THE VERSATILE CLAUDE RAINS
"He was born on the wrong side of the Thames. He was one of twelve children and all but three of them died from poverty-related illnesses. He never went to school beyond second grade, had a strong Cockney accent and a terrible lisp. But he fixed all that by himself when he was 18 or 19." – daughter Jessica Rains about her father
He was born William Claude Rains on November 10, 1889 in London England; the impoverished son of a British stage actor. But Claude Rains was doing more than simply following in his father’s footsteps when he embarked on his own acting career. He was creating a legacy of indelible portraits along the way. A brilliant character actor who regrettably appeared in too few films as ‘the star’, Rains inimitable acting style graced nearly 70 films during his illustrious Hollywood career.
He gave his first theatrical performance at the age of 11 in Nell of Old Drury (1900) and thereafter quickly acquired the technical end of his craft by working his way up from pageboy to stage manager at His Majesty’s Theatre during the next seven years. On June 28, 1911 Rains appeared in his first adult role as Slag in Gods of the Mountain. But by later that same year he was again serving as the stage manager for the touring company of The Blue Bird. He returned to acting in bit roles on the London stage in 1912, but was increasing becoming bored with his lack of progress.
After making his first U.S. appearance in Harley Granville’s repertory company in 1913 – and his American stage debut as Spintho in Androcles And The Lion (1914-15), Rains returned to England, served in the Scottish Regiment during WWI. His regiment was gassed at Vimy Ridge and Rains was transferred over to the Bedford regiment for the duration of the war. In 1918, he once again began to establish himself in the ‘legitimate’ theater during the postwar period. He married for the first time to actress, Isabel Jeans that same year. Unfortunately for the couple, personal differences coupled with conflicting schedules ended in divorce two years later. He was also featured in one obscure British silent film, Build Thy House.
In 1920, Rains was a member of the teaching staff at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He also married for the second time to Marie Hemingway. But like his first marriage, this one ended quickly in divorce. Still, Rains maintained an aura of the amiable about his own romantic past. Sir John Gielgud, then a student at the Academy reflected years later about Rains that he was “…extremely attractive to women. He was divorced several times, and once appeared ...with Beatrix Thomson, to whom he was then married, in a cast that included two of his former wives. Needless to say, all the girls in my class at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was one of the best and most popular teachers, were hopelessly in love with him."
Although Rains had tried out, and would have preferred to have been cast in David O. Selznick’s A Bill of Divorcement (1933), he was rejected for the role of Hilary by the producer – a part he had already played with considerable conviction on the stage in 1921. However, on vocal ability alone, Rains was hired by director James Whale for The Invisible Man (1933) instead; a role that kept Rains from view behind gauze bandages and through the magic of special effects. Nevertheless, the tangibility of Rains’ performance remained palpable.
“Claude…was what we call an actor’s actor,” admits costar Gloria Stuart, “…he was very involved with himself and his performance.”
Rains returned to the stage for They Shall Not Die (1934) with his first hint of international success tucked firmly under his belt. Even so, Universal saw little in the diminutive Rains to illicit a long term contract. In fact, Rains was deemed ‘not leading man material.’ Rather than risk his career on subsequent substandard productions, which is where he felt Universal had pegged his marketability, Rains opted to buy out his own contract. He relocated and redoubled his efforts, eventually landing a deal with Warner Brothers in 1935.
He also remarried for the fourth time to Frances Propper in April of that same year. Only his professional association proved a fortuitous union however, and Rains spent the bulk of his ‘30s tenure at Warner appearing in some of the studio’s most celebrated melodramas, adventures and comedies, including Anthony Adverse (1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
1938 was also marked by two watershed occasions; Rains became an American citizen and celebrated the birth of his only daughter, Jessica. Rains also began work on Four Daughters (1938). He had worked with the irascible director, Michael Curtiz before, but on this film the association proved particularly arduous as Curtiz attempted to get as much mileage out of his cast by spurring them onward even through their scheduled lunch breaks. Rather than confront the director, Rains decided on a practical joke instead. He hid an alarm clock on the set and timed it to go off during the casts scheduled lunch, declaring loudly to Curtiz – still working on setting up his shot – “Good lord…it must be lunch time!”
