Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A salute to Robert Donat, the most charming actor in screen history

I was reading Have You Seen... , a collection of 1000 film reviews by critic David Thompson, the other day when he referred to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s charm. That made me blink – but of course he’s right.Given that the former Governator simply can’t act, moves as if he’s just done himself a mischief, speaks in a Teutonic monotone – what else could account for his success?

So, if Arnie’s got onscreen charm, what is it, exactly? Instant, automatic likeability, I suppose. In which case, my nomination for the most charming male actor who can actually act is the Mancunian thespian, Robert Donat, whose most charming performance was as Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’ 1935 thriller, The 39 Steps

Hitchcock, odd man that he was, was a regular employer of charming male stars and charmless female leads: Donat, Cary Grant and James Stewart versus Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly and Kim Novak (yes, I know some people would give me an argument about the vapid Princess, but surely we can agree on the other two fembots).

I must have watched The 39 Steps at least 20 times. Whenever it comes on – whatever the time, and whatever my mood – I watch it with renewed relish until Mr. Memory has expired onstage yet again. “I’m glad it’s off me mind at last”.

Of course, the plot is ludicrous from start to finish – but who cares? It moves like the clappers, the script is terrific, the direction is endlessly inventive and all the actors are spot-on (from Peggy Ashcroft as the farmer’s wife and Madeleine Carroll as the annoying girl who won’t believe our hero, to the vulgar travelling salesmen in the train and the perky Cockney milkman who helps Hannay escape from his mansion block where the female spy has been murdered). But ultimately what makes it so easy to lose oneself in Hitchcock’s bright, champagne concoction time and again  is Donat’s shimmering performance – he seems to ice-skate elegantly across the shiny surface of the film. (Compare his performance to Michael Redgrave’s would-be insouciant hero in that other Hitchcock classic The Lady Vanishes - Redgrave’s a great actor, but practically charm-free.)

Yes, the Hannay character’s quick-witted and resourceful and brave, but what gets him through is sheer, unadulterated charm – first, he uses it onthe milkman, then the farmer’s wife (who gets smacked up by her husband, Fraser from Dad’s Army, as her reward), then stirring up the audience at a political rally in Inverness with meaningless words (which is pretty much what Hitchock is doing to his audience), the old Highland couple who run a country Inn, and, finally, of course, the rather bitchy young lady he’s been handcuffed to.

So what’s so charming about Donat as an actor? Humour plays a large part: the whole of the extended hotel room scene (the one in which Madeleine Carroll has to remove her stockings while the back of Donat’s hand rubs along her legs) constitutes a masterclass in light comic acting – the way Donat delivers his lines while they’re lying side by side on the bed is just wonderful. His tired, laconic voice is what seduces his co-star – the audience has already been won over. 

In real life, almost inevitably, Donat was not the amusing, debonair character he played in The 39 Steps: he worried constantly about his career (despite being a much-lauded stage actor and starring in some utterly classic films, he never quite fulfilled the promise of his early career). He suffered from chronic asthma, which limited him to a mere 20 films – and which, I suspect, may have leant his voice its attractive timbre. And he died relativey young, at the age of 53, of a massive brain tumour, after making Inn of the Sixth Happiness. 

Along the way he made some terrific movies, including the lovely Goodbye Mr. Chips in 1939, for which he received an Oscar;, The Citadel (his performance as an idealistic young Scottish doctor netted him an Oscar nomination in 1938); the delightful The Ghost Goes West (1936), The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and, a great favourite of mine, the 1948 adaptation of Sir Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, where he played the apparently cold-hearted and supercilious barrister, Sir Robert Morton, who gets the son of a respectable family off a charge of stealing a postal order at Naval College – the scene where Donat first questions the boy is particularly fine.

As with Leslie Howard, Donat captured a certain type of deeply admirable Englishness - a type that, I suspect, irritates many foreigners  - despite (or perhaps because of) foreign antecedents: German, Polish and French, in his case. His relatively humble Manchester upbringing seems to have helped him portray upper-class Englishmen who weren’t too off-puttingly posh. And as with Cary Grant, than whom he was a much better actor, he struck both men and women as instantly, hugely likable. 

