the depth he gives it under the humour. Korda’s film wants us to enjoy the outlandish, larger-than-life qualities of the king, but it’s not afraid to look at the darker soul below the surface of the man many call “England’s Stalin”. Laughton’s Henry is a man who greets news of Jane Seymour’s death with a few brief seconds of sadness, before a shrug of the shoulders and a cheerful enquiry about his son. His tantrums and egotism constantly dance on the edge of tyranny. He manhandles lords and servants, screams and stamps when he doesn’t get his own way and shows not a jot of remorse or guilt at the deaths he causes (he’s even seen impatiently tapping a window waiting for the sword to fall on Anne).

Despite this though, you still sort of end up feeling sorry for him. Perhaps because Laughton manages to also make him feel strangely naïve and trusting for all his school-boy bluster. Henry is torn apart with grief at the betrayal of Catherine and Culpeper (something he really should have spotted as it is almost literally going on under his nose). Korda presents a few fairly serious scenes, after a lot of comedic banter, with Henry first assaulting those bringing him the news and then collapsing into a shuddering mess of tears. A beautifully-framed shot in his chapel, shows Henry berating himself for the faults of Catherine, Laughton’s tear-stained face communicating his “mea culpas” with a soft, regret-filled quietness.

But what’s stuck in the public perception is the comedy. The film’s finest – and central – sequence covers the short marriage with Anne of Cleves, inevitably played by Elsa Lanchester. She delivers a superb performance of physical and verbal comedic charm. Henry famously was ‘unattracted’ to Anne (I’ve always believed this syphilitic, obese, gouty man just couldn’t blame himself for his inability to get it up so claimed it was the woman’s fault). Legend of Anne’s ugliness have cruelly stuck, but the film presents it as a rather amusing pantomime of fake stumbles and gurning faces used by Anne to save herself from one-day heading to the block under this tyrant.

Laughton and Lanchester’s natural chemistry (the first of their multiple collaborations on screen) sees the real-life husband-and-wife at complete ease and the wedding-night game of cards are the most relaxed and hilarious in the whole film. “The things I do for England…” Henry mutters, but there is a suspicion these two are much better suited than history assumes.

Korda pulls this altogether into a true crowd-pleaser. There is a farcical energy to the crowds providing a wry commentary on the executions. The film is crammed with some gorgeous sets – Laughton’s first entrance is a straight-restaging of Holbein. A sequence where Henry utterly fails to sneak into Catherine Howard’s bed-chamber (due to guards announcing “the King!” around every corner) is quite wonderfully staged. The cast are very fine: Merle Oberon makes a huge amount of Anne’s shrewdness (in the film’s most historically accurate sequence), Robert Donat is very charismatic as Culpeper, Binnie Barnes suitably flirty and empty-headed as a sex-pot Catherine Howard (even if she is considerably older then the real Catherine).

The Private Life of Henry VIII pulls all its material together into a luscious farce, with the odd serious moment, that might not make any sense at all when compared to history but makes a lot of sense when you compare it to stage farce. This was the first – and best – Carry On Henry.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

A court case hinges on a heck of a twist or two in Wilder’s well-mounted Christie adaptation

Director: Billy Wilder

Cast: Tyrone Power (Leonard Vole), Marlene Dietrich (Christine Vole), Charles Laughton (Sir Wilfrid Robarts), Elsa Lanchester (Miss Plimsoll), John Williams (Mr Brogan-Moore), Henry Daniell (Mr Mayhew), Ian Wolfe (Carter), Torin Thatcher (Mr Myers QC), Norma Vaden (Emily Jane French), Una O’Connor (Janet McKenzie), Francis Compton (Justice Wainwright)

Agatha Christie is better known for detectives who unearth murderers, not lawyers defending those accused in court. But that doesn’t mean Witness for the Prosecution, a very effective courtroom drama, shirks on classic Christie flourishes. Witness has a single stonking twist that huge numbers of people never see coming (the end of the film comes with a sonorous warning entreating people not to spoil the surprises, the sort of anti-spoiler warning that would make Marvel proud).

Leonard Vole (an unlikely Tyrone Power) is the soldier and would be entrepreneur, who stands accused of the murder of a rich older woman (Norma Vaden) who conveniently left Vole her money. Defending Vole is richly-toned, highly-skilled barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), recovering from a heart attack and doing his very best to dodge the overly attentive concern of his private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester). Vole’s case looks difficult, with much circumstantial evidence stacked against him and worries about whether his German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) will stand by him or not?

