Tuesday, November 20, 2007

WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER

The extraordinary life
of Sir Rex Harrison

by Nick Zegarac

“In many ways he did live for the moments when he could show himself through a part… and he always seems to me to be more alive in those moments than I knew him to be off stage.”
Carey Harrison

Indeed, this statement by Rex Harrison’s younger son is most telling to the outsider admiring the actor’s formidable body of work. For in Harrison there is much more than the lion’s share of being deviously deceptive; an almost chameleon-like ability to blend, blur and even obliterate the line between man and myth. When he is on the screen in My Fair Lady he is Professor Henry Higgins; in Cleopatra – Julius Caesar. We believe him implicitly when he sells us a bill of goods that he can talk to the animals in Doctor Doolittle and proves as much by warbling inaudible grunts and moans to a cavalcade of real and imagined beasts.

Rex Harrison lived a life of extremes. In his youth, his outward persona tottered between that of a wellborn cultured jetsetter who, in reality, had little clout or money to his name. As his stature as an actor grew, his personal life became unsteady and insecure. Married six times, yet desperately claiming the constant love of one woman, Harrison was an electrifying mass of contradictions. Though he created a myriad of indelibly complex characters on both the stage and big screen, arguably the most compelling part he ever played was his own life.

NO ORDINARY MAN – the journey begins…
Reginald Carey Harrison was born to privilege in Heighton, England on March 5, 1908. In truth, there was very little about his youth that foreshadowed greatness. Reginald’s father William was a flirtatious and handsome sport who preferred the social graces to a steadfast work ethic. If William was a lax blueprint for Reginald’s upbringing, his mother, Edith more than amply balanced her husband’s wayward nature with a rigid set of finite values that she instilled in her son and Reginald’s two older sisters, Sylvia and Marjorie.

Still, with young Reginald’s health often teetering between virulent bouts of influenza and phenomena, Edith was a doting and loving matriarch whose pampering led to Reginald becoming a confirmed mama’s boy. After a particularly nasty plague of measles, the recovering Reginald was taken to the local live theater to get his mind off his woes. Basking in the afterglow of footlights and thundering applause, the young Reginald returned home to begin practicing his own bows in his living room. The die had been cast. Reginald Harrison was going to become an actor.

EARLY BREAKS AND HEARTACHES

“Tomorrow is a thief of pleasure.” – Rex Harrison

At the age of ten, Reginald traded his conventional upper English Christian first name for ‘Rex’ – with its ancient connotations of kingly inheritance and infinitely more manageable placement on the bill of a theater marquee and program. On November 11, 1918, Rex made things more official with a move to Sefton Park and enrollment in their dramatic society. As expected, though paved with good intensions, this road was hardly smooth or glamorous.
At 14, Rex made his debut in the society’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and very quickly came to the realization that there was quite a bit more to acting than taking bows. To be truly great he would have to succumb to expert tutelage. For Rex, the very idea seemed distasteful. “(He was) very rebellious,” son Noel has said of his father, “He would never conform to what people expected of him to do.” Still, it was a means to an end – and so the pupil began his exercises.

By 1925, Rex was accepted under theater director William Armstrong into the Liverpool Repertory Company as their ‘actor in residence.’ But the 17 year old was confined mostly to odd jobs backstage. A bright spot for Rex materialized in a cameo for the company in Thirty Minutes in A Street. Despite the briefness of his appearance, Rex managed to catch the eye of a few critics who thought him a worth addition to the cast.

Unfortunately, ‘Liverpool’ did not pay the bills. Even so, Rex had already managed to adapt his stage persona to life; developing into a randy rake about town, the sort of good time Charlie who caroused a lot with other people’s money and squired the ladies with effortless charm and sophistication. For Rex, these were the happiest of times. His exploits, however, did come with minor fallout; they earned the actor the moniker ‘Sexy Rexy.’

