Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Ronald Colman’s filmic legacy - no dubious distinction

by Nick Zegarac

“They talk of the artist finding liberation in work, it is true. One can be someone else in another, more dramatic, more beautiful world.” – Ronald Colman

The more one attempts to peg the subtle genius of Ronald Colman, the more one enters into a quiet rectitude of nobility and unrequited manliness – intangibles for which no mere words suffice.

Quite simply, Colman is the tops; a consummate professional who elevated his craft to an art and along the way create some of the most indelible characters of the silver screen.

Although it is usually those silken smooth charismatic arrangements of consonants and vowels issuing from him that get most of the accolades (for Colman was a man blessed with a marvelous voice), it is important to remember that for his early career none of Colman’s fans knew or even cared if he could talk; he was a silent actor!

Born on February 9, 1891 to middle-class parentage, Ronald Colman’s youth was spent on an education that would help cultivate his gentlemanly persona. The family moved from Richmond Surrey to Ealing when Colman was only a baby.

He would later discover a passion for amateur theatrics while boarding in Sussex. An apt pupil with a keen mind, Colman never regarded acting as anything more than his hobby while attending Cambridge to become an engineer. But the premature death of his father and subsequent failure of the family’s silk business forced Colman to renounce his studies in favor of a military career.

Undaunted, Ronald Colman joined the London Scottish Regionals – a battalion sent to France at the outbreak of World War I. He was seriously wounded at the battle of Messines, invalided and out of service before the real fighting officially began. Of his brief service record, Colman would later reflect,

“I loathe war. I'm inclined to be bitter about the politics of munitions and real estate which are the reasons of war. It certainly taught me to value the quiet life and strengthened my conviction that to keep as far out of range of vision as possible is to be as safe as possible.”

That post war isolationism found a brief - if misguided – outlet as a bookkeeper for the British Steamship Company. But Colman became so bored with office work that the allure of a theatrical profession consumed his ambitions by the late 1900s. He traveled the path of aspiring stage actor, applying his talent in increments along the way and gaining experience while honing his craft.

His diligence and perseverance were rewarded with a succession of increasingly prominent parts on the London stage including his debut in The Maharanee of Arakan (1916). He also made extra money appearing in minor British films like The Live Wire (1917 but never released), reflecting later that “I persevered in those films, and persevered is the word, though I am the first to admit that I was a very bad actor in them.”

By 1920, WWI had effectively reduced London’s flourishing west end to a mere trickle of artistic venues for young actors and Colman decided to leave England to pursue his acting dreams abroad. With only $37 in his pocket, however, aspirations for New York’s Great White Way quickly turned into two hard years of impoverishment.

Years later, when asked to comment on acting as a vocation, Colman frankly replied, “when ever I hear of young actors down and out and broke in New York I remember my own experiences and find it no laughing matter by any criterion.”

The dry spell for Colman broke when he was cast in Broadway’s La Tendresse (1919), a role that paved the way for his American film debut in Handcuffs or Kisses (1920). It was an indistinguishable career move. For two more years Colman tried in vane to convince American film producers that he was their next leading man - but to no avail.

“I visited agents, knocked at producers' doors; no one was interested,” Colman would later admit, “I was just another stage actor on tour, on the outside of Hollywood looking in. I returned to New York depressed and disappointed.”

The disappointment this time however, was short lived. Cast opposite silent legend Lillian Gish in The White Sister (1923), and under director Henry King’s spirited guidance, Colman delivered a searing performance that caused others in the Hollywood community to stand up and take notice.

By 1925, he had an exclusive nine year contract with veteran film pioneer, Samuel Goldwyn, starring in a string of silent classics - elegant costume affairs that mostly costarred vamp Vilma Banky - and were steadily earning Colman the reputation as an adroit and passionate leading man – a moniker the actor found quite ridiculous since his own reserved and congenial life away from the camera belied all references to him being ‘a lady’s man.’

“Why should I go to dull parties and say dull things just because I wear greasepaint and make love to beautiful women on the screen?” Colman reasoned. His non-compliance on such matters clashed with Goldwyn’s pursuit to gain his new talent exposure through any means of public notoriety.

With the advent of sound recording, the anachronistic hedonism of these popular pictures waned. But Goldwyn had a ready solution for the new age. He cast Colman as the roguishly elegant Bulldog Drummond (1929) – a stylish thriller with up-to-date sophistication. Both the film and Colman became an instant ‘talkie’ hit. His modulated tone, suave manner and subtle nuances easily garnered legions of female fans and made Ronald Colman the quiet envy of every man in the audience.

However, a professional falling out with Goldwyn over a fake press release (in which Goldwyn attempted to fabricate a drinking problem for his actor to stir up some undue publicity) in 1934 prompted Colman to file a law suit that was eventually settled out of court. The incident left the actor bitter and weary of signing his talents over to a single mogul. Henceforth, and for the rest of his career, Ronald Colman became a rarity in classic Hollywood – a freelance artist.
It was a fortuitous decision.