Billy Wilder directs with a smooth professionalism – he later modestly claimed of his Oscar nomination, that it was like giving the crew that moved Michelangelo’s Pietá an award for best sculpture – but his real contribution (with fellow writer Harry Kurnitz) was sharpening the dialogue, expanding Christie’s characterisation (in particular adding much more shrewdness and eccentric pomposity to Robarts) and upping the zip of Christie’s original. It certainly met with the approval of the grandé dame of crime who listed this, and Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, as the only two adaptations of her work she liked.

The film is largely based around the courtroom dynamics, as witnesses are examined and cross examined and facts gently dragged into the light. There is plenty of quality theatrics, not least since Robarts and his opposition counsel Myers (a fearsome Torin Thatcher) are more than a little skilled at keeping things sparky for the jury. There is a hint of cynicism in Witness: Robarts needs to convinces himself of a client’s innocence, but there is a suggestion this is because it helps him work out how to effectively defend them, less because of any moral reasons. And certainly, the entire mechanics of the trial operates largely as a show, an entertainment with jokes and compelling stories offered by both sides.

There is of course no better showman than Robarts. Played by Charles Laughton in one of his last great – and possibly most enjoyable – performance, Robarts is an affectionate, witty performance of carefully studied eccentricity and barking bluffness. But there is also a vulnerability in him: Robarts needs to belief in his own legend and his ability to separate truth from lie (he even prides himself on his “monacle test”, using a reflection from it to shine in suspects eyes, believing a liar will get flustered and trip themselves up – needless to say it turns out to be faulty).

Wilder – with Laughton as a brilliant collaborator – transforms Robarts into a far more forceful and charismatic figure, making the late plot twists even more of a shock. If someone as professionally adept and plugged in as Robarts can be taken in, what chance do the rest of us have? Oscar-nominated, Laughton, a twinkle permanently in his eye, powers through moments of high court theatricality but also heartily enjoys the banter of real life, taking a real delight in his schoolboy mischief as he persists in having his own way.

A large part of that, is a running of dodging treatments and sticking to a diet of things that are bad with him. Wilder’s finest change from the original, in introducing Robart’s ill health and his love-hate relationship with his nurse Miss Plimsoll. Who is, of course, played by Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real-life wife. The chemistry between these two is spot-on, with Lanchester (also Oscar nominated – and unlucky to lose to Miyoski Umeshi in Sayonara) in particular playing the combination of world-weary exasperation and growing affection for Robarts perfectly.

Combined with those twists, it’s the interplay between these two that is the real highlight in the film – well that and the twists. Many of those twists are bound up with Marlene Dietrich’s character. Dietrich gives one of her most colourful and wide-ranging performances here. The secrecy of the film probably stopped her from landing an Oscar nomination (much to her regret – Wilder even apologised to her). Power is miscast – he lacks the required natural innocence and looks both too old and incongruously American – but fortunately spends most of the film in the dock.

The final twist is a doozy, perfectly delivered by the actors and Wilder. Wilder directs throughout with quiet authority – as well as fine sense of humour, in particular a stair lift scene that sees Robarts using the device as a tool to dodge being told what to do. Laughton and Lanchester in particular are wonderfully funny. It’s got some excellently handled courtroom tricks and you won’t forget how it turns out. It’s a solid example of Wilder’s skill behind the camera – but a very enjoyable film and a must for Christie fans.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Charles Laughton wonders what he’s got himself in for in Ruggles of Red Gap

Director: Leo McCarey

Cast: Charles Laughton (Ruggles), Mary Boland (Effie Floud), Charles Ruggles (Egbert Floud), ZaSu Pitts (Mrs Judson), Roland Young (Earl of Burnstead), Leila Hyams (Nell Kenner), Maude Eburne (Ma Pettingell), Lucien Littlefield (Charles Belknap-Johnson), Leota Lorraine (Mrs Belknap-Johnson), James Burke (Jeff Turtle)

Ruggles (Charles Laughton) is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman. So how will he react when his gentleman, the Earl of Burnstead (Roland Young), loses him at cards to nouve riche American Westerner Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles) and his social-climbing wife Effie (Mary Boland)? Wodehousian antics meet societal culture-clashes, in Leo McCarey’s witty and rather sweet comedy from Charles Laughton’s annus mirabilis (Ruggles, Bligh and Javert all in the same year!) that’s a celebration of American egalitarianism and the well-hidden warm cordiality of the polite British.

