Charles Laughton (1899-1962)

Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton
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Charles Laughton was a supremely talented stage and film actor born in England, who became an American citizen in 1950. He began his career on the English stage but quickly saw the artistic possibilities of movies and in Hollywood he established a reputation for serious, high quality character acting in a number of classic films many of which are still popular today. Some of his larger than life characterizations of historical or literary figures such as Captain Bligh in 'Mutiny on the Bounty' and Quasimodo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' are regarded as acting masterworks.

Laughton showed that quality work could be appreciated by mass audiences and in so doing he became a pioneer in the new medium of movies and later in radio and television. As well as a brilliant actor he was also a screenwriter, producer and director and in 1955 he directed one of the most distinguished of Hollywood movies, the brilliant 'The Night of the Hunter'. During his career he received three nominations for the Best Actor Academy Award, winning the Oscar once in 1933 for 'The Private Life of Henry VIII', the first English actor to win the award.


Charles Laughton was born in Scarborough on the north-east coast of England on July 1, 1899, the eldest of three sons. His parents, who were Catholics, owned the Victoria Hotel in Scarborough, a business which had been started by Laughton's paternal grandfather.

Early Years

Laughton had a typical British education, including army officer training at Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit public school where he gave his first theatrical performances in school plays. He served in the First World War, during which he was gassed, and on leaving the army he started work as a Duty Manager in the family hotel business, and took part in amateur theatricals in the nearby town.

Early Stage Acting

He was expected to take over the family business but in 1924, on his father's death, his mother gave him permission to begin training to be an actor and he entered London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The following year he was awarded the Bancroft Gold Medal as the finest student the Academy had produced during the year. He went on to turn professional and in 1926 he made his first stage appearance in the comedy 'The Government Inspector' at London's Barnes Theatre.

He continued in 1927 with many appearances in London's West End and established a reputation for top class characterizations. In one production in London, 'Mr Prohack', he appeared with his future wife, Elsa Lanchester, whom he married in 1929.

Early Movie Career

As Laughton's stage career developed, so his movie career began, initially in 1928 in three silent comedy one reelers, which had been specially written for his wife by H. G. Wells. He appeared with her again in in 1930 in a film revue called 'Comets' and in the same year he starred in the early British Talkies 'Wolves', with Dorothy Gish and 'Down River'.

Laughton's theatrical star continued to rise when he appeared in 'Alibi' in 1928 at the at the Prince of Wales Theatre which ran for 250 performances and then 'Payment Deferred' in 1931 in the role of William Marble. He was offered the chance to take his West End production of 'Payment Deferred' onto the American stage and in September 1931 he and Elsa sailed to the United States. For the next 19 years they travelled regularly between Hollywood, New York and England, as Charles's international stardom increased.

Hollywood Contract

Paramount became interested in Laughton and his unusual looks, quite different from the conventional Hollywood leading man. They offered him a contract and began finding suitable vehicles for his talents.

His first Hollywood movie was 'The Old Dark House' in 1932 with Boris Karloff in which he played an English gentleman sheltering from a storm alongside some other mismatched characters and he followed it with 'Devil and the Deep' with Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, then as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille's 'The Sign of the Cross'. Other memorable performances included 'Payment Deferred', repeating his London stage role, 'Island of Lost Souls', playing a mad vivisectionist, and a small part in Ernst Lubitsch's 'If I Had a Million'.

He returned to England in 1933 as an international star and appeared at the Old Vic in four Shakespearean plays, 'Macbeth' 'Henry VIII', 'Measure for Measure' and 'The Tempest'. In the same year he made the first of several collaborations with film director Alexander Korda in the movie, 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' for which he was awarded an Academy Award for Best Actor, the first time an English actor had won the Oscar.

Later in 1933 he returned to Hollywood to appear in a string of wonderful character roles starting with 'White Woman', then 'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' in 1934 as Norma Shearer's father, and the brutal lawman Javert in the 1935 film version of 'Les Misérables' and, in one of his most famous screen roles as Lieutenant William Bligh in 'Mutiny on the Bounty', co-starring Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939

He was now marked out as a top-class serious actor able to play strong leading character based roles and great parts were on offer, so in 1939, he was the obvious choice to play the lead role in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'. Laughton was hesitant at first, having long been unhappy with his own looks, and he felt the character of Quasimodo was perhaps a little close to home. Nevertheless, he decided to take the role and despite not winning him the expected second Oscar, 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' was a great success and one of the roles for which he is still best remembered.

