HOLLYWOOD: the very name conjures up uniquely American images: cowboy and gangster movies; small town beauties arriving by bus to seek fame and fortune in the camera's eye. Yet, from the beginning, the founding moguls--most of whom were European immigrants--sought to import talent from abroad.

     Thus, Samuel Goldwyn recruited Maurice Maeterlink, the Belgian playwright and natural history scholar, to write screenplays. Maeterlink, who was an authority on bees, took two months to turn out a single page. He and the great Goldwyn soon parted ways.


Elsa and patient

     B.P. Schulberg, one of the most literate of the studio chiefs, brought Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian director, to Paramount. When Eisenstein gave a Marxist slant to a script about the California gold rush, the studio's Wall Street backers objected. The project was shelved, and Eisenstein returned to Russia.

     Paramount had better luck when it signed a portly actor from the London stage named Charles Laughton and brought him to Hollywood in the early 1930s to star in a horror movie. The film, The Old Dark House--with Boris Karloff--was soon forgotten, but Laughton began a love affair with California--and the United States--that lasted his life. In 1951, Laughton and his wife, actress Elsa Lanchester, became U.S. citizens. A few years later, Laughton edited an anthology inspired by reading tours he had made across America. He called the book, The Fabulous Country.  

     The future Yank was born in 1899 in Scarborough, a seaside town where his parents ran one of the resorts that were popular in Victorian England. Charles's grandfather had been a butler to a grand family, but his son prospered, and Laughton grew up in solid middle class surroundings. Even so, the actor resented the English class structure and the aristocracy that ran the country. One of Laughton's favorite roles was the whimsical butler in Ruggles of Red Gap who tosses off a life of service and opens a saloon in the rugged Pacific Northwest. 

     As a youth, Laughton was acutely conscious of being overweight and homely. His biographer, Charles Higham, notes that Laughton "dreaded the sight of his own face and body." (Charles Higham, Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography, New York, Doubleday & Co., 1976) Acting proved Laughton's escape from this prison. First in amateur theatricals, then on the West End stage, and finally in film where he achieved his greatest roles, Laughton became other people with obvious passion: inspector Javert in Les Miserables, Rembrandt in the film by that name, and, of course, Henry VIII, the selfish monarch, whom Laughton portrayed in The Private Lives of Henry VIII, which Alexander Korda produced and directed in 1933.

     Laughton was educated at Stoneyhurst, a venerable Jesuit academy. He entered the British Army toward the end of World War I and was sent to the front where he was gassed. After the war, Laughton was apprenticed to Claridge's, the London hotel. The hotel business did not suit him, however, and he successfully auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  


Making a choice

     For his audition, Laughton chose a speech of Shylock's from The Merchant of Venice. He rehearsed the scene for over two weeks--night and day. This meticulous preparation was to be his hallmark as an actor. Later, Laughton would read biographies and visit museums to study in detail portraits of historical figures he portrayed. In preparing for his role as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, Laughton tracked down the London tailor establishment that had made the captain's waterproof naval uniform and had one reproduced exactly as Bligh had worn it.  

     By 1927 Laughton was established on the London stage. He and Elsa lived in Bloomsbury and moved in literary circles. Elsa was very gifted but subordinated her career to Charles's, taking minor roles in many of his movies. She played one of his wives (Anne of Cleaves) in The Private Lives of Henry VIII, and was his fussy nurse, Miss Plimsoll, in Witness for the Prosecution, which Billy Wilder directed in 1957. Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power had starring roles.  

      In the beginning of their marriage, Charles and Elsa apparently enjoyed a sexual relationship, but in time Laughton became exclusively homosexual. Their marriage was one of convenience, though filled with empathy and love. They enjoyed quiet weekends in the country, gardening, then, after they moved to America, the outdoors and the beauty of California. "When Elsa had her lovers, all men," as Higham notes, "Charles accepted them," and Elsa accepted his liaisons as well.

     During World War II Elsa and Charles remained in the United States, rather than return to England which earned them the lasting enmity of the British tabloids, as well as criticism from individuals, like Laurence Olivier, who otherwise praised Laughton's "fabulous touches of originality" as an actor.

     When Laughton's film career waned in the 1950s, he began giving dramatic readings across the United States and Canada. These tours were arranged by Paul Gregory, a creative and energetic young impresario. In partnership with Gregory, Laughton directed five plays on Broadway which Gregory produced. These included Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, and John Brown's Body, based on Stephen Vincent Benet's narrative Civil War poem which Laughton and Gregory adapted for the stage.  

     In 1957 Laughton directed The Night of the Hunter which Gregory produced through United Artists. Robert Mitchum starred in the film as the twisted Preacher who preys on unsuspecting widows. Although Laughton and his assistant directors, the Sanders brothers, Terry and Denis, wrote the shooting script, the Writer's Guild awarded sole credit to James Agee who had done the first draft.

      Charles Laughton died in 1962 of cancer. Elsa Lanchester collaborated with Charles Higham on his Laughton biography and published her own memoir of her life with Laughton. She died in 1986.

 
     Here, in Part II of an exclusive interview with American Legends, conduced in December 2006 by telephone from his home near Palm Springs, Paul Gregory recalls the great Charles Laughton.


Irving Thalberg


AL: Charles Laughton worked with some of the most noted film directors in England and Hollywood. Did he talk about his experiences?

 

PG: He admired Billy Wilder for whom he did Witness for the Prosecution with Marlene Dietrich. It was based on that wonderful Agatha Christie play. The reason Laughton liked Wilder is that Wilder let Charles do what he wanted to do.

