The Invisible Man
Claude Rains made his Hollywood debut in “The Invisible Man” (Universal, 1933). In an irony worthy of the man himself, he played the leading role in a picture he doesn’t appear in, and it made him a star overnight. Every time I watch “The Invisible Man,” Rains’ performance reminds me why he will always be my favorite actor. In scene after scene, I find myself thinking, “Who else would even dream of reading the line that way? Who else could read it that way?” One of the hallmarks of Rains’ acting style is his stupendous gift for infusing humdrum dialogue with life and wit, for making “heavy ignorance aloft to fly” — but he’s hardly the only actor with such a gift. Walter Huston, a great leading man who became one of Hollywood’s finest character actors, put it this way: “Hell, I ain’t paid to make good lines sound good. I’m paid to make bad lines sound good.” Spinning leaden text into gold is what great actors are supposed to do. Many fine actors — William Powell, Melvyn Douglas, Ralph Richardson, to name but three — rival the Immortal Claude at making bad writing sound better than it is, though none surpasses him. Some great actors — Olivier, Gielgud, Plummer, for instance — nearly always make bad material worse by failing to conceal their contempt.
I know of only one time when Claude Rains made a bad part worse (as the pixieish father of “Four Daughters”). His mistake was to play up the sickening coyness, instead of playing against it. Some years later, when it was remade as a Frank Sinatra/Doris Day musical, “Young at Heart,” cadaverous, bleary-eyed, thin-skinned Robert Keith played the role. Keith was a journeyman hack, but he played that one rotten part better than Rains; Keith had no imagination and very little skill, so he said his lines quickly and got out of the way. In “The Invisible Man” Rains never puts a foot wrong. It’s one of the greatest debuts in movie history and one of his very best performances.
What he does in “The Invisible Man” is quite remarkable. On the surface, he gives a first rate rendition of a cartoon Mad Scientist, but beneath this cartoon exterior Rains brings seething emotional intensity. Rains slices the ham very thick in this one, but his technique is such that he can deliver one line like a Victorian actor/manager and then speak the next one with such simplicity that he seems perfectly natural. He modified his style over the years, but not greatly. He was old-fashioned in the way he worked out line readings and pauses — David Lean claimed he could see Rains counting out the beats for some of the pauses he took in “The Passionate Friends” — he approached his dialogue in much the same way as a musician approaches phrasing. On the other hand, his technique had much in common with Stella Adler’s: the use of imagination, careful analysis of the script, making interpretive choices according to their “worthiness for the stage.” Rains was the embodiment of Adler’s favorite admonition: “Don’t be boring.”
Enter Claude Rains
“I want a room and a fire.” Those are the first words Claude Rains ever spoke in a motion picture. James Whale shoots him from below, which makes his entrance immensely impressive. And a few moments later, you hear The Voice — with all the velvet and gravel in it. There’s not another voice I’d rather listen to.
Rains always said that the sound of his voice was mostly due to the damage done to his throat and vocal cords by a gas attack while fighting in the Great War. Rains entered the London Scottish Regiment as a Private, along with Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman and Herbert Marshall; at war’s end, he had risen to the rank of Captain. The gas attack left him nearly blind in one eye for the rest of his life.
The fabulously antic landlady is Una O’Connor, who gave essentially the same performance throughout her entire career. Her publican husband is Forrester Harvey.
Rains Gets the Heave-Ho
One of the only objections H.G. Wells had about the adaptation was that his scientist, as written by R.C. Sherriff and portrayed by Rains, was mad from the moment he arrived, rather than slowly going out of his mind. It’s certainly true that in the screen version, Dr Jack Griffin (in the book he’s known only as Griffin) has a volatile temper from the moment he enters the inn, but it doesn’t look like madness to me. I’d say he becomes increasingly erratic over the course of several weeks. His mind begins to crack when the landlord tells him to pay up and get out.