1939 was a watershed year in Laughton's career and after that the roles he was offered changed, from the great characters he had so wonderfully brought to life to less rewarding parts to which he was less suited and which often led to disappointing results.

He played an Italian vineyard owner in 'They Knew What They Wanted' in 1940, then a South Seas patriarch in 'The Tuttles of Tahiti' in 1942, a butler in 'Forever and a Day' the following year and an Australian barkeeper in 'The Man from Down Under', also in 1943. The results were mixed and there were some brilliant performances as well, such as the orchestra conductor in 'Tales of Manhattan' in 1942, the schoolmaster in 'This Land is Mine' in 1943 and in the following year, the hen-pecked husband in 'The Suspect'. He played 'Captain Kidd' twice, first in a serious historical role in 1945 and again, hamming it up with gusto, in 1952's 'Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd'.

Laughton demonstrated his ability to play comedy in two movies in which he co-starred with Deanna Durbin, 'It Started with Eve' in 1941 and 'Because of Him' in 1946 and he showed he could also perform in thrillers as well with Paramount's 'The Big Clock' in 1948 and MGM's 'The Bribe' in 1949.

Returning to making movies in England, in 1954 he hit another high with 'Hobson's Choice', another part, both hilarious and heart-breaking, which he made his own. He returned to Hollywood film-making in 1957 to appear in 'Witness for the Prosecution', directed by Billy Wilder, and co-starring Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power, for which he received another Academy Award nomination.

Later Career

Laughton was constantly trying to find the full extent of his talents and in the latter part of his career particularly was not afraid to experiment. He collaborated with author Bertolt Brecht in 1947 in bringing Brecht's 'The Life of Galileo' to the stage and in 1953 he directed a staged reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's epic Civil War poem 'John Brown's Body', starring Tyrone Power.

In 1954 he directed at the Plymouth Theater on Broadway 'The Caine-Mutiny Court Martial' starring Henry Fonda, which ran for 415 performances, and then in 1955 his sole foray into movie direction was the magnificent 'The Night of the Hunter', one of the most powerful films of the twentieth century, starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish. The movie was not a commercial or critical success on first release but it has since increased in stature and is now regarded as one of the most significant films ever made in Hollywood and it has been selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress. Robert Mitchum was in no doubt about Laughton - he said he considered him to be the best director he ever worked with.


Although outwardly happily married to Elsa Lanchester, Laughton was deeply unhappy with his homosexual tendencies. He and Elsa remained married and in fact developed a close companionship and although he had several lovers Laughton never had a significant male partner.

Laughton was a sensitive man and he had a lifelong love of Japanese art and for the Japanese search for inner peace. His other great passion in life was fine art. He was a great connoisseur and a teacher and during his life amassed a very fine and valuable collection.

Laughton's clear and distinctive voice led him into a second successful career - onstage oral readings of great works of literature, touring America and England giving readings interspersed with anecdotes. The readings started as entertainment for hospitalized troops in World War II as his contribution to the war effort, and later developed into acclaimed and highly popular public performances.

One of Laughton's final directorial projects was a critically acclaimed one-woman show he created for his wife called 'Elsa Lanchester - Herself' in 1960. Laughton continued to make movies even towards the end of his life. He played a British admiral in 'Under Ten Flags' in 1960 and in 'Spartacus' in the same year he appeared, in another memorable characterisation, as the wily Roman senator Gracchus. His last movie was 'Advise and Consent' in 1962, for which he received favorable reviews for his performance as a U.S. Senator.

Charles Laughton died at his Hollywood home on December 15, 1962, after a year long battle against bone cancer. His was an all round creative talent, a completely unique, completely natural genius of the stage and screen.

Charles Laughton Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Best Actor ... Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Charles Laughton Filmography

The Tonic
Blue Bottles
Down River
Devil and the Deep
The Old Dark House
Payment Deferred
If I Had a Million
The Sign of the Cross
Island of Lost Souls
The Private Life of Henry VIII.
White Woman
The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Ruggles of Red Gap
Les Misérables
Screen Snapshots Series 14, No. 11
Mutiny on the Bounty
One in a Million
I, Claudius
Vessel of Wrath
Sidewalks of London
Jamaica Inn
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
They Knew What They Wanted
It Started with Eve
The Tuttles of Tahiti
Tales of Manhattan
Cargo of Innocents
Forever and a Day
This Land Is Mine
The Man from Down Under
Passport to Destiny
The Canterville Ghost
The Suspect