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Charles Laughton: Size Matters

“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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