By 1927, Rex Harrison had managed a minor coup; he had become a prolific commodity – a man of envy to most others his own age and a real charmer with the fairer sex. Yet, nothing short of perfecting his craft would satisfy the egotistical actor. And so, in September of that year, Rex moved to London where he began a 12 week tour in Charlie’s Aunt. His part garnered rave reviews in the press.

Unfortunately for Rex, he followed up this performance for the Cardiff Repertory Company with an inconsequential bit in The Ninth Moon – a terrific flop. For the next six years, Rex toured with Cardiff all over the English countryside – appearing in a different play nearly every month and a different town every week. He created dozens of indelible characters and became a fine actor besides.

But in 1933, Rex fell for a glamorous model; Noel Marjorie Colette Thomas. This immediate attraction came with obvious perks. First, Colette (as she was known to friends) came from a well connected and affluent family. As a social climber, Rex aspired to this sort of classis snobbery that Collette had been born into. She also had the spirit and temperament that were well matched to Rex’s ego. But most important of all, Colette knew the sort of people that could help advance Rex’s career.

Colette’s father was no fool. He adamantly disapproved of his daughter’s match to Rex. Despite these strenuousness objections, Colette became Mrs. Rex Harrison in January 1934. It was the beginning of a great love affair that would gradually dissolve into a troubled marriage.

BED OF ROSES/BED OF THORNS

During their formative married years, Rex continued to find steady work as an actor on the stage. He had small roles in The Great Game (1930), School for Scandal (1930) and Leave It To Blanche (1934). If, at least artistically, the parts were increasing in stature, Rex’s pay for the work remained meager at best – a bone of contention that often strained his home life with Colette who had been accustom to more than the actor’s current salary could provide.

Despite these tensions, Rex and Colette had a son, Noel on January 29, 1935. The following year, Rex’s professional prospects began to improve when at the age of 28 he was cast to great effect in Terrance Ratigan’s French Without Tears (1936). The play would go on to become the most widely acclaimed production in the history of London’s prestigious West End.

At roughly this same juncture the movies decided to capitalize on Rex’s popularity. In Britain he made his filmic debut with Storm in A Teacup (1937), opposite a young Vivien Leigh. Rex’s reviews were solid. Based on his performance as Frank Burdon – a small time reporter who is put in charge of a Scottish newspaper – director King Vidor offered Rex a major role in MGM’s The Citadel (1938) – costarring Robert Donat. At long last, Hollywood would hear of the young actor that Britain had already hailed as their ‘most popular.’ Sadly, The Citadel was not the smash hit that either Vidor or Rex had hoped for.

With the advent of World War II looming on the horizon, Rex returned to England to enlist in the Armed Forces. He was rejected from active service due to poor eyesight. Years before, a bout of measles had nearly blinded him in his left eye. Disillusioned and disappointed, Rex opted to return to the London stage rather than accept a contract from MGM. But on September 3, 1939, the fear of regular bombings from Hitler’s army officially closed most of London’s film and theatrical establishments. Rex was out of a job.

During the early part of the war years, Rex toured the countryside in plays as he had done in his youth for the Cardiff Company. If on the surface, this move appeared to be a retread or two steps back in the wrong direction there was one great difference this time around. Rex was a seasoned professional, embraced by the public and critics alike.

His wife, Colette now worked for the Red Cross. Her separation from Rex afforded him the lifestyle of a bachelor – enough time for Rex to become smitten with 25 year old Lily Palmer; a multifaceted novelist, painter and stage performer. The two began a torrid affair that continued as Rex separated from Colette in the spring of 1940. Imagining his new romance at the crux of historically great theatrical husband and wife couplings like Lunt and Fontanne, Rex and Lily set up house in Chelsea.

Rex appeared as Adolphus Cusins in the filmic version of George Bernard Shaw’s stage success, Major Barbara (1941) opposite gifted actress, Wendy Hiller, and for the first time in his career took astute direction from the 84 year old playwright. Though Shaw considered Rex’s interpretation the definitive of his masterwork, the film was not a commercial success and so it was back to repertory work and meager salaries.