Directed with a fine sense of comedic timing by Leo McCarey, Ruggles of Red Gap is refreshingly heart-warming and a celebration of the rewards of decency. For all his initial reserve – and Jeevesian distaste for his new employer’s brashness and love of chequered suits – Ruggles emerges as a decent man, liberated by the classless openness of America. In fact, the idea of all men being equal opens Ruggles eyes for the first time to the idea of making his own decisions (after all he doesn’t question being told he will be moving from Paris to Washington State) and being seen as something other than just an extension of his employer.

Ruggles makes this point with some excellently delivered set-pieces. Most of these revolve around the enjoyable cultural clash between Ruggles and his new employer, the relaxed Egbert, who can’t imagine not calling Ruggles by a host of invented names (from “Bill” to “The Colonel” – the latter causing no end of trouble later) or inviting this staid servant to sit down and have a beer. Egbert’s obliviousness to the careful social rules that Ruggles has lived his entire life by works, because there is not a jot of meanness or correction to it. Egbert genuinely doesn’t understand the fine points of class difference and sees no reason not to treat Ruggles like a friend rather than a servant.

It makes for some terrific moments of comic business. Ruggles and Egbert conduct a running battle where Egbert’s natural politeness and Ruggles’ duteous deference leads to them constantly insisting the other walks first through doorways. Their first day together sees Egbert and a friend taking Ruggles to a Parisian bar and getting him roundly pissed (probably for the first time in his life). Later Egbert’s insistence on introducing him when they arrive in Red Gap as his friend “the Colonel”, combined with Ruggles patrician manners leads to him being mistaken as a genuine aristocrat by the snobbier element of Red Gap society.

Regular Americans may be overly boisterous – you can’t miss the increasingly irritated reactions by Parisians at Egbert’s reunion on the streets of Paris with an old friend, which escalates from embraces, to loud whoops to riding each other like horses – but generally they mean well (good natured fun is poked at the American’s hopelessness with foreign languages – “je voodrais ham un eggs”). In Red Gap, the patrons of a saloon greet Ruggles as one of their own. In turn Ruggles – and even the Earl of Burnstead – are charming and respond far more warmly to their decency than the snobbery of the hoi polli.

If there are unsympathetic characters in the film, it’s the snobs of the American elite, desperate to grab a bit of that old world glamour. Egbert’s snobby brother-in-law Charles sticks out as dyed-in-the-wool snob, concerned mostly with position and being seen with the right people. Effie (hilariously played by Mary Boland) is interested in Ruggles largely as a status symbol, and spends her entire time crafting Egbert into her idea of a gentleman. By contrasts the actualupper status chap, the Earl (delightfully under played with a hilarious uber-poshness by Roland Young) is relatively decent, humble and far prefers the fun-loving social crowd of Red Gap the stuffed shirts.

The film was a very personal one for Laughton, deep into his decision to take up American citizenship. Ruggles’ (and Laughton’s) love for American society is captured in the scene where he recites the Gettysburg Address to the rapt patrons of the saloon (none of whom could remember a single word of it when asked beforehand). In previews, the audience sniggered at Laughton’s emotional rendition (he couldn’t get through it without weeping) – so McCarey re-cut so we only see Laughton from behind and instead focuses on the faces of his audience: suddenly the scene carries real emotional force.

Laughton’s performance is an odd mix. Some moments – such as the Gettysburg address – he nails. His interplay with the other actors is highly effective, but many of his reaction shots often feel overplayed. He over eggs the pudding with the comic eyebrows and, like the scenes when he plays drunk, he sometimes seems to be trying too hard to be funny. But his ability to offer several different versions of shock and surprise is pretty faultless and he captures beautifully Ruggles growing sense of independence and delight at there being more opportunities in life than he ever imagined.

The rest of the cast bounce off each other with all the ease of a relaxed repertory company. Charles Ruggles (who knew Ruggles was such a common name!) is brilliant as Egbert, loud, brash but overwhelmingly kind and decent. His comic timing is exquisite and his chemistry with Mary Boland (one patient the other long suffering) is a constant delight. The comic playing of the cast, with assured – if at times visually disjointed – direction by Leo McCarey helps craft this into a delightfully heart-warming comedy of manners with just the right touch of slap-stick. At the end of which you’ll be as willing to jack it all in and set up a grill in Red Gap as Ruggles is.

