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Monday, Nov. 30, 2009

David Skal’s ‘Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice’

Remembering a Hollywood class act

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Claude Rains, this most patrician and elegant of screen actors, still sustains a fascination for the average filmgoer. And his life story is full of surprises: He spoke cockney and had been abused as a child. In Mr. Skeffington, he tells Bette Davis that his success is a rags-to-riches story. In David Skal’s Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice (University Press of Kentucky) that parallel is made only too clear. Skal’s biography does little to plumb the depths of Rains’ appeal, instead giving careful step-by-step survey of his professional life without diagnosing his personal life. Still, it’s a fast, compelling read, leaving readers to reach their own conclusions.

Born into extreme poverty in 1889 London, he was one of three children (out of 10) in his family to survive. His father, a minor stage actor, whipped him savagely, which may partially account for a severe speech impediment. All Rs sounded like Ws, a handicap he ironically fought to overcome before he came to possess one of the most distinctive voices in the world.

He envied the fine outfits of the church choirboys, became one himself, worked on his speech impediment and moved on to a new job first as callboy, then prompter, at His Majesty’s Theater. Yet the young Rains showed no interest in acting. As his speech improved, he was given a small speaking role in a play (1904), marking the beginning of a stage career that led to rapid success in London and eventually New York. His first film, The Invisible Man (1933), would become a classic. His voice dominated a performance by the usually unseen actor.

His years at Warner Bros. heralded his most memorable achievements. The glory years bequeathed us those roles for which he is most remembered, including the charmingly hypocritical Captain Renault in Casablanca, a performance that remains unforgettably sardonic against a formidable cast, immortalizing the film with Bogart’s unforgettable overture to Rains: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Rains’ tongue-in-cheek polish was again evidenced in the great Bette Davis vehicle Now, Voyager. In Mr. Skeffington the A-List actress found a co-star whose penetrating performance as her neglected husband more than equaled her own superlative gifts. The two of them provided one of the most moving finales in film history.

Rains’ only collaboration with Hitchcock resulted in another timeless classic, Notorious. The superb black-and-white photography only heightened Rains’ dark performance as an eerie postwar Nazi, stealing attention from the riveting star power of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. He continued to act and received offers for stage and screen to the end of his days, but, except for a brief appearance in Lawrence of Arabia, the golden years were over. He died in 1967 at the age of 78 from cirrhosis of the liver.

Rains’ humble origins were always somewhat in evidence even in his most sophisticated performances. He remained the most accessible of the great character actors, perpetually registering a sublime simplicity.

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