Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #11

It would be easy to dismiss Ronald Colman’s talent due to his effortless presence on film.

In nearly role after role, he was a gentleman even in the tightest of positions. But there was often strength behind the suave reserve, along with an intelligence that he used to great advantage. It kept him active in film from the silent era through the late 1940s, after which he made infrequent appearances.

His career began after World War I, when Colman turned to the stage and then short films in his native England. After a few feature film roles he came to the U.S., where he went largely unnoticed until Lillian Gish plucked him from a play for her film “The White Sister” in 1923. Producer Sam Goldwyn took note, signed the actor and helped turn him into a star. With his first talking picture, “Bulldog Drummond” in 1929, Colman discovered audiences loved his rich, cultured voice, and he became one of the first silent screen actors to successfully make that transition to sound films.

Perhaps his first strong role of the decade came in 1931’s “Arrowsmith,” John Ford’s adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel. This film today may fall under the “good try” column, although it was a prestige production for Goldwyn. While the talky film rarely allows for subtlety, it provided everyone involved with some good moments. Colman’s intelligence as an actor was certainly on display in his role as a doctor dealing with personal conflicts.

He became very good at playing conflicted characters, and conflict was entering his professional like off-screen. His relationship with Goldwyn became strained, as Colman began doubting the material being given to him and wanted a break. After several battles, Goldwyn was willing to release Colman from his contract if Colman made one more movie, but Colman refused. He ended up back in England for a while and was off screen for nearly two years while his Goldwyn contract ran out.

But upon his return, he went to work re-establishing himself, and it didn’t take long. First came a sequel to “Bulldog Drummond” called “Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back” in 1935.

Perhaps his greatest role of the decade came with “A Tale of Two Cities” for another strong producer, David Selznick. I’ve blogged about this film earlier this year and how magnificent it is, with Colman shaving off his famous moustache to play Sydney Carton (above). Colman showed poise finding the right combination of self-loathing and determination to do good.

While I haven’t seen the foreign legion romance “Under Two Flags,” I am a big fan of Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon,” with Colman playing Robert Conway (below, with Jane Wyatt), a man who manages to find Shangri-La but wrestles with others regarding the philosophical implications of its Utopian society. Capra’s film has a dreamy quality to it, and Colman leads the audience through this dream, acting much like we would if discovering such a place.

That same year came the terrific “The Prisoner of Zenda,” with Colman playing a dual role as a commoner who must impersonate the king, who has been kidnapped. This action/romance/adventure film was produced by Selznick after he formed his own company, and the results couldn’t be better.

With many of these roles, Colman gave us someone to identify with, and we’re willing to go where he goes, willing to think what he thinks, and cheering for him to succeed. Not many actors have that capability to hook an audience like this nearly every time. Colman is, without doubt, a class act.


  1. Just saw Coleman in "The Prisoner of Zenda," and he was great in his dual role--it must be quite a challenge to create two distinct characters in one movie--just as he was in "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Lost Horizon." I've always thought he would have been the perfect Maxim de Winter in "Rebecca"--also the right age for the part and with a sympathetic quality that didn't seem to come through with Olivier, who seemed rather surly. Apparently Coleman was offered the part by Selznick and turned it down.

  2. Yes, yes, yes. One of my favorites. I've always said if there's such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as Ronald Colman's voice.

    "The Prisoner of Zenda" is a great favorite of mine. The final selflesness scene between him and Madeline Carroll is every bit as good - and moving - as the simmilar scene in "Casablanca."

  3. As a child I was dazzled by Ronald Colman...two of his best films were often shown on TV - "A Tale of Two Cities" (I can still hear him saying "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done...") and "Lost Horizon." What a presence, what a voice - what looks. A fine actor in such noble, heroic roles. I came to "The Prisoner of Zenda" much later. One of his best, I think. "Arrowsmith" is not in the same league, but certainly watchable...thanks to Ronald Colman. Thanks for a great post. I'll have to watch the Bulldog Drummond movies now...

  4. Rick: I actually think Olivier is a great Maxim. You need someone who can be distant and surly, and Colman may have been too sympathetic from the beginning. Kevin: That's great! And I do agree about the end of "Zenda" ... although I do love my "Casablanca." Lady Eve: Thanks for the compliments. I really need to see Bulldog Drummond again and see the sequel.

  5. I really love Ronald Colman, and its such a shame he's so overlooked today.

    I would have to say my favorite movies of his are "Lost Horizon" and "Prisoner of Zenda." My all time favorite though would have to be "The Late George Aply" from 1947. Its a really underrated film but very good and cute. He plays a closed minded father during the turn of the century.

  6. Great pick! Ronald Colman is one of my favorite actors of any decade. In addition to the many fine films already mentioned, there's also CHAMPAGNE FOR CAESAR. It's a seldom-shown gem that showcases the delightful comic skills of Ronald as well as Vincent Price and Celeste Holm.

  7. Jnpickens: I've never seen "The Late George Apley," so I'll look for it. Thanks for the suggestion. Rick29: You also provide a good suggestion, as I've never seen "Champagne for Caesar."

  8. I'm just enjoying catching up with your list of your favourite 1930s actors, great stuff. I love Colman in 'A Tale of Two Cities' and also in 'The Light That Failed' from 1939, a great melodrama directed by William Wellman which sadly isn't on DVD as yet.

  9. Thank you! I'll look for The Light That Failed. Perhaps it will be on TCM soon.