Spartacus (1960)

Kirk Douglas leads the campaign for freedom in Spartacus

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Laurence Olivier (Crassus), Jean Simmons (Varinia), Charles Laughton (Gracchus), Peter Ustinov (Batiatus), Tony Curtis (Antoninus), John Gavin (Julius Caesar), John Dall (Marcus Glabrus), Nina Foch (Helena Glabrus), John Ireland (Crixus), Herbert Lom (Tigranes Levantus), Charles McGraw (Marcellus), Joanna Barnes (Claudia Marius), Woody Strode (Draba), Paul Lambert (Gannicus)

You can’t talk about Spartacus without saying it can you? Did the team working on the film realise that, for all the big names, spectacles and sweeping that the film’s definitive contribution to popular culture would be the sound of a hundred men all claiming to be the slave leader? But it’s the moment you think of more than any other when the film comes up – and there’s not many films that can claim to have contributed such an instantly recognisable moment to our cultural heritage. It’s not the film’s only merit though: this is grand, entertaining, old-school Hollywood epic-film making.

In the last decades of the Roman Republic, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a young man born a slave, purchased by gladiator trainer Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) to learn how to thrill the crowds and kill his opponents. There he falls in love with slave-girl Varinia (Jean Simmons) and clashes with the regime of the training school. Revolt however stirs when rich nobleman Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives at the school and demands a fight to the death of his entertainment – as well as purchasing Varinia. In the aftermath, Spartacus leads a revolt – which grows into a huge army that soons puts all of Rome at risk. But a risk is also an opportunity: certainly it is for Crassus, who sees this as his chance to bring the Republic under his control.

Spartacus is a grand piece of film-making, shot on a huge scale, a labour of love for Kirk Douglas as producer. Upset at being denied the lead role in Ben-Hur, Douglas decided to make his own Roman epic – and to make something even grander than that Oscar-winning epic. Everything was thrown at the screen: grand locations, huge sets, star actors and a sweeping epic score. Alex North’s classically tinged score – with it’s distinctive employment of Roman instruments and echoing of both the intimidating splendour of Rome and the bucolic happiness of the liberated slaves – is proper old-school Hollywood score-making, that helps set the scene for the film’s epic sweep.

And Spartacus is epic – and epic entertainment. While it’s possibly a little too long, it knows when to spice up events with a battle, love scene or bit of political skulduggery. There are multiple story lines going on in this film, and interestingly they don’t all intersect. It’s easy to see Spartacus – and his struggle for freedom – as the real story of the film. But for most of the Roman characters, this is an embarrassment or sub-plot. There is a whole other story happening around the struggle to preserve Roman Republicanism – with Crassus as the face of oppression and his opponent Gracchus the slightly soiled but still vaguely democratic face of the old system. Both plots only rarely come together, and while that of Spartacus captures the heart strings, a lot of the film’s narrative drive is in the Roman conspiracies.

Perhaps this is because in the entire rebellion only Spartacus and Varinia qualify as really having personalities. And those personalities are basically flawless. Spartacus is almost saint-like in his nobility, a guy who never does anything wrong and whose only mistake is trusting others in a shifting world. Douglas does a great job of performing a character who is practically a living legend – and he completely convinces as the sort of leader his people would follow to the end. His relationship with Jean Simmons is also touchingly sweet and innocent – the film is very good at capturing the sense of how stunted the emotional lives of slaves have been, and the powerful joy they can find in the freedom of simple intimacies so many of us take for granted.

But the slaves themselves are frequently (whisper it) rather dull. Many of them might as well be sitting around the camp fires singing Kumbaya. Bar a brief moment at the start, no suggestion of taking vengeance raises its head. The liberated slaves sing, clap hands and gaze with joy. Children play and people frolic in the fields. Tony Curtis – good value as Crassus’ ex-bodyman, a learned man and entertainer of children – stages a magic show, with patter that could have come straight out of a Brooklyn street. Other than him, none of the slaves register as personalities. A tint of darkness, or moments of fury or even dangerous rage against their oppressors would have made a world of difference. But this is a simple film, where the slaves are building a utopia.

That’s probably why the film is more interested in the politics of the Romans. It’s certainly where the big name actors end up. Olivier is at his prowling, imperialist best – a heartless slice of ambition determined to bend events to his will. Against him, Charles Laughton with an impish cheek, a slightly corrupted air, as the man-of-the-people. These two conduct their own political battle of cut-and-thrust that Spartacus barely realises is happening. This manoeuvring is the real dramatic heart of the film, powered by these actors strengths (John Gavin and John Dall as their lieutenants look and sound very plodding against the playful archness of Olivier and Laughton).

That’s partly the point of Dalton Trumbo’s script (Douglas famously broke the Hollywood Blacklist by crediting Trumbo for his work on the film). While Rome plays politics, real people are fighting and dying for liberty – and will eventually find themselves crucified with nothing left but their pride and sense of freedom. It’s that feeling that probably lies behind the enduring love for this film.