By now, these stalemates in his professional career were becoming too much to bear. Thorny and determined as ever to distinguish himself during the war years, Rex appealed his rejection into the Armed Services and was rewarded for his obstinate perseverance with an appointment to the RAF where his duties included guiding British planes safely back to their launching pads after aerial combat missions. During his tenure, Rex also decided to make an honest woman of Lily. The two were wed on January 25, 1943 and for two years thereafter, Rex and Lily enjoyed what appeared to be an ideal union. Their son, Carey Alfred was born on February 19, 1944, the same year Rex was honorably discharged from active service.

At war’s end, Rex and Lily appeared together in The Rake’s Progress (1945), a film that caught the eye of producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck offered Rex a seven year Fox studio contract at $4,500 per week. The couple moved to Hollywood, renting a suite at the fashionable Beverly Hills Hotel.
For his debut project, Rex was cast opposite Irene Dunne in Anna and the King of Siam (1946). Rex excelled as the aggressive and curmudgeonly potentate, though initially he had had misgivings about the part – even going so far as to hire an acting coach to ease him into the character. Never one to take direction well, Rex and his director, John Cromwell did not get on. In fact, on several occasions noted in the Fox memo archive, Cromwell urged Zanuck to reconsider and/or recast the part. To his credit, Zanuck quietly ignored these complaints, affording Rex his first major Hollywood success.

Rex’s follow up was even more suited to his temperament; as the wily, gruff, yet sustainable romantic, Daniel Gregg in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). In the film, Rex is a deceased sea captain who carries on a forty year platonic affair with a flesh and blood woman played by the sultry Gene Tierney. Unfortunately for Rex, old habits died hard. He constantly clashed with Mankiewicz over his performance, quietly cementing his reputation around the backlot and the rest of Hollywood as being a ‘difficult actor.’ Despite these backstage clashes, the film was a colossal smash hit, elevating his stature and importance in the film making community.

Living high and mighty, Rex indulged his every whim off camera, beginning a rather sordid extramarital affair with Fox contract player, Carole Landis. But the Hollywood of his generation was not that illustrious Babylon of decadence that it has become today. Under the rigid conservatism of a studio system, actors were expected to maintain a relatively untarnished surface sheen and to behave properly at all times while working long hours six out of seven days a week. To many, Rex’s devil-may-care attitude in general and very public affair with Landis in particular seemed a glaring and spiteful tweak to these artistic sensibilities. Landis, however, was no stranger to bad press.

By the age of 28, Carole Landis had been a divorcee four times removed with several botched suicide attempts feathered in for the tabloid fodder. For studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, she was increasingly becoming a bad risk at the box office and her star had slowly begun to decline. To Rex however, Landis embodied the sort of free-wheeling excitement he sorely lacked at home. Hoping that their affair would eventually lead to marriage, Landis pursued the relationship long after Rex’s lust had begun to cool.

Meanwhile, 40 year old Rex began work at Fox on Preston Sturges’ Unfaithfully Yours (1948) – a film about a philharmonic conductor who plots diabolical and blood-thirsty revenges for his wife that he suspects is having an affair on him. Throughout the shoot, Rex was distracted by his turbulent relationship with Landis. Eventually, he openly admitted that he had no intension of marrying her and Landis – in a state of complete rage and shock – made her final suicide attempt. She died of an overdose on July 4th, 1948 – at approximately the same time as Unfaithfully Yours hit theater screens. The net result for Rex was both a professional flop and a very public scandal.

In support of the negative press, Fox canceled Rex’s contract. He retreated, though not in shame, with Lily to New York City for more than a decade’s worth of solid performing on the stage; beginning with a turn as Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1949). The play ran for 288 performances and earned Rex his first Tony Award. He followed this success with Bell Book and Candle in 1950, costarring with Lily to great acclaim. The couple next appeared as a pair of newlyweds in the classy film comedy, The Four Poster (1951).