Charm can get an utterly untalented actor a long way. When it’s allied to great natural acting talent, it results in performances audiences will enjoy long as there are films. 

As for The 39 Steps, I reckon I have time for about another ten viewings - and I still won’t have figured out why Hannay keeps taking bits out of his sandwich and dropping them on the floor of his hotel room, or why Mr. Memory,  during his act, would tell a member of the audience that the 39 Steps is an organisation of spies - but I can tell you that pip in poultry is caused by the fowl breathing through its mouth because of a respiratory disease: glad to have cleared that one up).

If you still need convincing of Donat’s charm, just sample other protrayals of Hannay - Kenneth Moore (one of those actors who, when called upon to laugh , actually says “Ha ha!” - Wilfred Hyde-White was another - and whose company, one suspects, would have palled after about fifteen seconds), Robert Powell (a mystery to me) and (on TV) Rupert Penty-Jones.


  1. There is nothing to disagree with here except perhaps your criticisms of Kenneth Moore [legless war hero, driver of vintage cars, sinker of the mighty Bismarck] and Wilfred Hyde-White [Chalky White in "Two Way Stretch" and relentless marrier of nubile starlets].

    Talking of his foreign antecedents there were a number of actors with similar "mongrel" backgrounds who managed to catch an essential Englishness in terms of mannerisms and speech - Leslie Howard you mention. but there was also Basil Rathbone, George Sanders and Laurance Harvey. And at a stretch, Dirk Bogarde. There must be others.
    Thursday, January 13, 2011 - 07:48 PM

  2. A great actor, Donat. For its time, the scene in which he takes Madeleine Carroll's stockings off while handcuffed to her was pretty racy and I wonder how Hitch got it past the censor. I love the film and, as with the ropy Alpine model sets at the beginning of The Lady Vanishes, it is easy to overlook the weak bits, like the implausibility of the plot, the speeded up chase over the Scottish moors and Peggy Ashcroft's dodgy Scottish accent, the noo.

    What Michael Redgrave lacks in charm, Charters and Cauldicott provide in spades in The Lady Vanishes. As with your observations on Donat's mysterious sandwich shredding, I am still trying to work out how a name written in the condensation on the inside of a train window can disappear when a blast of smoke and mist steams up the outside. I have marked that down as one of life's many enduring puzzles, along with the Government's overseas aid policy and why people find Michael Macintyre funny.
    Friday, January 14, 2011 - 01:02 AM

  3. SDG – I can only think of Peter Ustinov (Russian) and Christopher Lee (Italian), but they were both a bit exotic and not noted for Englishness. I think you may have nailed the main ones.

    Ex-KCS – you are spot-on about Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford. I also really enjoyed them in Night Train to Munich (1940). They were supposed to appear in The Third Man, but, sadly, their two parts were condensed into one character, which was payed Wilfred Hyde-White – who, to mollify SDG, I will admit was pretty good (Hyde-White was a very enjoyable screen presence – he just couldn’t act).

    As for Scottish accents, no race has suffered more than the Scots – Scottie in Star Trek, Mel Gibson in Braveheart, Mike Myers as Shrek: all, to varying degrees, deeply inauthentic. Welsh and Irish seem easy enough to master – what is it about Scottish?

    You’re also dead right about Michael McIntyre. Let’s face it, if you met someone like that in real life, you’d slap them. Pure Colin Hunt!
    Friday, January 14, 2011 - 03:18 PM

  4. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford. They should be alive now to revel in the recent events in Australia. Apart from absolutely refusing to cover up his facial scar [ an injury Radford suffered in WW1] the strange thing about this pair is that it did not seem at all strange that they shared a bed together [ditto Morecambe&Wise and Laurel&Hardy] yet when poor old William Hague engages in the same practice all sorts of accusations are made about him. He's a Yorkshireman, for God's Sake!
    Friday, January 14, 2011 - 04:41 PM

  5. Yes, but, unlike Hague, they didn't wear unsuitable head-gear and T-shirts while promenading with young male research assistants in public.
    Wednesday, January 19, 2011 - 07:39 PM