In 1939, Rains was loaned out to Columbia Pictures for Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington – a film considered so scandalous in its indictment of graft within the federal government that it was denounced on the floor of Congress. Nevertheless, it afforded Rains the opportunity to play yet another meaty role, as Senator Joseph Payne – the one time loyal friend to incumbent, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) late father.
A chameleon, Rains glided effortlessly between playing the compassionate everyman and diabolical rogue. In accordance with his formidable talents, he was often billed in bold letters comparable to star billing immediately following the title card of a movie. On occasion, he even had more screen time than the ‘star’ – an unheard of gesture in scripting. In Juarez (1939) for example, Rains is given more dialogue and appears in more scenes than the film’s star, Paul Muni. "I was in awe (of Claude),” costar, Bette Davis admitted years later, “I was thrown for a loop. At the time he scared the life out of me."
By 1940, Rains was a hot commodity in Hollywood. His tenure of contributions to the Warner product of this vintage reads like the pedigree of a seasoned headliner. He appeared to stunning effect in a series of memorable melodramas and war time adventure yarns. Never a recipient of the coveted Academy Award, Rains was first Oscar-nominated in 1939 for his performance as the corrupt politico in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington; then as the slippery and silken womanizer, Louie Renault in Casablanca (1942); for his sympathetically tragic performance as the long suffering husband of Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and for his quietly bitter, yet polished Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).
He also appeared to stellar effect in The Sea Hawk (1940); as the empathetic doctor curing mental illness in the Bette Davis weepy, Now Voyager (1942) and in the Ronald Reagan classic King’s Row (1942). For this latter effort, Rains dominates the middle third of the melodramatic action as a physician who murders his troubled daughter (Ann Sheridan) to prevent her from succumbing to hereditary family madness, then commits suicide.
By now, Rains was a big draw to audiences. In accordance, he was afforded several disastrous attempts at helming an entire production. Universal cast him as the scarred music lover who haunts the Paris Opera house in their lavish remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943). Unfortunately, the focus of Universal’s script was on the musical program provided by Nelson Eddy and others and did not afford Rains the opportunity to exercise his talents in a positive light.
He returned to Warner Brothers, relatively unscathed from this initial experience as a lead to costar with Humphrey Bogart in Passage to Marseilles (1943). The film was a solid performer for the studio. In his next film, Mr. Skeffington (1944), Rains once again played second fiddle to Bette Davis; the grand dame of the Warner lot was rounding out her contract for her alma mater. In the film, Davis is Fanny, a superficial flapper whose beauty is ravaged by diphtheria. Rains played the title character, a Jewish man rebuked by his wife, then cast aside, but eventually reconciled with after the war has blinded him. Though successful enough, the film was eventually edited to tone down its rather obvious theme of anti-Semitism.
Rains’ next film was Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) – a stylish entrée in which, as a suave Nazi supporter living in Mexico City, he attempted to poison his wife (Ingrid Bergman) under the watchful eye of an FBI agent (Cary Grant). A formidable success at the box office, the film seemed to place Rains in the envious position to draw star billing once more. However, that same year, Rains became the first actor to request a one million dollar retainer for his services in the epic, Caesar and Cleopatra (1946) – costarring Vivien Leigh.
The choice of Rains for the title character must have seemed like a natural. Though he had never appeared as Caesar or in any of Shaw’s great works, Rains had had prominent roles in two theatrical productions of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1919-1920). Unfortunately, the film was a rare but unqualified disaster – its box office returns unable to recoup production costs and unfairly blamed on Rains’ performance. Quite suddenly, Rains discovered his services as a character actor were no longer in top demand – not only at Warner Brothers but anywhere inside Hollywood.
