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Have You Seen…? Episode 30

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Charles Laughton was one of the great character actors in both British and American movies. On this episode, David Hast and Scott Vander Werf talk about his acting career in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mutiny on the Bounty and the one film he directed, The Night of the Hunter

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Witness for the Prosecution?

Scott Vander Werf: I have not seen Witness for the Prosecution.

DH: Oh no, I'm surprised. You know, we did two episodes on Billy Wilder and we talked about all his great movies.

SVW: And you know there's a lot of Billy Wilder films that I haven't seen actually and the great actor Charles Lawton who stars in it, there's a lot of films of his that I have yet to see.

DH: Yeah, well this was one of his later, one of his last films. He died in 1962 and Witness for the Prosecution is 1957, but it's one of those Billy Wilder masterpieces. It's a great kind of mystery murder thriller, but it also gives Charles Lawton, who we're gonna talk about today, the great British actor, an opportunity to show both his dramatic and comic side.

SVW: And he was known for being a broad, character actor and taking on unique roles.

Dh: Yeah, Charles Lawton is not a name that's gonna pop into most people's heads these days, even people that think about the golden age of Hollywood. But Lawton was a wonderful, wonderful British-born actor, you know, Shakespearean, classically trained, who came to Hollywood in the 30s, and did a number of wonderful films, and many of which people have heard of now. When he first came to Hollywood, he did, actually I think this was a British film, right before he came to Hollywood, he won his one Oscar playing Henry VIII in the private life of Henry VIII in 1934.

But then he came to Hollywood and people have heard of him for these movies, The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939 with Maureen O'Hara, Mutiny on the Bounty, which is really Clark Gable is more of the lead in that, but you know, he plays Captain Bly in that. He did a version of Les Miserables. I'm telling you right now, it's way better than the 2012 musical version that we've all seen not long ago. You know, it's an hour shorter than that and does everything that that one does pretty much better, except for Anne Hathaway, who's remarkable in the musical. But, yeah, he plays a great, he plays Detective Javert and that. And, you know, he was a wonderful actor who was, you know, he was not your traditional leading man, right? He was portly, he wasn't handsome, but he wasn't vain either. He didn't try to be the leading man. He used his physical appearance for great comic and dramatic effect.

SVW: And you mentioned The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mutiny on the Bounty, and for our generation, growing up without the Internet and without cable TV, we would watch movies on over the air television. And those two movies in the 1970s, I saw those on TV almost every year. They would play somewhere on some channel. And especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I saw that maybe a dozen times as a kid.

Dh: Yeah. And he plays Quasimodo, you know, Hunchback so well as this sort of tragic figure. So, you know, those are the movies he's best known for, but I love thinking about some of the movies that are even more obscure now, but are absolutely wonderful. I know you just saw recently, Hobson's Choice, didn't you?

SVW: That is, that's correct. I saw that, the 1954 film, written and directed by David Lean, and I found it wonderful.

Dh: Yeah, it's not one of the ones, you know, David Lean is one of the... you know, handful of the greatest British directors. He directed the two Dickens adaptations, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. He directed The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia. He was known for big dramatic productions, but he had one or two comedies, and Hobson's Choice is just a perfect example of that sort of offbeat British comedy.

SVW: A man surrounded by women who feels that he is in control of his life and his children's lives. when in fact it's his older daughter who's the real Hobson who makes the choices.

DH: Right, and that's the pun in the title, right? Because there's an expression, a Hobson's choice, which means when you have no choice at all. And the character's named Hobson, he owns this boot-making shop. He thinks he's in charge of everything, but really he doesn't. He's not in charge of anything.

Movieclip: [Hobson: Maggie, I've got some business to attend to. I'll just be out for about a quarter of an hour.

Maggie: Don't be late for dinner, Father. 

H: It's a long way off dinner time. 

M: So that if you stay too long in the moon rakers, you'll be late for it. 

H: Moon rakers? Who said anything? 