But the strain of constantly being together had worn thin the last remnants of their eroding relationship. Lily retired from performing and Rex went on to make The Constant Husband (1954); an ironic tale about a man with six wives.

At approximately this same juncture, 46 year old Rex fell in love with the irrepressibly luminous Kay Kendell. At 26, Kendell was already an exuberant veteran of film work. A vivacious raconteur, Kendell easily won Rex’s heart and the two became lovers. After 11 years of marriage, Rex and Lily separated.

HITTING THE HIGH NOTES
– the definitive Rex Harrison

“Exhilaration is that feeling you get just after a great idea hits you, and just before you realize what’s wrong with it.”Rex Harrison

To say that My Fair Lady came to Rex Harrison at a time when any other actor of his generation might not have hoped for as much is an understatement. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Frederick Lowe and Alan Jay Lerner’s musical about an English elocutionist’s growing affections for his cockney protégée was both a financially reward and an artistic blessing – the much needed shot in the arm that Rex required at precisely that point in his career.

The stage version’s debut at the Mark Ellinger Theater on March 15, 1956 was an unabashedly sentimental and personal triumph, and an overwhelming critical success. To many sitting in the audience, the part of Professor Henry Higgins seemed more Rex Harrison than Rex Harrison himself. Indeed, as an actor’s actor, Rex was in his element. He seemed to take dastardly delight in the sharp tongue lashings Higgins gave Eliza (Julie Andrews on the stage). There was a meter, a distinct tempo and cadence all his own, a seamless blending of the man and mythology of his character. The role earned the 48 year old actor his second Tony Award.

While starring to sell out crowds, Rex moved in with Kay Kendall at a home they rented on Long Island. It was the beginning of the end of their mutual fascination for all things effortless and playful with one another. Unbeknownst to Kendall, she had been diagnosed with inoperable leukemia; a fate confided to Rex by her private physician. Distraught, and still married to Lily, Rex relayed the tragic news to his wife who – with characteristic nonchalance instructed her husband to divorce her and marry Kay for as long as she had left to live; further vowing to return to Rex once the inevitable had occurred.

On June 23, 1957 Rex married Kay and MGM fashioned a star vehicle for the couple to star in – The Reluctant Debutante (1958) the one bright filmic spot on Rex’s otherwise inconsequential Hollywood career. But on September 6, 1959, Kendall died at the age of 32 from her ailment, leaving Rex devastated and alone for the first time in his life.

Unable to draw any sort of clarity or meaning from the loss, Rex retreated to London; accepting a standard actor’s salary to star in Chekov’s Platonov at the Royal Court Theater. The play was a hit, winning the prestigious Evening Standard Award. It also marked the beginning of Rex’s most complicated and troubled relationship; to 33 yr old Rachel Roberts.

In the meantime, 20th Century-Fox approached Rex with the prospect of co-starring in their mega-budgeted spectacle, Cleopatra (1963). Though Rex agreed to appear in the film as Caesar – turning in yet another powerful performance – his presence in the film was all but eclipsed and overshadowed by the scandalous affair between costars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The most expensive movie ever made to date, not even Cleopatra’s $24 million dollar box office gross could offset the film’s epic budget. For years afterward, it would remain on the Fox’s ledgers as the film that nearly sank the studio. If the release of Cleopatra did nothing to further Rex’s career, it equally did nothing to hamper it either.

In fact, Rex was at the cusp of screen immortality when Warner Brother executive chief, Jack L. Warner hired him to reprise his role in the filmic version of My Fair Lady (1964). Reportedly, upon getting the offer, Rex was to have thrown the telephone high into the air and loudly declare “By George, I’ve got it!” Indeed, he had. My Fair Lady was an unstoppable movie experience; winning nine Oscars, including one justly deserved for Rex’s fine performance.

