Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Book review - "Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice" by David Skal and Jessica Rains (2008)

Claude Rains was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, character actor from the Golden Years of Hollywood. Best known for villains, particularly in the films of Errol Flynn, he could play all sorts of parts - heroic monsters (Phantom of the Opera), dodgy Vichy policemen (Casablanca), sympathetic Nazis (Notorious), kindly shrinks (Now Voyager), kindly shrinks with a very dark side (Kings Row). The number of classic films in which he appeared, and helped make classic, is remarkable. It's hard to imagine him giving a bad performance.

It's surprising in a way that it took someone so long to write a biography of Rains. He had an interesting life - mother wound up in a mental asylum, father was a shonky actor; he saw genuine active service in World War One and was gassed and wounded; worked as for Sir Herbert Tree; became a teacher of, among others, John Gielgud and Charles Laughton; was a surprisingly successful ladies man, being married six times (once to his stalker); he was also an alcoholic, yet the managed to live until his seventies.

Part of the reason must have been the fact that Rains shyed away from publicity for most of his career, and during his most famous years would retreat to his East Coast farm when not working. He was involved in scandals but rarely with someone that well known - some theatre actresses usually; Bette Davis always regretted not having an affair with him (and sexually harassed him on set); an ex wife tried to charge him with bigamy. He was also very reticent and discrete - as per many actors of his time (eg Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone)

Skal is best known (to me at any rate) for his books on Tod Browning and horror - maybe he got involved in part because of Rains' connection to Universal horror movies. He was technically a star from his first film - providing the voice of The Invisible Man. Before then it had been a long apprenticeship though - starting in theatre at age 11, working his way up as a stage manager before turning to acting, earning more as a teacher than a performer for a long time, chalking up many stage credits but never really getting a big hit. When his wife at the time went to New York Rains went with her and gradually made his reputation. He never became a star technically but seems to have been highly regarded from the first; he found the perfect studio in Warner Bros, who used him brilliantly (though, as was common with every actor under contract there, he would fight with Jack Warner).

 I get the impression that despite his fame and achievements, Rains was never that happy - too much turbulence in his private life, too much longing for the stage (as if he didn't get better roles on film), too much alcohol. But it was a marvellous career and it's been well captured here by Skal, who had the benefit of co operation from Rains' only daughter Jessica.

I did wish he'd gone into more detail on some of the films, particularly the Errol Flynn ones, and that there was more discussion of Rains the actor - the way say Simon Callow writes about his subjects in his books. But this is a decent book.

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