In the 1950s, Charles Laughton made a number of successful reading tours that eventually led to a two-record album, “The Story-Teller . . . a Session with Charles Laughton,” which was released in 1962, shortly after Laughton’s death. The album has not been released on CD, but it is now available in its entirety online. You can find it by following this link:
There’s not a lot to say about the following clips, other than they’re wonderful and demonstrate Laughton at his best. The first is from “The Story-Teller.” It’s made up of three selections near the start of the album. I’m not so fond of the last three minutes of this clip (Psalm 104), but the first fifteen minutes are quite extraordinary. He reads Kerouac so well, he makes the prose sound a lot better than it actually is.
This next one is from “Ruggles of Red Gap.” Out of context, I’m afraid it seems awfully sentimental, but I’m willing to risk it because Laughton handles the material so brilliantly. You can hear from the dialogue that precedes and follows Laughton’s speech that the script is very funny; the picture is not sentimental, but some of the directorial choices are.
It’s a shame that Leo McCarey, who had little respect for actors (whom he considered children — and spoiled children, at that), decided to take the focus off Laughton and place it on the roughnecks who gather round him as he speaks the immortal words of Honest Abe. How much better it would have been to let Laughton do the entire speech in one or two takes, and then to reveal that his delivery (and Lincoln’s words) had drawn a crowd . . . ! McCarey, alas, would have none of it. Many of the shots of Laughton are from behind, so we see the back of his head and the wonder-stricken rabble who listen to his recitation: this is not only disrespectful to Laughton, but to us, the audience, as well: McCarey doesn’t trust us to be moved by what we hear without visual cues from a crowd of extras. It’s strange that he was responsible for a number of very funny comedies early in his career when you consider what he eventually became. He achieved his apotheosis (or nadir, depending on your point of view) seventeen years later with the red-baiting agitprop melodrama, “My Son John,” in which Dean Jagger whacks his Commie rat bastard son Robert Walker over the head with a Bible. McCarey produced and directed it, wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay.
Jagger: Listen, son: take the First Commandment. Do you believe in the Lord thy God? What about honoring your father and mother? That’s the Fourth Commandment.
Walker: Well, you’re making that one difficult.
Jagger: [furiously] What you’re doing to that one . . . !
Walker: Oh, Father . . . !
[WHOMP! Jagger brings the Good Book down on his head so hard and fast, Walker’s eyes cross.]
My memory is playing tricks on me. I could have sworn that the first time I saw this scene, Jagger shouted “Take that, ya durn Commie!” He doesn’t: he says nothing; he just stands there with the Bible over his head looking like a jerk. Robert Walker recovers in a second and says, “What page was that on?”
. . . but I’m digressing. I only wanted to make the point that Laughton, Lincoln, and the Gettysburg Address would have been better served by a better director who had more faith in good actors, good material and the good people who went to see his pictures. But I suppose it’s really Laughton’s fault; it was he who insisted that McCarey direct the picture.
Finally, here’s Laughton in O.Henry’s “The Cop and the Anthem” (from the 20th Century-Fox 1952 release, “Full House”). He’s funny and poignant and even manages to upstage the young Marilyn Monroe, who plays a small part about ten minutes in. To see him upstage Marilyn is as startling and funny as the time Jack Benny upstaged a penguin. It’s also interesting to notice that she was a much better actress before Lee Strasberg got his hooks into her.
As a bonus, here’s that scene from “My Son John,” because, as I always say, if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. Honestly, I didn’t mean to dwell on it so much, but I just can’t stop laughing about it.