“I implore you to let me stay! I beg of you!” he cries with the heavy tremolo and sob of a stentorian Nineteenth century ham pitching his bathos to the last row of the gods. I can hear the ghost of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (Rains’ first theatrical mentor) in the way he delivers that line. The old-fashioned declamatory techniques he uses, the showy theatricality of his acting style (what Christopher Plummer calls, with a graceful sweep of the arm, “the Grand Manner!”) and, above all, his white hot intensity make it an audacious performance. When you remember that this was his first Hollywood picture (and only his second picture ever: the first was a silent he made in England in 1920), his audacity is almost beyond belief: how easily it could have gone wrong! And that’s the second hallmark of Rains’ acting style: outrageousness, backed by superb technical skill and absolute commitment. In “The Invisible Man,” the violence of his first outburst is so explosive, it’s hard to believe he’ll be able to surpass it. He does. As a demonstration of technical skill, Claude Rains’ sustained temper tantrum in “The Invisible Man” is hard to beat. He may be the only actor I’d ever want to see play Timon of Athens.
The Rains Cackle
In this next clip, the local constable (E.E. Clive, in a very funny performance) comes to the inn to restore order and to ask, “‘ere, wot’s all this, then?” E.E. Clive always lifts my spirits. This is the first time we get to hear the full Rainsian cackle. Once he begins to cackle, that’s when it is clear that his most sovereign reason is now blasted with ecstasy.
You can hear torment in his famous cackle, which has been endlessly imitated. Mimics usually can reproduce Rains’ pitch and volume accurately enough, but nobody ever gets the brain fever and the fury that is in Rains’ shrieking laughter. It’s grandly theatrical — funny and thrilling at the same time — but there’s great passion in it too.
Rains of Terror
These next two clips show Rains hatching his very nasty schemes. His authority absolutely amazes me. William Harrigan is the terrified wretch whom Rains is pressing into service. Harrigan is very good, but the plain fact is that even though you can’t see Rains, you can’t take your eyes off him.
Rains Goes on a Power Trip
In this clip, Rains speaks to his fiancee about his plans. Though besotted with love for him, the young woman can plainly see he is barking mad. My favorite line is Rains’ response to her speech that begins, “Jack, I want you to let my father to help you. You know how clever he is.” Or, more accurately, his response is my favorite line reading. It’s a perfect example of the way Rains has of putting great zest and pizzazz into a line of no great merit.
“Your father, clever? You think he can help me? He’s got the brain of a tapeworm, a maggot!” The energy and heat Rains puts into that line gives me a thrill every time I hear it. His scorn for her father’s intelligence is so ferocious, and his indignation at the comparison is so extreme — all I can do is laugh. What makes it even more hilarious, he is, after all, speaking of her father. Calls him a tapeworm, a maggot. What is he, nuts? The girl is Gloria Stuart.
Boris Karloff is certainly the most famous actor in “The Ghoul” (Metro, 1933), but he is surrounded by several of Britain’s finest and most eccentric actors. A very young Ralph Richardson (he was not yet a knight) makes his screen debut in a small, amusing role; the sublimely witty oddball, Ernest Thesiger, plays Karloff’s sepulchral Scottish butler; Kathleen Harrison (perhaps best known for her performance as Alastair Sim’s housekeeper, Mrs Dilber, in “A Christmas Carol”) is in it and up to her old tricks; and there’s a very droll performance by Cedric Hardwicke, who plays a cantankerous, shifty-eyed solicitor. He was not a knight yet, either. His investiture took place the following year, and was performed by King George V. The cares of state had made the monarch old before his time; by 1934, he was almost deaf and a little bit dotty, but he performed the ceremony perfectly until the last moment. The knight-elect knelt upon the knighting-stool before The King, who duly laid the sword blade on Hardwicke’s right and then left shoulder. Then followed several seconds of uneasy silence; the new knight remained motionless, waiting for the royal command to rise. But His Majesty, as an unperfect actor on the stage, had gone up on his lines. At length, a courtier prompted the befuddled sovereign. Then spake King George in a loud, clear voice: “Rise, Sir Cedric Pickwick.”
There are many fun sequences in “The Ghoul,” and a lot of good acting, but the flat-footed direction is so lethargic that it feels much longer than its 77 minutes.
Richardson Calls, Thesiger Answers
Karloff is upstairs on his deathbed. Ralph Richardson, a burglar posing as a clergyman, comes to the door to offer comfort or, if need be, last rites to the unfortunate sinner. Ernest Thesiger is having none of it. To be honest, there’s not a lot going on in this scene, but the very idea of Ernest Thesiger and Ralph Richardson acting together in a horror picture makes me happy.
