The Golden Age of Cinema: Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton

I’ve known about the actor Charles Laughton for most of my life for films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Private Life of Henry VIII, but what I didn’t see until recently was just what a genius of an actor he was. When I was a teenage fan of classic Hollywood, I was too smitten with Errol Flynn and David Niven to give much thought to the slightly rotund and older Laughton, but now that I’ve matured, I’m far more appreciative of actors who were less traditionally handsome.

So I have revisited three of his key movies with fresh eyes.

Hobson's Choice (1954)

This was my first real encounter with Laughton. He plays Henry Hobson, owner of a Salford boot shop, alongside Brenda De Banzie as his eldest daughter and John Mills as his skilled bootmaker. My teenage-self loved the film, but Laughton was too old and cantankerous to ever rival Flynn. I enjoyed his part but simply saw him as the foil to his intelligent, enterprising daughter Maggie, who captured my imagination far more than her drunken father.

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton and Brenda De Banzie in Hobson's Choice

Rewatching the film recently, courtesy of Amazon Prime, was like an awakening. Laughton is an utter joy to watch; his performance is as large and pompous as his character, but woven through with clever, understated subtlety that makes Henry Hobson more than just a caricature. He lauds it over his children with a false bravado that is both preposterously laughable and yet somehow effective. When he tells Maggie that she is too old to marry he is cruel, repulsive and so very, very watchable.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

When this was recently shown on the BBC I thought I’d give it a watch. I’d seen it long ago, but had never really registered the glory of the performances in the twisting plot. Yet this is the film that has really changed my opinion of Laughton. He plays barrister Sir Wilfred Robarts, who takes on the seemingly unwinnable task of defending Leonard Vole (played by Tyrone Power in his final film) at his murder trial. When Vole’s wife (played by Marlene Dietrich in one of her greatest performances) becomes the witness named in the title, he sets about dismantling her testimony.

Laughton was third billing in this film behind the more charismatic Power and Dietrich, but he drives the film with his sublime performance. I found myself memorized by him.

Charles with his wife Elsa Lanchester

With complete ease, he demonstrates both his comic timing and his masterful acting, switching from cantankerous patient tormenting his long-suffering nurse (played by his real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester) to cunning barrister cross-examining his visitors with the glare from his monocle. His performance earned him a third Oscar nomination and it is more-the-pity that he did not win (it went to Sir Alec Guinness for The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Charles Laughton, John Williams and Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

It had been many years since I had seen this particular version of the (romanticised) life story of the poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and seeing it again brought back a lot of memories of being a teenager watching classic movies on BBC2 on a Saturday afternoon. Though only three years older than Norma Shearer who played Elizabeth, Laughton stars as her father, the tyrannical and really rather creepy Edward Moulton-Barrett, who keeps his children oppressed through fear and guilt, refusing to let them marry or have a life of their own.

At the centre of the film is Laughton’s portrayal of a man incestuously in love with his daughter. Even for pre-code Hollywood it was risqué, but Laughton was able to portray Edward in his full obnoxious  glory through his majestic acting. He gives hints of what lies beneath Edward’s fatherly affections, using movement and body language to covertly display what could not be overtly said – as he himself said: ‘They can’t censor the gleam in my eye’. We are repulsed by Edward, willing Elizabeth’s escape, and yet he remains intriguingly hypnotic.  

Laughton with Norma Shearer and Maureen O'Sullivan in The Barretts of Wimpole Street

Although I still swoon over Flynn and Niven and forever will, Charles Laughton is now established as one of my favourite actors despite the fact that he felt that he had ‘a face like the behind of an elephant’. He is magnetic, powerful and absorbing. I could watch him all day and never get tired of the tiny, effortless nuances of his performances. Yet he doubted himself his whole life, considering himself a failure and pre-empting any upcoming performance with a surety that he would fail. Aged only 44 he described himself as a ‘tired old ham’, but you only have to watch a few of his films to know how untrue that was.