It is perhaps Kubrick’s most universally beloved film. Interestingly though, it’s also the one Kubrick was least proud of. It’s true the film lacks much of his personal touch. While directed with flair and skill, parts of it could really have been made by any number of directors (not something you could say, for example, about The Shining or Barry Lyndon). Kubrick often quietly, albeit gently, disowned the film (he said he never knew what to say when people asked him about it). It’s the only Kubrick film where he was a “gun for hire”, subservient to the vision of the producer. His interest you feel is in the smaller moments – moments such as Woody Strode’s excellent cameo as a Gladiator (many of the strongest moments with the slaves in the tyranny of the Gladiator school, where life is meaningless and cheap). Really, it’s Douglas’ film – it’s similarities to The Vikings for example is striking – and while a poor advert for auteurism, it’s still a great advert for entertainment.

Kubrick’s greater interest in human failings and shades of grey perhaps explains why the Romans emerge as the more interesting characters. Spartacus’ lack of flaws were an intense frustration to him. Perhaps that’s why Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar) is the films stand-out character. As gladiator owner Batiatus, Ustinov is devious, playful, amoral, ambitious, without principle, dryly witty but somehow still has touches of decency. The most colourful character in the piece is also the one most coated with shades of grey.

*It’s an advert for what makes Spartacus lastingly engaging and interesting whenever you watch it – even if the cry of “I’m Spartacus!” and the decency and honour of the slaves is always going to be what stirs the emotions and tugs the heartstrings. Douglas set out to make one of the greatest “sword and sandal” epics. He succeeded.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Laughton and Gable go head to head in Mutiny on the Bounty

Director: Frank Lloyd

Cast: Charles Laughton (Captain Bligh), Clark Gable (Lt Fletcher Christian), Franchot Tone (Roger Byam), Herbert Mundin (Smith), Eddie Quillan (Ellison), Dudley Digges (Bacchus), Donald Crisp (Burkitt), Henry Stephenson (Sir Joseph Banks), Francis Lister (Captain Nelson), Spring Byington (Mrs Byam), Movita Castaneda (Tehani), Mamo Clark (Maimiti), Byron Russell (Quintal), David Torrance (Lord Hood)

“They respect but one law – the law of fear…”. So hisses Charles Laughton as the definitively monsterish Captain Bligh in this Oscar-winning version of the most famous mutiny ever. It’s the quintessential adventure on the high-seas motion picture (never mind that the actual ship used could only get a few miles off the coast), but it’s also a feast of good acting and Hollywood class: the only picture to get three nominations for Best Actor, as well as the last Best Picture winner to only win one Oscar. It cemented the ideas around Bligh and Fletcher for generations.

Heading out on a two-year voyage in 1787 to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies, the Bounty sets sail from Portsmouth with several members of the crew freshly press-ganged. In command is self-made man Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton), while his second-in-command is gentleman Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable). A pair of fine sailors, the two of them are separated only by their methods. Fletcher is a man of the people, a motivator with a firm hand. Bligh is a man with just a firm hand, who never uses a dozen lashes of the crew when two dozen will do. Fletcher becomes more and more alienated by Bligh’s ruthless methods.

Frank Lloyd bought the rights to a novel that fictionalised the mutiny (introducing Roger Byam, a fictional version of Peter Heywood who later become a Post-Captain in the navy) with the intention of directing and playing Bligh himself. Fortunately he was persuaded to step aside on the acting front for Laughton, who is seized the part with relish.  Shoulders scrunched and neck jutting his head forward, with his lip curled, this is a Bligh constantly on the look-out for offence, a martinet whose anger stems from a self-loathing within. A chippy middle-class boy made good, he’s determined to enforce the letter of the law, and while a bully with no empathy he’s not exactly a bad man, just a bad captain. Laughton’s performance simmers with bitterness and a relish for being obeyed.

He makes a neat contrast with Clark Gable at his matinee idol finest. Worried about taking the role because it demanded the shaving of his lucky moustache (no facial hair in the navy), Gable gifts Laughton the flashier role to play the decent hero with only the best for his fellow man at heart. Gable’s Christian is decent, understanding, a natural leader who has a firm eye for justice. Not even bothering with the British accent, but settling for a mid-Atlantic ease, Gable is the Hollywood superstar to his core, his Christian the quintessential romantic ideal.

Between the two of them runs Franchot Tone’s Midshipman Roger Byam. Tone is the often forgotten third nominee for Best Actor, but he has in many ways the trickier part, which he handles with aplomb: the naïve young man who wants to serve his captain and his country, but also understands that his captain is not a man of justice. Tone gets the film’s highlight, a final speech to the court martial that helps make everything turn out alright, but his tortured pleading for justice and moral righteousness is delivered with a humble and effective forthrightness.

