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Laughton, Charles (1899-1962)


Main image of Laughton, Charles (1899-1962)

RADA-trained Charles Laughton is important in British cinema because of The Private Life of Henry VIII (d. Alexander Korda, 1933) which brought international recognition, but his greatest work is in the US, to which he came in 1932 as the unusual hero of The Old Dark House (d. James Whale).

He will be remembered for roles such as a perverted Nero in The Sign of the Cross (US, d. Cecil B. DeMille, 1932), the overbearing father in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (US, d. Sidney A. Franklin, 1934), Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (US, d. Frank Lloyd, 1935), the title character in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (US, d. William Dieterle, 1939), and, above all, for The Night of the Hunter (1955), which he directed, and which is one of the greatest of all films.

There is an intensity of purpose to Laughton's performances which require an audience's attention, and he is a difficult actor to analyse, thanks in part to the basic simplicity of his playing in, for example, the aborted I Claudius (d. Josef von Sternberg, 1936).

After a 1926 stage debut, Laughton played major roles in seven separate London theatrical productions the following year. Postwar he returned to British films only once more, but how memorable he was - as the patriarch brought to heel in Hobson's Choice (d. David Lean, 1954).

In 1929, he married Elsa Lanchester who accepted if not condoned his homosexuality, and there is both a loving and farcical quality to the marriage which the couple often brought to roles together on screen, beginning with Laughton's first two films, directed by Ivor Montagu and based on stories by H.G. Wells, the comedy shorts Blue Bottles and Day Dreams (1928), and including memorably Rembrandt (d. Alexander Korda, 1936) and Vessel of Wrath (d. Erich Pommer, 1938).

Biography: Charles Laughton by Simon Callow (1987)

Anthony Slide, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Blue Bottles (1928)Blue Bottles (1928)

Experimental slapstick comedy by Ivor Montagu

Thumbnail image of Hobson's Choice (1953)Hobson's Choice (1953)

Charles Laughton stars in this definitive version of a much-filmed play

Thumbnail image of Jamaica Inn (1939)Jamaica Inn (1939)

Hitchcock's last pre-Hollywood film, a tale of Cornish smugglers

Thumbnail image of Piccadilly (1929)Piccadilly (1929)

Late silent classic of envy, desire and murder in a London nightclub

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 Rembrandt (1936)Rembrandt (1936)

Charles Laughton stars in Korda's biopic of the great Dutch painter

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Thumbnail image of Lanchester, Elsa (1902-1986)Lanchester, Elsa (1902-1986)