 

AL:

Laughton worked with Alfred Hitchcock in Jamaica Inn (1939) and The Paradine Case (1947) which David Selznick produced.

 

PG:

Charles respected Hitchcock but was intimidated by him. In Hollywood, when Laughton and I were working on a project, we might take a ride and drive up to Hitch's house to have dinner with him and his wife, Alma. Laughton used to call him The Pope. In a way, Laughton had more respect for producers than directors. He thought David Selznick was pretty terrific, though Charles felt Selznick was bogged down having so many actors under contract. Selznick thought he was going to make money loaning out actors, and he did with Ingrid Bergman, but ultimately he went bankrupt. Still, Laughton had respect for that kind of creative talent.

 

AL: Laughton did two movies at MGM that Irving Thalberg produced: Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Franchot Tone (1935) and The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) in which he played Elizabeth Barrett Browning's father. Did Laughton discuss his relationship with Thalberg?

 
PG: I'll tell you something that I have never said before, but I have a note someplace that Charles wrote me saying how precious my talent was, how it reminded him of his association with Thalberg. He wrote this note when I was at my place in Jamaica. At the time, I was thinking of severing our professional relationship. This was before we made The Night of the Hunter. There had been a conflict between Laughton and Elsa and a young fellow that Laughton was involved with. I just didn't like having to put up with it because it wasn't my cup of tea, and I didn't think it was my job. Anyway, in the course of deciding whether to stay in business together, he wrote me this note. After I received the note, I decided not to sever our relationship. Charles liked Thalberg because of the way they discussed scripts, and characters, and the texture, the quality of properties. He felt our relationship was like that.

 

AL:

You and Laughton adapted Stephen Vincent Benet's John Brown's Body and Shaw's Man and Superman for Broadway. How did you work together on your projects?

 

PG:

I had a place in the desert, and Charles would come down and spend a month. We would have someone who would cook and we'd drink and talk. We didn't work like it's got to get done or eight hours a day. I like taking the big pieces and tearing them apart. There are so many arias in those wonderful books. There is an orchestration that you can hear, as in John Brown's Body. I would throw ideas at Charles, and most of the time I would get wonderful reactions. I think Charles had that kind of relationship with Thalberg.

 

AL:

One of the plays you did with Laughton, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, won a Pulitzer Prize.

 

PG:

Laughton was scared to death of Broadway. He felt the critics were wicked. My theory was to take a play on the road first, so we could close and not go to New York if there were problems. Charles liked good actors. He had no patience if they weren't. He liked Marlene Dietrich. We were going to do something at one time. She and Charles had many meetings. Then somebody offered her $25,000 a week to sing, and so she went ahead and did it. Like so many people of his persuasion, Laughton liked outrageous people, and Dietrich was outrageous.

 

AL: You worked on Hobson's Choice with Laughton, the 1951 film about English provincial life that Alexander Korda produced.

 
PG:

I couldn't produce the movie under British film regulations, so we helped package it with Alexander Korda. David Lean directed it. Actually, it was he who first suggested to me that Charles should direct films. Charles was very careful never to compare British and Hollywood filmmaking. But he didn't like Korda. He thought he was an opportunist and had ruined Merle Oberon whom Charles thought had possibilities as an actress. He liked David Lean.
 

 

AL: In 1947, Laughton appeared in The Life of Galileo, Bertold Brecht's play about the Inquisition that they adapted for the Los Angeles stage. At that time, Brecht was being investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

 

PG:

Charles helped Brecht get out of the country. We had been in Boston on a reading tour and were going to Montreal. Charles and I had a car and driver. In Bangor, Maine, Chalres said to me that we were picking up a friend of his who was going to ride to Montreal. That's all I knew. I sat in the front with the driver and Laughton and this very heavily accented man sat in the back. We went right through customs. The official in charge said, "Mr. Laughton, welcome to Canada." No one noticed Brecht. He flew out of Canada and into exile. I don't know if Laughton had any political views. He was very charitable. He was very kind to a great many people. Charles didn't like anyone that he felt had a cruel side to him.

 

AL:

After The Night of the Hunter, you and Laughton worked together on bringing The Naked and the Dead to the screen.

 

PG:

Charles wrote a script with the Sanders brothers who were a few years out of UCLA. He admired parts of the book. Mailer was so young but had this ability to put into words a vision. It's a war story, but it's more about people in war than the war itself. But Charles was not well, and I had to get the movie produced. We decided to break up our company. If we could have shot Laughton's script, it would have been magnificent. Instead, I had to work with Raoul Walsh at Warners. He was a blood and guts director, and there was no sense in trying to talk about anything with him. I had to just get the picture made.

 

AL: Did Charles ever discuss his Roman Catholic faith?

 

PG:

Charles was the most unhappy and miserable human being I have ever known. He was torn. He wanted not to be Catholic, yet when he was dying, he was surrounded by religious symbols, and Elsa went along with it. She almost became a nun. It made me laugh. I couldn't help it.

 

AL: Did you see Laughton at the end?

 

PG: I had written him a letter, and he sent me back a message that his association with me had been one of the highlights of his life. That was enough, but I went up to the hospital. I did not go into his room. I came down the hallway and standing there were two priests and a nun. I thought, Oh, my God. I'm not even going to go near the place, and I came out and got into my car. I called Elsa and told her, "I didn't see Charles." We talked for a few minutes and that was it.

 

(Background information for this interview was found in Simon Callow's Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor, Grove Press, New York, 1988)

 

 


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