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.