Thesiger Takes Karloff’s Last Orders
Here we have dear old Ernest being given instructions by Karloff.
Thesiger Takes Command
Karloff has died. Ernest has much to do. Sir Cedric Hardwicke comes looking for something he doesn’t find and promises to make trouble. Ernest and Sir Cedric make a very funny pair. I wish they had done “Waiting for Godot” together.
The Black Cat
It was a dark and stormy night. In a gloomy old mansion, the elderly millionairess, Henrietta Winslow, lies abed, at the very brink of death. Her poor relations are gathered downstairs, waiting impatiently for the wretched old invalid to die. Old Mrs Winslow keeps refusing to heed the fatal summons; she is therefore murdered; more will follow her to the grave. An old dark house, terrible weather and a murderer on the loose: that’s the set up for “The Black Cat” (Universal, 1941). It should have been great, yet it is a terrible picture — needlessly terrible. It’s not a total loss, however: there are plenty of pleasures mixed in with the dreadfulness. Every second that Basil Rathbone, Gladys Cooper, Cecilia Loftus and Gale Sondergaard are onscreen, the picture’s a lot of fun. Rathbone, alas, has not nearly enough to do, but he does everything to perfection. This may be the tawdriest picture Gladys Cooper ever appeared in, but it’s very probably the juiciest part she ever played on screen. She made her Hollywood debut only a year before, playing Laurence Olivier’s sister in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” Later that year, she played Dennis Morgan’s regal, Philadelphia snob mother in “Kitty Foyle.” It was only her second Hollywood picture, and for the rest of her career she was typecast as imperious widows and seriously displeased doyennes, usually with at least one child who was likely to be the death of her (Charlotte Vale’s mother in “Now, Voyager,” Mrs Railton-Bell in “Separate Tables,” Henry Higgins’ mother in “Pygmalion” and again in “My Fair Lady”). The Scottish character actress, Cecilia Loftus, plays the batty old millionairess who, after not-quite-dropping dead once too often, is murdered. This is the first picture Gale Sondergaard made after she played the spooky Eurasian widow who murders Bette Davis in the last moments of “The Letter”; in this one, she plays the spooky housekeeper.
Unfortunately, the desperately unfunny Hugh Herbert and Broderick Crawford are thrown in (up?) as comic relief. Crawford plays a big, loudmouth jerk — it’s a stretch. About halfway through the picture, he becomes a semi-love interest. (What were they thinking?) Crawford is obnoxious and repulsive, but then there’s Hugh Herbert, who gets my vote as the most insufferable, wearisome low clown in pictures. His popularity in the thirties and forties has always mystified me. I never laugh at the Three Stooges, but I understand why others do. I’m rarely amused by gross-out humor, but I recognize it as humor. But Hugh Herbert? He pats his palms together, flutters his fingers and emits little falsetto hoots — that’s his act. In “The Black Cat,” he bumbles into a scene, brings the action to a halt, inadvertently knocks something over, stammers something incoherent, does his little falsetto woo-woo, then bumbles off. That’s his shtick. Half a minute later he bumbles into another scene and does the same thing. And so on for the rest of the picture. A Star Is Born. André Previn, in his memoir about his years at MGM, “No Minor Chords,” wrote that his idea of Hell is being forced to watch the last half hour of Norma Shearer in “Marie Antoinette” for all eternity. I’d take that form of damnation over ten minutes in the presence of horrible, exasperating, unfunny Hugh Herbert.
The Vultures in the Parlor
This is the first scene in the picture. Alan Ladd plays the son of Basil Rathbone and Gladys Cooper — not, I may say, entirely believably.
What I like best about this picture is its musical score, which is a compendium of spooky movie clichés played with great brio and flair. “The Black Cat” is unquestionably a low budget B picture, but the score is far more exciting and entertaining that what pass for musical scores in today’s A budget pictures. Shamefully, the three composers who scored the picture are not listed in the onscreen credits. They are: Hans J. Salter, who composed more than a dozen horror picture scores in the forties. His first horror score was “The Invisible Man Returns” (1940), his last was “Attack of the Slime People” (2008). Frank Skinner, who scored all the big, plush Douglas Sirk pictures in the fifties also contributed. Stock music written by Charles Previn is also used.