Lloyd has these fine performances (plus some great work from Mundin, Crisp, Digges, Quillan and others as assorted ship’s crew) and sets them all out perfectly on a film that captures the heart of the epic. The ship is brilliantly constructed and assembled, and Lloyd’s film reconstructs everything from day-to-day travails on sea to the impact of storms. The mutiny when it comes is shot with an Eisensteinesque immediacy, while he also manages to shoot Tahiti with a dreamlike paradise sheen. He paces perfectly the growing sense of tension and unresolvable fury between Bligh and Christian. 

And he certainly gets a brilliant sense of the cruelty and sustained violence of Bligh’s rule on the boat, as floggings come thundering down on the backs the sailors – often for the very meanest of reasons. A keelhauling (despite one moment of laughably bad model work) is brutal in its harshness. Bligh’s first act on boat is to flog a dead man (after all death doesn’t wipe out the need for punishment) and he goes from there. The film does give time to admire Bligh’s seamanship – and reconstructs surprisingly well his awe-inspiring open boat trip over 4,000 miles to take him and loyalists back to a safe port. Meanwhile Christian heads for the safety of Tahiti, a blissful series of images of our decent sailors enjoying homespun pleasures and hot Tahitian wives.

Of course it’s not actually what happened really. Bligh was a difficult, priggish and rather cold person with low personal skills but he wasn’t the monster he seems here. Christian had a certain aristocratic pull over the men, but he was also probably far more twitchy, young and stupid than the assured, experienced sailor he is here. Bligh’s ship wasn’t the bastion of cruelty it is here (punishments seemed in line with the rest of the navy, or even a little less according to the log), but Bligh’s lack of understanding of how men work and his endless drive, matched with his sailors’ seduction by the charms of an easy life on Tahiti perhaps led to the outbreak. Either way Bligh definitely didn’t command the HMS Pandorato hunt the sailors down, nor did the investigation into the matter end with him being snubbed as a wrong ‘un by Lord Hood.

But hey, if you know that this is legend printed as fact it’s fine. Because Lloyd’s film is still superbly entertaining, has three excellent performances among a fine ensemble cast and while its version of Bligh may be a monster made up, Laughton invests him with enough humanity and self-loathing you’ll despair at his poor choices as much as you’ll hate his cruelty. Prime Hollywood entertainment, perfect for any time.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Charles Laughton looks on with longing as The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Director: William Dieterle

Cast: Charles Laughton (Quasimodo), Cedric Hardwicke (Jean Frollo), Thomas Mitchell (Clopin), Maureen O’Hara (Esmeralda), Edmond O’Brien (Pierre Gringoire), Alan Marshal (Captain Phoebus), Walter Hampden (Archbishop Claude Frollo), Harry Davenport (King Louis XI), Katherine Alexander (Madame de Lys), George Zucco (Procurator)

Victor Hugo’s gothic romance–slash-tragedy has been turned into a film so often, it’s a wonder anything that happens in it remains a surprise. But this 1939 version is perhaps the most influential, where Hollywood decided to throw money at the fable and try and make something as close as possible to the spirit of the book. But of course with a happyish ending on the end – because, you know, it’s still Hollywood!

In 1470s Paris, the city is caught between the pressures of religion and new developments such as the printing press. In the centre of the city is the Cathedral of Notre Dame – where the bells are operated by foundling Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), a deformed hunchback driven deaf by the constant ringing of the bells. His benefactor, Judge Jean Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), is running a vicious campaign to cleanse the city of the gypsies and beggars that make up a large part of its underbelly – but he’s hit for six when he falls in love (or rather lust) with beautiful gypsy woman Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara). But he’s not alone – equally smitten are naïve young poet Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien), arrogant Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal), and Quasimodo himself. When Esmeralda rejects Frollo’s advances she soon finds herself in danger – and her only hope of safety comes from unexpected sources.

Dieterle’s background in German expressionism and silent cinema shines through in this visually striking and opulent studio production, with its superbly marshalled crowd scenes, brilliant use of near-impressionistic shadows and fabulous camera work that drifts over the impressive (and hugely expensive) set. Dieterle mixes this technical expertise with a real sense of emotion and character development, helped by some terrific performances from the cast. It’s a film that motors through the story of the novel, but skilfully repackages it as both a fascinating semi-romance and a sort of urban tragedy, as well as a subtle mediation on love and lust.