Though he continued to work steadily enough, the films he was being offered now were substandard to his abilities, and worse, the size of the roles were considerable smaller than those he had been offered in the past. On April 19th 1949, Rains gave a benefit concert, reading spoken lines for A Lincoln Portrait – an event that brought about particular personal satisfaction.
He was cast in Where Danger Lives (1950), an inconsequential film where he nevertheless gave his all and was appreciated and admired by the rest of the cast. Reflecting years later on her experience working on the film, actress Faith Domerque remembered that, “I had some very difficult scenes to do with Claude Rains, and Mr. Rains was, indeed, a very formal man. You didn't call him Claude! He always came in very prepared with his lines learned right down to the last apostrophe. We would run through the scenes at night on the set with new lines added. We would have a fresh scene written every night, and we would rush to our dressing rooms to relearn the newly added lines because this had been done at night and we were doing the scenes in the morning. Claude Rains found this difficult to adapt to. He was never bad tempered but was a very structured actor, a splendid actor. He brought nuances to the part of the husband which were just incredible."
Buffeted by a series of changes in technologies and audience tastes in contemporary entertainment that rocked the very foundations of the studio system, and in an effort to economize their own studio by streamlining the star system, Warner Brothers quietly bought up the rest of Rains’ contract in 1951. Yet, there was still enough fire in Rains’ personality and determination to light up the stage. He returned to Broadway in 1951’s Darkness at Noon – a colossal success. The play earned the prestigious New York Critic’s Circle Award and garnered Rains a Tony as Best Actor. Still, Hollywood ignored him.
Rains next moved into the popular ‘new’ medium of television. His debut on Medallion Theatre in The Man Who Liked Dickens on August 1, 1953, led to a series of memorable performances on shows like The Kraft Television Hour and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1952-56).
In 1956, Rains divorced Propper – a move that would impact his personal life until 1959 when he married in rapid succession, Agi Jambor, then Rosemary McGroarty Clark (1960) Despite the latter union being a reasonably happy one, Clark would die of pancreatic cancer in 1963. After six concerted attempts at marital bliss, Rains decided to remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. During this fallow romantic period it was his daughter, Jessica – always a constant in his life – who became his most devoted and life long companion and friend.
In 1962, director David Lean tapped him for the prominent role of Mr. Dryden in his epic, Lawrence of Arabia. It was an outstanding offer in a decade of otherwise undistinguished film and television work, capped off by Rains’ token cameo as King Herod in George Steven’s epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Claude Rains rounded out his career, prolifically enough, as it had begun – appearing on the stage in So Much of Earth, So Much of Heaven (1965). He died on May 30, 1967 at the age of 77.
Reflecting on Rains as a man first, his daughter Jessica has said, “He was a terrific father. He adored me and I absolutely adored him.” At once, her candor seems both genuine and reflective of the sort of nurturing that Rains afforded every life he came in contact with.
Sir John Gielgud recalled in a later interview that “I found him enormously helpful and encouraging to work with and was always trying to copy him in my first years as an actor…until I decided to imitate Noel Coward instead!” Gielgud also recalled how, during their tenure together on The Insect Play, “Claude Rains led the cast, acting three different parts with his usual versatility. He acted with striking virtuosity and the London stage suffered a great loss when he deserted it forever.”
London’s staggering loss/Hollywood’s impressive gain; in the final analysis, the life of Claude Rains very much resembles that kindly quote his character Dr. Jacquith delivers to Charlotte Vale in Now Voyager. “Take part. Contribute. Be interested in everything and everybody.”
In his career, Rains took part in the legacy of Hollywood film making. He is forever immortalized in our collective consciousness – a contribution the likes of which any great actor of any generation might take great pride in. He was a man disciplined, well versed and greatly admired by all his contemporaries. When asked to summarize the art of film making Rains reportedly said, “Often we’d secretly like to do the very things we discipline ourselves against Isn’t that true? Well…in the movies I can be as mean, as wicked as I want to – all without hurting anybody.” His advice to actors was more short shrift. “Learn the lines and pray to God.”