Unfortunately for Rex, his relationship with Rachel Roberts had already begun to crumble. A manic depressive with dependencies on pills and alcohol, Roberts quickly became the unmanageable portion of Rex’s life. Throwing himself into work on his latest project, The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), Rex excelled as the unrelentingly severe Pope Julius II who commissions Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Rex was in fact a kind of a thorny guy,” Heston relayed years later in reflection on their costarring, “There you are. But he was so good, it was worth the trouble it took.”

A compelling character study, the film was not a huge success for Fox, and it was followed by two more ill received projects. The first, The Honey Pot (1967) cast Rex as a man faking his own death to quietly observe who among his closest friends would turn on him for their share of his inheritance; the second - Doctor Doolittle (1967) proved an elephantine musical with only mediocre songs.

In a last ditch effort to save his relationship with Rachel, Rex appeared to minor effect opposite Roberts in A Flea in Her Ear (1968). A year later, Rex would leave Rachel and costar in his most bizarre film to date; Staircase (1969) playing half of a homosexual couple opposite his old Cleopatra costar, Richard Burton.
CURTAIN CALLS

“Whatever it is that makes a person charming, it needs to remain a mystery. Once the charmer is aware of the mannerism or characteristic that others find charming, it ceases to be a mannerism and becomes an affectation.”
Rex Harrison

The last acts of Rex Harrison’s life were hardly what one might have expected. In 1971, he married again for the fifth time – to Elizabeth Harris; a 35 year old divorcee with three young children. But Rex was not a family man. Amidst a flurry of personal tensions, Rex managed to pen a well received memoir. For two years thereafter, he toured the country in six plays, including a one man show based on Shaw’s theater critiques.

Then, in 1977 while at a New Year’s celebration, Rex met Marcia Tinker who would become the sixth and final Mrs. Harrison. Despite severe blindness and the onset of age, Rex also embarked upon an ambitious roster of stage productions including Shaw’s Heartbreak House, The Kingfisher (costarring Claudette Colbert) and the 25th anniversary of My Fair Lady. “I’m at the age,” Harrison mused, “where I’ve got to prove I’m just as good as I never was.”

Yet, perhaps the greatest accolade of his final years came when at the age of 82 Rex received a knighthood from the Queen of England. The precedence of this remarkable appointment cannot be overstated. Until Rex’s time, no British subject who had been married more than once or had lived abroad would have been considered for such an honor. Still, when asked by a reporter if any special consideration had been afforded, Rex was his usual glib self.
“Alas no. In the old days, I believe, you got a couple of horses out of the deal.” Internally though, Harrison was deeply moved. It was his crowning achievement, a moment unsurpassed and in a career that had yet to reveal its final act.

That last curtain call came when Rex accepted an invitation to star on Broadway in The Circle (1989) with Glynis John and Stewart Granger. By now, he was nearly blind and gave his performance by pacing out the stage ahead of time. Six months into the run, Rex conceded that ill health precluded his continuation. On June 2, 1990, Rex Harrison died at the age of 82. At his own request his remains were scattered across the Mediterranean.

“There is always a struggle,” Rex once suggested in an interview, “…a striving for something bigger than yourself in all forms of art…and even if you don’t achieve greatness – even if you fail, which we all must – everything…is somehow connected with your attitude toward life; your deepest secret feelings.”
@2007 (all rights reserved).

Thursday, November 01, 2007

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."

Rains threw his heart into the ring again in 1924; wedding Beatrix Thomson. This marriage would see him through his transition from distinguished faculty member to contract player and a 1932 screen test for Universal Pictures that forever changed the course of his professional career.

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.”
Years later, the validity in Stuart’s statement would bear itself out on a cold December afternoon when Rains and his adult daughter, Jessica attended a revival screening of The Invisible Man. Reportedly Rains, all bundled up in his coat, hat, scarf and glasses attempted to purchase two tickets for the show, whereupon the ticket seller immediately recognized Rains by his voice and admitted him into the screening without charging for the price of admission.

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.”


@Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).