A Moment with Charles Laughton

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Last night I watched Charles Laughton in an admittedly minor but still very entertaining movie, The Strange Door. Boris Karloff appears as well, and though he’s no doubt the bigger draw for many viewers, I always find Laughton hard to resist, whether it’s his larger-than-life turn in The Private Life of Henry VIII, or as a duplicitous business type in The Big Clock. This time around, he was a strange and vengeful nobleman in a period-piece based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story. Laughton’s demeanor here, his tendency to lounge and indulge himself, reminded me of a story Orson Welles tells Henry Jaglom in My Lunches with Orson (Peter Biskind, ed.). During World War II, Welles and Laughton appeared together at “a great bond rally in Texarkana, Texas, with every known star in Hollywood.” To let anyone but Welles take it from there would be a grave offense:

Charlie was going to do his well-known Gettysburg Address, which he made famous in Ruggles of Red Gap on the radio. I was the producer and director of that show. So I said to Buster – that’s what I called him – “Is there anything special you would like?” He said, “I want a divan.” I said, “What?” He said, “Don’t be ignorant. You know what I want, a chaise lounge.”…

I said, “Buster, you can’t mean that. You’re not going to lie down on a couch like Madame Recamier and do the Gettysburg Address in front of all these people. Do you know where you are?” He said, “Yes. But that’s the way I feel.” So he came out, lay down, delivered the address, “Fawr scawr…fawr scawr and seven years ago our fathers brought forth unto this continent a new nation based on the proposition that all men are created equal…” and he killed it. When he was great, he was so great.

The Welles/Jaglom book is terrific, free-flowing and funny, with Welles very much its star. I’ve written a review along those lines, which will appear on the Bright Lights Film Journal site in the coming weeks. In the meantime, Laughton in most anything – The Strange Door included – is a pleasure.

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