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Donat, Robert (1905-1958)


Main image of Donat, Robert (1905-1958)

In the 1930s, Manchester-born Robert Donat was perhaps the nearest British equivalent to a Hollywood star, his image forged under the guidance of Alexander Korda. Tall, handsome in the romantic manner, and possessed of a mellifluous speaking voice, he made his stage debut in 1921, often playing with major provincial repertory theatres, as well as in West End and Old Vic successes.

Dogged by bad health, he ironically came to the fore in films requiring a dashing display: as Thomas Culpepper in The Private Life of Henry VIII (d. Alexander Korda, 1933), the dual role of laird and ghost in The Ghost Goes West (d. René Clair, 1935), the secret agent caught up in the Russian Revolution in Knight Without Armour (d. Jacques Feyder, 1937) and another, very athletic secret agent in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935).

But it is his last 1930s role for which he is best known: the shy schoolmaster who blooms under love and becomes an institution for generations of schoolboys in Goodbye, Mr Chips (d. Sam Wood, 1939). Class-ridden and sentimental perhaps, it remains extraordinarily touching in his Oscar-winning performance, and it ushers in the Donat of the postwar years.

He could do comedy - the suburban worm who thrives during war in Perfect Strangers (d. Alexander Korda, 1945) or the broad Lancashire farce of The Cure for Love (1949), which he also directed - and the charismatic 'turn' - Parnell in Captain Boycott (d. Frank Launder, 1947), and the supercilious defence counsel The Winslow Boy (d. Anthony Asquith, 1948), who warms to the spectacle of unassailable right.

However, it is for the tenderness of Chips, of the defeated inventor in The Magic Box (d. John Boulting, 1951) and the ailing clergyman in Lease of Life (d. Charles Frend, 1954) and the dying Mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (d. Mark Robson, 1958), that one most cherishes him.

Other stars had his dash; it is hard to think of another major star who could so move an audience with the sheer delicacy of his emotional shading in these roles. His last words on the screen (to Ingrid Bergman) were: "We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell." If that sounds sentimental, try watching and listening without weeping.

He made The Count of Monte Cristo (US, d. Rowland V.Lee, 1934) in Hollywood, but did not care to repeat the experience. His second wife was Renée Asherson.

Biography: Mr Chips: The Life of Robert Donat by Kenneth Barrow (1985)

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of 39 Steps, The (1935)39 Steps, The (1935)

Classic Hitchcock thriller about spies, secrets and Scotland

Thumbnail image of Captain Boycott (1947)Captain Boycott (1947)

Lively drama about 19th-century Irish civil disobedience

Thumbnail image of Cure For Love, The (1949)Cure For Love, The (1949)

Robert Donat directs and stars in a gentle Lancashire comedy

Thumbnail image of Ghost Goes West, The (1935)Ghost Goes West, The (1935)

Romantic comedy set in a haunted castle

Thumbnail image of Knight Without Armour (1937)Knight Without Armour (1937)

Marlene Dietrich stars in a lavish Russian Revolution love story

Thumbnail image of Magic Box, The (1951)Magic Box, The (1951)

Star-studded biopic of British film pioneer William Friese-Greene

Thumbnail image of Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)

Charles Laughton stars as Henry VIII in British cinema's first US smash hit

Thumbnail image of Winslow Boy, The (1948)Winslow Boy, The (1948)

Adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play about a boy accused of theft

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Thumbnail image of Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)

Director, Producer, Executive Producer