• Charles Laughton: Size Matters

    By Graham Fuller

    “Let me have men about me that are fat.”
    Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 2

    Just as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe admired small, brave men who stick to their principles, I like—in the movies at least—heavyset, flamboyant types who walk and talk as if life were a poem, whether dainty or grating, lyrical or bombastic. Not least because they pose an alternative to “lean and hungry” male leads, Oliver Hardy, W. C. Fields, Orson Welles, Sydney Greenstreet, Raimu, Francis L. Sullivan, Robert Morley, Philippe Noiret, Burl Ives, and Robbie Coltrane have privileged cinema with their weighty presence.

    Charles Laughton (1899–1962) would have been extraordinary whatever his girth, but ampleness lent him enormous emotional heft. The screen can barely contain him at times: when, in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), his disgruntled Henry bloody-mindedly mocks Tudor politesse by tossing hunks of cooked fowl over his shoulder; when his Captain Bligh, a porcine sadist who might have been drawn by the eighteenth-century cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson, tells Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) that he’s “a mutinous dog” in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935); when his pumped-up Lancastrian bootmaker, who lords it over his daughters in Hobson’s Choice (1954), half dances home in a beery haze. Laughton harnessed his bulk to his characters’ emotions rhythmically.

    The common perception was that he was “ugly,” but this is unfair. In Rembrandt (1936), Laughton’s deeply moving portrayal of the painter in mourning, his rapt, sensual paean to his dead wife, renders him beautiful. Similarly, his Quasimodo’s tenderness toward Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) counters his grotesqueness. The poetic sensibility of these characters negates the sense that they stray from verisimilitude, which can also be said of Laughton’s only directorial outing, The Night of the Hunter (1955). A psycho-thriller that morphs into a fairy tale via the hunted children’s dreamy journey downriver, that southern gothic masterpiece was misunderstood in its time, and Laughton never directed again.

    Though he began in the silent era, the mellifluousness of his voice, which could turn into a bark, made him a natural for the talkies. There’s a case to be made that he was a stage actor who once or twice a year found himself in front of a camera, thus his critics regard him a “ham.” Toward the end, he sometimes overacted with impunity. But in his prime, he was the greatest Shakespearean film actor, despite the fact that he never appeared in a Shakespeare film. How sad that Laughton never brought his wistful grandeur to Falstaff, for we know from his other films that he had heard the chimes at midnight—not merely “the bells, the bells.”

    There’s a melancholy in Laughton’s finest work that wasn’t invention. He was twice gassed during World War I, and who knows what horrors he saw on the western front? And though he and Elsa Lanchester enjoyed a long marriage and acting partnership, he was tormented by his homosexuality. His looks and doubts about his abilities also caused him anguish: Josef von Sternberg’s I, Claudius (1937) was canceled because of Laughton’s rampant insecurity. Pain, as much as pathos, bumptiousness, and diffidence, flickers throughout his work—and, like his physique and his fancifulness, informs his genius. As Caesar says, “Would he were fatter!”

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12 comments

  • By Brendan C. Burchill
    March 02, 2009
    07:43 AM

    To Whom It May Concern: I was deeply moved by Graham Fuller's appreciative essay on Charles Laughton. His comments on Laughton's on-screen persona are vividly phrased and a fair assessment of Laughton's acting genius. I am also very pleased that Criterion and Eclipse have been planning releases of some of his best British movies. I am particularly a fan of his performance in "Rembrandt," a rare historical drama that is tender, sorrowful, and (I think) inspiring all at the same time. As a fan of Laughton's work, I am pleased to see the late actor receiving accolades such as these now more than four decades after his decease. Thank you, Brendan C. Burchill, Film Enthusiast
    Reply
  • By Ted Lewis
    March 03, 2009
    01:53 PM

    That was great! Thanks for the tribute to one of the most toweringly great actors of the 20th century!
    Reply
  • By michael zwolinski
    March 03, 2009
    09:55 PM

    please release a Criterion version of Night of the Hunter...humanity deserves such a thing!
    Reply
  • By Stephen Rowley
    March 09, 2009
    04:01 PM

    Thanks for the tribute to one of the cinema's finest and most versatile talents. And may I also extend a loud and hearty "Thank you!" to Criterion for having released Hobson's Choice (1954) to DVD, a classic from David Lean that most assuredly deserved the rolls-royce treatment as only Criterion can deliver. (And before anyone levels accusations, no, I am not a company shill.) I continue to hope that Criterion will eventually acquire two other great Laughton films, Siodmak's The Suspect (1944) or the precode horror film Island of Lost Souls (1933). The former has never enjoyed a commercial release to home video and the latter, easily accessible during the VHS era, now languishes on moratorium. Both are currently being held hostage by Universal studios (along with many other great classic films).
    Reply
  • By Gloria
    March 29, 2009
    04:48 PM

    Adding to what Michael said, I've been campaigning in my blog about a Special Edition for Night of the Hunter 8http://rootingforlaughton.blogspot.com/2006/09/would-you-like-to-see-special-edition.html)... Wouldn't it be good to give this great film the DVd edition it deserves? and more since there are eight hours of outtakes, and Robert Gitt made a two-hour documentary from them "Charles Laughton directs The Night of the Hunter" which is sort of a "making of" the film... And... Yes! definitely, there is a lot of work by Laughton (as an actor) yet to get a proper DVD release, so I suscribe to Stephen's suggestion of a nice, restored release of Island of Lost Souls (1932) and The Suspect (1944) Which is interesting, not only because of Laughton's performance, but also because of Robert Siodmack being the director. As for films acted by laughton, I would add my favourite: Jean Renoir's "This Land is Mine" (i'd give something about it having a "Special DVD" release, too). And as for films held hostage... what about the paramount-produced "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1935)? Not to mention long-lost films like "the Blue Veil", etc...
    Reply
  • By Adam Rothbarth
    March 30, 2009
    12:09 AM

    Seriously, please release 'The Night of the Hunter'. It's so much better than some other things that are getting Criterion releases (Benjamin Button? COME ON).
    Reply
  • By John
    March 15, 2010
    03:38 PM

    The Charles Laughton directed film 'Night of the Hunter' is a classic but unique film (with cinematography bordering on the surreal at times) which certainly deserves a special edition DVD release. The previous release by MGM doesn't come close to doing this cinematic work of art justice. I hope that Criterion would consider such a release if MGM is not willing to dedicate the resouces to do so.
    Reply
  • By ALRickman
    October 22, 2010
    12:52 AM

    Criterion has not put out a disc of "Ruggles of Red Gap"?!! How is this possible?
    Reply
  • By Anthony Condon
    May 31, 2011
    07:51 PM

    i agree , Ruggles of red gap?,Benjamin Button??...Armageddon???!!! Really... when gems like Island of Lost souls,Seconds...and most importantly, Ken Russell's The Devils are trapped in no release limbo due to rights, greed and politics. Criterion should seriously get their act together. Has anyone really purchased Broadcast News for chrissakes.
    Reply
  • By Patrick donohue
    February 24, 2013
    09:15 AM

    Criterion please release a special edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). The previous release did not do it justice. Please.
    Reply
  • By Stacey Hershfield
    January 27, 2014
    01:07 AM

    His Rembrandt was awesome, as was his role in Advise and Consent. Few were able to command dialogue and the screen as was Mr. Laughton.
    Reply
  • By John Fonti
    April 18, 2014
    02:26 PM

    When might The Suspect (Charles Laughton) be released by Criterion? One of his finest performances!
    Reply

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