Laughton, Charles

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Nationality: American. Born: Scarborough, Yorkshire, 1 July 1899; became U.S. citizen, 1950. Education: Attended Stonyhurst School until 16 years old; studied at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, London, 1925–26. Military Service: Served in the British Army, 1917–18; gassed in final German advance of war. Family: Married the actress Elsa Lanchester, 1929. Career: 1916—sent to London to learn hotel business; 1918–25—worked in family hotel, took part in amateur theatricals; 1926—professional acting debut in The Government Inspector; 1928—appeared in bit roles in short filmed plays written by H. G. Wells for Elsa Lanchester; 1929—feature film debut in Dupont's Piccadilly; 1931—played with Lanchester in Payment Deferred, in London and New York; contract with Paramount; 1933–34—acted with Old Vic, London; 1937—taken into partnership, along with John Maxwell, in Erich Pommer's Mayflower Pictures; 1939—moved permanently to United States; mid-1940s—collaborated with Bertolt Brecht on Galileo (premiered 1947 in Los Angeles); late 1940s—toured in programs of readings from great literature; as member of The First Drama Quartet (with Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer, and Cedric Hardwicke), toured in Don Juan in Hell; 1952—co-produced and directed Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial; 1955—directed the film The Night of the Hunter. Awards: Best Actor, Academy Award for The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1932–33; Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for Mutiny on the Bounty and Ruggles of Red Gap, 1935. Died: Of cancer 15 December 1962.

Films as Actor:


Daydreams (Montague—short) (as Rajah); Bluebottles (Montague—short) (as policeman); Frankie and Johnnie (Montague—short)


Piccadilly (Dupont) (bit role)


Wolves (Wanted Men) (De Courville)


Down River (Godfrey)


The Old Dark House (Whale) (as a Lancashire knight); The Devil and the Deep (Gering) (as submarine captain); Payment Deferred (Mendes); The Sign of the Cross (DeMille) (as Nero); in Lubitsch-directed ep. of If I Had a Million (anthology film)


Island of Lost Souls (Kenton); The Private Life of Henry VIII (Korda) (title role); White Woman (Walker) (as Horace Prin)


The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Franklin) (as Mr. Barrett)


Ruggles of Red Gap (McCarey) (title role); Les Misérables (Boleslawsky) (as Javert); Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd) (as Captain Bligh)


Rembrandt (Korda) (title role); I, Claudius (von Sternberg—not completed) (title role)


Vessel of Wrath (The Beachcomber) (Pommer)


St. Martin's Lane (The Sidewalks of London) (Whelan); Jamaica Inn (Hitchcock); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Dieterle) (as Quasimodo)


They Knew What They Wanted (Kanin) (as Tony Patucci)


It Started with Eve (Koster)


The Tuttles of Tahiti (Charles Vidor); Tales of Manhattan (Duvivier); Stand by for Action (Leonard)


Forever and a Day (Clair and others); This Land Is Mine (Renoir); The Man from Down Under (Leonard)


The Canterville Ghost (Dassin) (title role); The Suspect (Siodmak)


Captain Kidd (Lee) (title role)


Because of Him (Wallace)


The Paradine Case (Hitchcock); On Our Merry Way (A Miracle Can Happen) (King Vidor) (as guest); The Big Clock (Farrow); Arch of Triumph (Milestone); The Girl from Manhattan (Green)


The Bribe (Leonard); The Man on the Eiffel Tower (Meredith) (as Inspector Maigret)


The Blue Veil (Bernhardt); The Strange Door (Pevney); "The Cop and the Anthem" ep. of O. Henry's Full House (Koster); Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (Lamont) (as Captain Kidd)


Salome (Dieterle) (as King Herod); Young Bess (Sidney) (as Henry VIII)


Hobson's Choice (Lean) (title role)


Witness for the Prosecution (Wilder)


Sotto dieci bandiere (Under Ten Flags) (Coletti) (as British Admiral); Spartacus (Kubrick) (as Gracchus)


Advise and Consent (Preminger) (as Senator Seab Cooley)

Film as Director:


The Night of the Hunter (+ co-sc)


On LAUGHTON: books—

Singer, Kurt, The Laughton Story, Philadelphia, 1954.

Lanchester, Elsa, Charles Laughton and I, New York, 1968.

Burrows, Michael, Charles Laughton and Frederic March, New York, 1970.

