Saturday, 11 November 2017

The great actor Claude Rains, started out with a cockney accent and a stutter!

I was watching Claude Rains in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952) last night, when it struck me that I knew absolutely nothing about him. I suppose I was for once fully focussed on the actor because he is the undoubted star of the film, whereas (with the notable exception of his first American film, 1933's The Invisible Man, in which we barely see him) his most famous screen parts have been in supporting roles - e.g. King John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (a performance modelled on his friend, Bette Davis, apparently), The Wolf Man, King's Row, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Now, Voyager, Notorious, Lawrence of Arabia and, of course, as Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca. So, when the film ended...

...I did a bit of digging (i.e. looked him up on Wikipedia).

Claude Rains was born in the slums of Camberwell in 1889, one of twelve children, nine of whom died of malnutrition. His father was an actor, and, after some desultory schooling, and a stint selling newspapers, Rains followed in his father's footsteps, making his first stage appearance at the age of 10, and proceeded to rise through the ranks until sailing to America in 1913 to find work on Broadway. He returned the following year to fight in the war, serving in the London Scottish Regiment alongside Basil Rathbone, Ronald Colman, and Herbert Marshall. Despite losing most of the vision in his right eye in a gas attack, he rose to the rank of Captain. He then returned to the London stage. The distinguished actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who founded RADA, recognised his talent, and not only told him he needed to de-Cocknify his accent and get rid of the stutter in order to succeed, but also paid for elocution lessons. Which worked. As Rains's daughter later put it, "It was his voice, nobody else spoke like that, half American, half English and a little Cockney thrown in."

I don't know why I found all this so surprising - I suppose because I'd always thought of Rains as a sort of international figure, rather than as an Englishman, let alone a product of the slums of Camberwell. Who'd have thought it? Well, I should have - after all, while he had a unique "gravel and honey" voice, he wasn't the only English actor to adopt a trans-Atlantic accent: Cary Grant and Michael Rennie both gained from doing so. Rains enjoyed a very long and successful career - he was the first actor to be paid a million dollars to appear in a film, as Julius Caesar in the 1945 adaptation of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (which, unfortunately, flopped). Still, he probably needed the money, because he married six times. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1967, aged 77.

I wish I could report that The Man Who Watched Trains Go By was a classic film - but lacklustre direction lets it down. Rains plays the chief accountant of a provincial Dutch firm who discovers that his boss (Herbert Lom) has bankrupted the company and is planning to run off to Paris with the last of the money. Deeply respectable little Claude, who had all his money invested in the company,  inadvertently kills his boss, and takes his place on the train. Had it been an Ealing comedy, it would probably have been a laugh-riot, with Rains getting up to all sorts of larks. But it's based on a book by Georges Simenon, so it's distinctly downbeat. Shame. Still, it does offer an opportunity to explore Claude Rain's accent. Here's the whole film, should you feel inclined to watch it:

1 comment:

  1. Just caught up with your piece on Claude Rains. A very good tribute to an excellent actor. As you say, he played many great roles, but he excelled as the political officer Mr Dryden in "Lawrence". The essential "realpolitiker" [if there is such a word].