As solid and successful as Colman’s pre-1935 movies had been his freelance efforts far excelled those of most every leading man in Hollywood – particularly during the 30s and 40s. He cut a stunning figure as Sidney Carton in David O. Selznick’s lavishly produced A Tale of Two Cities (1935) for MGM. In 1937 the actor had back to back successes; the first at Columbia Studios with Frank Capra’s haunting Lost Horizon; the latter for Selznick once again – only this time under the producer’s own studio banner in the sumptuously mounted The Prisoner of Zenda, for which Colman adopted the mantel of dueling Fairbanks Sr. and Errol Flynn as both an imprisoned king and his cousin who saves the monarchy from ruin.

Both were ambitious prestige productions greatly aided by Colman's legitimate portrait of a cultured everyman who desires nothing more than to live life simply under the most daunting and extraordinary of experiences.

Colman’s whopping $162,500 salary for Lost Horizon was a source of consternation for Columbia president Harry Cohn. The sum briefly made Ronald Colman the highest paid actor in Hollywood and the film's lack lustre return at the box office convinced Cohn that no talent should ever be worth quite so much.

Not content with making movies, Colman also embarked upon a serious career in radio. He hosted an intellectual celebrity round-robin discussion, The Circle (1939) and starred in The Halls of Ivy – about a fictional college professor and his doting wife.

The show, costarring Colman’s real wife Benita Hume, was lauded as a witty, well-written comedy fable. It eventually found modest success as a television series in 1954.

Colman also provided an audio recording of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. The broadcast was so popular that Decca Records issued it as a 78-RPM gift set in 1941 and thereafter kept reissuing the recording to stellar sales.

At the time that director George Steven’s hired him to costar opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in The Talk of the Town (1942), Ronald Colman was at his artistic zenith. His bittersweet portrayal of a man desperate to recover his own memory opposite Greer Garson in Random Harvest that same year cemented his reputation as one of the all time great romantic leading men. Still, Colman was reticent about the residuals of fame.

“Fame,” he later mused, “has robbed me of my freedom and shut me up in prison and because the prison walls are gilded, and the key that locks me in is gold, does not make it any more tolerable.”

The forties saw a downturn in Colman’s interests in film making – particularly since he now had the financial means to pick and choose his projects. Middle aged and content to stand back from success, he became an infrequent participant, instead appearing on radio as the voice of Jack Benny’s long suffering next door neighbor on The Jack Benny Program. He also starred opposite the sultry Marlene Dietrich in MGM’s first film adaptation of Kismet (1944) – an absurdly lavish affair in which Colman was slightly miscast as an Arab poet masquerading as royalty in order to secure the happiness of his daughter.

At the end of the decade, Colman unveiled his most startling and provocative performance as a stage actor suffering from dementia in A Double Life (1947).
In the film, Colman’s Anthony John, a Shakespearean actor becomes so engrossed in his portrayal of Othello that he actually takes on his alter ego to commit a real murder. The performance justly garnered Colman his one and only Best Actor Academy Award.

Though film offers poured in for his inimitable brand of gentlemanly chic, Colman continued to curtail his activities on celluloid to all but a few modest appearances throughout the 1950s. Instead he occupied his time and his talents by hosting several episodes of television’s popular, Four Star Playhouse (1952-1954). Colman also attempted to resurrect his radio success on the small screen with the television debut of Halls of Ivy. It was short lived.

He resurfaced briefly as one of the many cameos in Michael Todd’s all star travelogue, Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and made his final film appearance as ‘the Spirit of Man’ a year later in one of the worst movies of the decade; The History of Mankind (1957). When asked by a reporter if the film’s premise had been based on a book, Colman glibly replied, “Yes. But they used only the notes on the dust jacket.”

The failure of The History of Mankind did not hamper Colman’s ability to procure film assignments in Hollywood, but he turned virtually all of them down in favor of resigning his final year to a quiet life far removed from the spotlight. Colman, who had married actress Benita Hume in a modest ceremony in 1938, lived one more year before succumbing to a mysterious lung infection on May 19th, 1958.

Reflecting on the success of his marriage in his final year, Colman said, “A man usually falls in love with a woman who asks the kinds of questions he is able to answer.”

Colman had first met Hume on the set of A Tale of Two Cities. Although neither was particularly interested in marriage the two quickly became inseparable.

However, three years into their relationship, Hume had grown tired of waiting for her lover to pop the question. Embarking on a New York bound train, the actress was prompted to turn around in New Mexico when a telegram arrived; 'Come home and let’s get married.' Clearly, Colman was the man with the answers.

Their marriage lasted 20 years.

In the interim many a leading he-man has stepped before the cameras to mark their brief territory on the silver screen.
While some, like Clark Gable, did it through sheer animal magnetism, and others like Humphrey Bogart, through the growing shades of postwar cynicism that illustrated cracks in America’s Teflon optimism, the lasting appeal and allure of Ronald Colman’s on screen persona is that of a polished, kindly and aristocratic philanthropist.
He is much more the uncle we would have all liked to grow up with or the best friend we might have chosen for our own. For women, he embodied the loyal mate that most preferred to grow old with till the end of days.
If James Stewart was Hollywood’s everyman, then Ronald Colman was its crown prince, but one who never thought of himself as such – just the ordinary fellow framed by a life that was anything but.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).