At the centre of it, you have Charles Laughton giving probably the definitive performance of the hunchback. Sweating under layers of make-up and an artificial hump, Laughton is nearly unrecognisable as the bell-ringer. His triumph is to make a gentle, tragic character emerge from make-up that suggests more Frankenstein’s monster than tragic hero. Nearly wordless for the first hour and a half of the film, Laughton does his magic with an expressiveness that speaks volumes of the loneliness in Quasimodo. Tenderly, he watches people knowing he can never be part of their lives – and look how excitedly he bursts out when he finally gets a chance to speak to Esmeralda one-on-one. Suffering punishment on the wheel, Laughton’s eyes convey the numb acceptance of pain as his natural state of affairs. But he also manages to bring out the gentle, childlike qualities of Quasimodo. It’s a wonderful, wordless, expressionistic performance – a triumph of physical acting and wonderfully judged emotional vulnerability.

The rest of the cast match Laughton stride-for-stride. Censor demands at the time required that Frollo be removed from his position (in the novel) as Archbishop, so the book-version of the character is split in two here. Archbishop Frollo is the sort of pious bore who can keep the Hayes committee happy. But Cedric Hardwicke gets to play the invented evil brother Judge Jean Frollo, the lecherous hypocrite from the novel. An authoritarian ascetic, Hardwicke’s Judge Frollo is lean, mean and utterly ruthless – and totally in denial about both his lustful feelings and hypocrisy. Hardwicke is virtually an archetype of the sinister authoritarian, but he manages to never chew the scenery. Incidentally, knowing the two characters are basically split from the original book, does allow moments of fun imaging the moral debates between the two as a sort of split personality discussion.

But there are plenty of other good performances as well – not least from Maureen O’Hara, who is charming and engaging enough to make you believe that the whole male cast is in love with her. Edmond O’Brian goes large at times with the passionate romance, but he does a very good job in the role. Thomas Mitchell is good value as the leader of the beggars, Clopin. There are strong performances across the whole film.

All these performances are framed within a fabulous design. The trouble and expense that has gone into the construction of the set is inspiring, the sweeping gothic arches and towers giving every shot something exquisite to look at. It also gives never-ending options for camera placement and impressionistic imagery for Dieterle. It works as well – the gloomy, imposing towers of Notre Dame are captured with real artistry, while the shadow it casts over the whole city of Paris serves as a constant reminder of the oppression the city lives in.

Dieterle also brilliantly films the crowd scenes, getting a superb sense of visceral emersion from these sequences. Whether the camera is in the mix, or flying above the crowds from the tops of Notre Dame, these scenes look equally fantastic. Dieterle handles the more action-related scenes with particular skill – Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda from a death sentence is particularly well staged in its dynamism and graceful filming. 

Not every beat works. The portrayal of Louis IX as a sort of kindly old uncle seems off-piste from the very start. The early sequences sometimes get bogged down too quickly in set-up rather than getting into the action. Alan Marshal is rather wooden as Captain Phoebus, although the film goes surprisingly far in suggesting the dark desires and predatory sense of danger that comes from the character. Some of the beggar court sequences get similarly stuck in kitsch.

But these are minor beats. It’s a film that really understands emotions and makes the dramatic thrust work. It also has a dark sexual power, not least in Hardwicke’s Frollo: a seething mess of frustrated desires. It never loses sight of the sadness at the heart of its central character’s story, of his loneliness and isolation, and manages to communicate this brilliantly in every scene where the character appears – he is trapped by his muteness, his ugliness or his sadness at every turn. It’s a development that never fails to be engrossing and finally moving. It’s a film that is brilliantly assembled with real technical skill, very well acted and wonderfully directed.

Rembrandt (1936)

Charles Laughton excels as the great artist Rembrandt

Director: Alexander Korda

Cast: Charles Laughton (Rembrandt van Rijn), Gertrude Lawrence (Geertje Dircx), Elsa Lanchester (Hendrickje Stoffels), Edward Chapman (Carel Fabritius), Walter Hudd (Frans Banning Cocq), Roger Livesey (Beggar Saul), John Bryning (Titus van Rijn), Sam Livesey (Auctioneer), Allan Jeayes (Dr Tulip), John Clements (Govaert Flinck), Raymond Hartley (Ludwick), Abraham Sofaer (Dr Menasseh)

There are many artists I really love, but right near the top is Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt is remembered as being misunderstood in his own lifetime – which is sort of true. In fact, Rembrandt’s style fell out of favour and he basically went on a rags-to-riches-back-to-rags story not helped by constantly living outside of his means. Rembrandt actually follows the great man’s life pretty faithfully – and it even dances effectively around Rembrandt’s unusual domestic set-up.