Brown, William, Charles Laughton: A Pictorial Treasury of His Films, New York, 1970.

Higham, Charles, Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography, New York, 1976.

Lanchester, Elsa, Elsa Lanchester Herself, New York, 1983.

Callow, Simon, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, London, 1987.

Missler, Andreas, Charles Laughton: Seine Filme, sein Leben, Munich, 1990.

On LAUGHTON: articles—

Gordon, Ruth, "Legitimate Laughton," in Theatre Arts (New York), November, 1950.

McVay, D., "The Intolerant Giant," in Films and Filming (London), March 1963.

Vermilye, Jerry, "Charles Laughton," in Films in Review (New York), May 1963.

Lorcey, J., "La Pesanteur et la grâce: Charles Laughton acteur," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 February 1978.

Turner, G. E., "Creating The Night of the Hunter," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1982.

Taylor, John Russell, "Tales of the Hollywood Raj," in Films and Filming (London), June 1983.

Mills, M. C., "Charles Laughton's Adaptation of The Night of the Hunter," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), January 1988.

Norman, Barry, in Radio Times (London), 1 May 1993.

Green, R., "The Big Picture," in Boxoffice (Chicago), June 1996.

* * *

Charles Laughton, one of the most distinguished actors of the century, was successful alike on stage and in film, yet, full of artistic self-doubts throughout his career, he was fraught by worries, largely of his own making, including problems arising from his homosexuality. Like Michel Simon in France, he was haunted by concern about his appearance; both men found themselves repellently ugly yet both had features which, though homely and far from conventionally handsome, possessed wonderful mobility of expression. In their particular cases, their appearance in fact became a great dramatic asset. Intended by his father, a hotelier in Scarborough, to follow the same occupation, Laughton broke away to train at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he became a gold medalist in 1925. Once on the stage, he found his lifelong supporter and fellow-artist in the young character actress Elsa Lanchester, with whom in 1928 he appeared in two notable experimental two-reel film comedies Bluebottles and Day Dreams. His feature film debut was in a silent production, E. A. Dupont's Piccadilly, followed by appearances in other British features. Meanwhile, his stage career took him to America in 1931 as the murderer in the play Payment Deferred, which was subsequently filmed.

Laughton's outstanding success in films came, in both Britain and America, in the early 1930s in a long succession of star character parts—parallel to his commanding position in the theater, where he starred notably in Shakespeare at the Old Vic and, much later, at Stratford upon Avon. He played an effetely sadistic Nero in DeMille's The Sign of the Cross and an amusing bit part in the composite film If I Had a Million, developing a genius alike for comedy and drama. His brilliance in Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII won him an Academy Award; he followed this with a veritable gallery of impressive character portraits—as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's father in the Sidney Franklin version of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, as the dignified English butler in Leo McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap, as Javert in Richard Boleslawski's version of Les Misérables, and as Captain Bligh in Frank Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty. He was the artist in Korda's Rembrandt, the beachcomber in Erich Pommer's Vessel of Wrath (The Beachcomber), the street entertainer in Tim Whelan's St. Martin's Lane (Sidewalks of London), and Quasimodo in William Dieterle's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

By the 1940s, with the Laughtons settled in Hollywood, films became his principal source of income, enabling him to own a handsome home and establish a collection of paintings. His roles alternated between the excellent and the mediocre, the excellent including those in Garson Kanin's They Knew What They Wanted (with Carole Lombard) and Henry Koster's It Started with Eve, his cowardly ghost in Jules Dassin's The Canterville Ghost, the Crippen-like murderer in Robert Siodmak's The Suspect, and the magazine tycoon in The Paradine Case. He starred in John Farrow's thriller, The Big Clock and was Inspector Maigret in the French-American production The Man on the Eiffel Tower. Many films of this period, however, were indifferent vehicles for Laughton's great talent, and it was good that in his final years he was given certain characters in which he could shine—as Hobson, the north of England bootmaker in David Lean's version of Stanley Houghton's play Hobson's Choice, as the elderly barrister in Billy Wilder's version of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, and finally as the wily, crusty senator in Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent. This part he just managed to get through before his death.

Laughton had also in his later career established a new departure, giving dramatic readings, notably from the Bible and from Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman. He also directed one film with evident skill, The Night of the Hunter, a sinister thriller of great atmospheric power, containing a fine performance by Robert Mitchum.

—Roger Manvell

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Charles Laughton

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