Born in Scarborough in 1899, Charles Laughton died in California in 1962. A major presence on stage and screen for many years, and the star of fifty films and forty plays, he seems to be largely forgotten except by a few these days.
As an actor of a younger generation and keen admirer of his work as well as the biographer of Oscar Wilde and Orson Welles among others, Callow is well placed to bring him back to the fore. He notes in his preface that the man has increasingly slipped out of public consciousness, and even within his own profession he is virtually unknown to anybody under the age of forty.
Just old enough to serve in the army during the Great War for a year prior to the armistice, Laughton initially followed his parents into hotel management in the family business at Scarborough, while taking part in local amateur theatricals and studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Making his stage debut in 1926, he moved into films a couple of years later. Like several other actors of his generation, he soon moved to America, and although he returned to England occasionally, for the rest of his career he and his wife, the actress Elsa Lanchester, were based in Hollywood, becoming American citizens in 1950.
In this biography, first published in 1987 and reissued with a new preface to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the actor's death, the author suggests that he belonged to the generation of Englishmen to whom the nature of English social existence in the twenties and thirties was pompous and restrictive. He portrays vividly the personality of Laughton as a somewhat tortured, insecure soul, an awkward, self-conscious, self-doubting boy-man. Always the ultimate perfectionist, he found the limitations of the stage frustrating. When the new medium of film appeared, it offered him new possibilities of physical freedom and quality of craftsmanship.
Despite his years of success, he was never satisfied and regarded himself as a failure, possibly because the standards he set himself were too high. His marriage was rarely happy, and he and Elsa went their own separate ways much of the time, although they never separated; he was bisexual, and longed to have children although his wife was determined that there should not be any. They were evidently an ill-matched couple, intellectually poles apart. She was quick-witted, while he was slow and often ponderous. After reading this, one cannot but feel a certain amount of sympathy for her.
The various theatre and film roles, their successes and failures, are all thoroughly described. 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' (1933) is recognised as one of his crowning achievements, and made him one of the first British actors to be awarded an Oscar. However, the author's verdict is that he did not give of his best in that picture, and after having brought the role to the stage, by the time he came to reprise it on the silver screen he was 'warming over something he'd done before'. By the end of the biopic 'Rembrandt' (1935), he notes that the viewer is ultimately disappointed, 'cheated of a full exploration of the central character'. From his last years, 'Abbot and Costello Meet Captain Kidd' (1952) is generally regarded as the low water mark of his career, and is described in these pages as 'proof, if one were needed, of the terrible degringolade (rapid deterioration) this once-great actor had suffered'. 'Hobson's Choice' (1954) is also criticised for his wooden, unconvincing performance. Callow has respect for his artistry, yet is clearly very objective in his assessments.
One of his last performances, which saw him return to the British stage shortly before the end of his career, was the leading role in 'King Lear' at Stratford in 1959. By this time his health was beginning to fail, and he was under no illusions that he was well past the peak of his powers. It had long been his ambition to take the part, and he had 'been preparing for it all his life', yet before he left America for England, he remarked to a friend, 'I shall fail, of course.'
Yet it was probably a more agreeable commission than when he was asked to deputise as host on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 while the presenter was recovering after a car accident. The occasion was a historic one in that it marked Elvis Presley's first ever appearance on television, and while introducing him an out-of-place Laughton not surprisingly looked 'like the Victorian he always essentially was'. Now could you picture Olivier or Gielgud introducing the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols on 'Top Of The Pops'? No, I couldn't, either.
The book is supplemented with a full filmography, list of theatre performances, and even a discography of 78 rpm discs and LPs on which he appeared. One criticism I would have to make is of the index, with some names omitted, and also what now seems the rather old-fashioned principle of not providing any entries for the book's main subject.
That apart, this book can be recommended as a good read. It is admirably sympathetic yet never sycophantic, and conveys vividly the character of a talented yet often unhappy man.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on other review sites]