The film begins with the death of the artist’s wife Saskia, and the rejection of The Night Watch by the Amsterdam militia. These events start a slow downward spiral for Rembrandt (Charles Laughton) towards a lack of fashion and an increased poverty. The film covers his consecutive relationships with Geertje Dircx (Gertrude Lawrence) and Hendrickje Stoffels (Elsa Lanchester), before ending shortly before the artist’s death.

The film is dominated by Laughton’s magnificent performance in the lead role. Laughton can effortlessly bring to life the impression of genius. His Rembrandt is an observant, quick-witted and sharply intelligent man, whose eyes observe everything and records it for future use. Of course, for the look of Rembrandt, Laughton had a hell of a lot to go on – few artists did as many self-portraits as Rembrandt. But what Laughton manages here is to capture the essence of the artist – that sense of wry amusement and a slightly bumptious insolence you get from a Rembrandt self-portrait. 

Laughton also gives a warm humanity as well. In a wonderfully naturalistic performance, his Rembrandt is by turns gentle, amused, slightly naughty, wise – but always feels human. Korda’s film focuses on a part of his life, rather than the whole, which allows us to focus on the painter finding a more unique style and some domestic happiness – but only doing so after losing his wife and professional respect. He’s compelling to watch here, like the painter come to life: you can totally believe him, from when he’s berating the Guild for not understanding The Night Watch, to his befuddled hopelessness with money.

Korda’s film focuses on the personal rather than exploration of art – probably a good thing, since the style and grandeur of the original paintings is nearly impossible to capture in black-and-white academy ratio. This however works a charm, as we get two very contrasting lovers for Rembrandt, demonstrating different sides of his personality. Gertrude Lawrence excels as a shrewish, domineering Geertje Dircx, a woman who seems to take control of Rembrandt and his family after his wife’s Saskia’s death as if she is entitled to the role (interestingly Saskia doesn’t even appear in the film). A few weeks after Saskia’s death, Lawrence’s Geertje settles into the embrace of Rembrandt (who drifts into the relationship) with all the entitlement of an heiress.

By contrast Elsa Lanchaster portrays an earthier, gentler Hendrickje Stoffels, younger and more naïve than either Rembrandt or Geertje. If the first relationship saw Rembrandt as a man having his life organised for him, this second sees him sharing the role of parent. Having said that, while he obviously looks on Hendrickje with a loving fondness – and delights in making her happy and contented – it’s Hendrickje who effectively works out a dodge for the broke Rembrandt to keep trading art, and it’s she who takes runs the business for him. It’s a perfect marriage of personalities.

Although of course marriage is the one thing it can never be. Rembrandt was forbidden from re-marriage due to a complex arrangement in Saskia’s will: and a jilted Geertje quickly moves to have Hendrickje branded a whore. Considering it was filmed in the middle of the Hays Decency code, the film takes quite a modern stance on Rembrandt’s two long standing affairs: it’s clear that we are not meant to sympathise with the hypocritical burgomasters who denounce his love life (“It’s not fair. Why should he get away with it?” one of them moans). 

The narrative parallels this pair of romances with the world of art and commerce. Noticeably Rembrandt often seems more comfortable with those of a similar class to himself: he chats amiably with a beggar he hires as a model (a perfect little cameo from Roger Livesey), and similarly flirts with a woman from his home town at a bar with a confidence he never seems to manage with either of his other love interests. The film pivots around this return to Rembrandt’s family home, with the film suggesting the artist used this time to reassess his life and aims – before returning refreshed to shake up both his art and home life. Korda’s film argues that Rembrandt’s own rejections and losses gave him a far greater understanding and appreciation for his craft – and its power – than he otherwise would have had.

Korda films all this with a lushness, with the sets, costumes and visuals constantly reminiscent of the styles of Rembrandt’s own work. Just as Laughton plays Rembrandt as a very grounded, humane character, so the film avoids sweeping melodrama to portray a very low-key and gentle story, that feels sweetly lacking in high-blown artistic intensity. It’s perhaps best summed up by the closing scene, where an ageing Rembrandt – taken for an old nobody by some young bucks in an inn – smiles serenely, enjoying the company and quoting Scripture at them with gentle satisfaction. He’s the contented, humane master – the man who seemed to capture the age and changed painting for ever. And then he borrows money off a friend (who asks him to please spend it on food) and heads straight to the paint shop. A slave to an obsession, but a man who still inspired love and affection – what could be more human than that?