In this scene, we come upon Mrs Winslow, down in the family crypt, where she is busy incinerating one of her beloved cats. Poor little friend! Oh, it’s all very queer, and that’s a fact: there was nothing at all the matter with the poor little fellow. How could it have happened? One moment he’s lapping milk intended for Mrs Winslow and the next moment he’s as cold as any stone.
Gale Sondergaard made her Hollywood debut in 1936 in “Anthony Adverse,” for which she became the first winner of the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, which category was introduced in 1937. She tied with Mme Maria Ouspenskaya for being the first actress to be nominated for her debut performance (Ouspenskaya was nominated for her amazing turn in “Dodsworth”). Sondergaard usually played villainesses; she was one of the inspirations for the Evil Queen/Witch in Disney’s 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In “The Black Cat,” which was released the year after “Rebecca,” she’s pretty obviously doing a parody of Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers, but Sondergaard’s fearsome dolor makes Dame Judith Anderson seem like Little Miss Muffett by comparison.
That laugh! The first time I saw her do that take, I couldn’t stop laughing for the next ten minutes. The more Gale Sondergaard pictures you’ve seen, the funnier it is likely to seem. She was not a merry presence.
Miss Cooper Misbehaves
From the mid-Nineteen-teens through the Nineteen-twenties, Gladys Cooper was the unrivalled queen of the West End stage. She was never a truly inspired actress; it doesn’t appear that she possessed the sacred fire that greatness requires. For the first several years of her career, critics complained that her stately, almost immobile acting style had plenty of tableau about it, but skimped on the vivant. Of her performance in W. Somerset Maugham’s “Home and Beauty” (1919), Aldous Huxley wrote: “Miss Gladys Cooper hardly does justice to the part of Victoria. She is too impassive, too statuesque, playing all the time as if she were Galatea, newly unpetrified and still unused to the ways of the living world.” None of this seemed to matter to audiences, who loved her long before she began to impress the critics favorably. Whatever she may have lacked in fire and music, she made up for in diligence and commonsense. The improvement she made in her technique impressed Maugham so deeply that, in an essay he wrote some thirty years later (in 1953), he praised her for “turning herself from an indifferent actress to an extremely competent one.”
She played Peter Pan for the 1923 and 1924 Christmas shows at the Adelphi Theatre. Much as I love Gladys Cooper, I can’t imagine her in that role; had I been a child in the audience when she came swooshing in through the nursery window (she was the first Peter Pan to enter on a wire), I believe I’d have been distill’d almost to jelly with the act of fear. Her glacial austerity is impressive, majestic, worthy of veneration, but it’s not a quality that causes children to frisk about. (She would have been well cast as Frosty the Snowman’s trophy wife.)
It’s not every day you see Miss Cooper murder Bela Lugosi in cold blood. She had, of course, famously shot a man before: she was the original Leslie Crosbie in the stage version of Maugham’s “The Letter.” Just as Bette Davis did in the excellent movie adaptation, Miss Cooper started the evening by shooting her lover in the back, then followed him as he staggered on to the veranda, where she shot him five more times, twice while he staggered and fell, thrice when he was down. People who saw her in that part said no other actress ever came close to matching her performance. But that was in 1927, when she was still considered the most beautiful and glamorous woman in England and the toast of the West End, with a theatre named after her.
Miss Cooper, the Human Torch
Having been a great beauty for many years, Miss Cooper had little patience for unattractive actors. She especially admired actors who began as models, as she had, who had struggled and fought to be taken seriously as real actors. In 1916, while starring in “The Misleading Lady,” she was quite taken by the twenty-five year old Ronald Colman, who played a tiny part. One night he overheard a remark she made about him while she stood in the wings waiting to make her entrance: “Such a handsome young man, but why does he have to be such a terrible actor? So very clumsy — and those feet!” I invite you to keep this in mind while you watch Miss Cooper share the screen with that study in dishevelment, Broderick Crawford. How she must have loathed him! But can you blame her?
I think it’s safe to say that “The Black Cat” is the only time you’ll ever see Miss Gladys Cooper run from a room, shrieking and flailing her arms and engulfed in flames. But even without the fire, she probably would have made the same exit to remove herself from Broderick Crawford’s odious presence.
You can see last year’s edition by clicking here: “Frightfulness: Funny Halloween Fare.”