A World War I vet, he felt drawn to the theater in his native England, eventually studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and making his professional stage debut in London’s famed West End in 1925. He married actress Elsa Lanchester in 1929, the same year he made his film debut.
His stage career brought him to New York in 1931, and the next year he found himself in Hollywood and immediately started to work. During that first year, he made six movies, including James Whale’s “The Old Dark House” as part of an ensemble including Boris Karloff and Melvyn Douglas.
In glamorous Hollywood, he described himself as having a face “that looks like an elephant’s behind.” That’s a bit harsh. And, in my opinion, the fact that he wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous was an advantage that allowed him to slip into so many roles.
Case in point: In 1933, he was back in the UK to make “The Private Life of Henry VIII” as the title character (below). It’s one of those wonderful marriages between performer and character, where Laughton is perfect in both looks and skill, giving dimension to this larger-than-life person. It’s a role played with great confidence and gusto, and the film world took note – he won a well-deserved Oscar for it.
Legendary producer Irving Thalberg was so impressed that he cast Laughton in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” as Elizabeth Barrett’s father. Elizabeth was played by Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, and Laughton was in reality only one year older than her! Nevertheless, he gives a riveting performance as her stern, controlling father, hinting at a possible incestuous relationship with a gleam in his eye that somehow made it past the censors.
In 1935 he had a banner year with three exceptional roles. In “Ruggles of Red Gap,” a delightful comedy from Leo McCarey, Laughton is a butler won in a poker game, and the actor shows a flair for having fun. It’s been years since I’ve seen this film and yet I smile when thinking about it. Laughton also plays police inspector Javert in a strong production of “Les Miserables” at a time when literary adaptations were being made and made well.
Finally, and most memorably, he is Captain Bligh in MGM’s terrific “Mutiny on the Bounty,” squaring off against Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian (below). Laughton captures Bligh’s cruel, by-the-books leadership with riveting tenacity, earning an Oscar nod for his work.
Laughton continued to constantly challenge himself. In 1936, for example, he played the title role in “Rembrandt” as the Dutch painter in this well-made biography. At the end of the decade, he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Jamaica Inn” and then as Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” You would think no one would dare try the role that Lon Chaney famously played in the 1920s, but Laughton did so and the result is beautiful work.
I look at these movies and marvel at the gallery of characters Laughton created. You could hang a portrait of each one side by side and be amazed that they are all played by the same man. This decade may have been the most productive eight years of his film career in terms of quantity, but make no mistake – the quality is also there. He may be big and showy at times, but so was his talent, and it’s a pleasure to watch him at work.