M: If your dinner's ruined, it'll be your own fault. 

H: Well, I'll be eternally- 

Daughter: Don't swear in here, Father. 

H: No. I'll sit down instead. Now. Listen to me, you three. Providence is decreed that you should lack a mother's hand at the time when single girls grow bupcious and must have somebody to rule. I'll tell you this. You'll not rule me.] 

SVW: Now I'm curious about Ruggles of Red Cap that was made in 1935. and also The Suspect and This Land is Mine. Those are films I have not seen.

DH: Ruggles at Red Gap is a Western comedy. He plays a very proper British butler to a wealthy British man, and the guy wins a bet that involves him then going to the West, and he wins a poker game, and so now he has to go out West in America, and Ruggles has to adapt to be, he's his proper British butler, and now he's in the Wild West. So again, another Charles Lawton comedy. The Suspect is kind of a period piece film noir. And The Suspect and This Land is Mine, This Land is Mine, both of those, he plays kind of seemingly meek, easygoing characters.

This Land is Mine is a World War II drama directed by the French director Jean Renoir, but it's in English, about a sort of meek, easygoing school teacher in a town occupied by the Nazis, who shows a completely surprising level of courageousness. We shouldn't miss two things about him. One is that he was married, Charles Lawton was married to the actress Elsa Lanchester, who we all know what she's most famous for.

SVW: Bride of Frankenstein.

DH: Right, the bride of Frankenstein in the early 30s, but she played in a few movies with him. She's hilarious and witnessed for the prosecution as this nurse who has to take care of this big powerful British lawyer who's just had a heart attack. She plays one of the wives of Henry VIII hilariously in the private life of Henry VIII.

And Elsa Lanchester was endlessly supportive of Charles Lawton's entire career. So she was a very important figure in his life. But we need to move on to maybe one of the most unique film in his works. Which is the movie, The Night of the Hunter, 1955. Charles Lawton is not in it. It is the one and only movie he directed.

SVW: And it's an astounding film. When I saw this movie the first time, I may have seen it as a kid, but it didn't make the impression on me that it did when I saw it in a class in film school. And it's one of the most gorgeous black and white films that you'll ever see.

The cinematography is extraordinary. It melds German expressionism and the film noir technique, but it presents it as a folktale. Rather than, I mean, it is about crime and it's about a sinister figure, but it's presented as if it's in some other mythical land other than our own that sort of resembles our place.

DH: You're right. I mean, that's how it comes across. You know, it's a sort of gothic fairy tale, and in a way it's a horror film, but in a way it's a fantasy. It involves one of the most primal things that scares people, which is children being pursued by a monster essentially, played by Robert Mitchum. Robert Mitchum plays this sort of fake preacher who is really a murderer and after money that the children know the location of. And famously he's got the words love and hate tattooed on his knuckles, L-O-V-E on one hand.

H-A-T-E on the other, that's become an icon now.

Movie Clip: [Robert Mithcum: Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right hand, left hand? The story of good and evil? H-A-T-E. It was with this left hand that old brother came, struck the blow that laid his brother low. L-O-V-E. You see these fingers, dear hearts, these fingers has veins that run straight to the soul of man.]

DH: It's a remarkable film. It's very influenced by silent film and the way it's shot. In fact, it even uses the great silent movie star, Lillian Gish, who is in D.W. Griffith's movies. And you mentioned the cinematography. I mean, in many ways, there's no other movie like this, in many ways. But that even includes a cinematography, because it's not just interesting black and white cinematography. It's almost like these fantasy paintings.

SVW: There's a lot of scenes where the characters are in the land. They're either in a river or they're in fields, and it's at night. And that's where it really gives it sort of a combination of dream and nightmare at the same time.

DH: It's in a very American movie, right? The journey down river, like in Huckleberry Finn.

SVW: It's considered a classic film now. It was a financial failure, and it was the only film that Charles Lawton directed.

DH: That's right.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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