Early Career

Charles Laughton (1899-1962) was a prolific stage and screen actor, and director, whose career spanned four decades in film and theater, from the advent of talkies into the waning golden age of Hollywood. He first acted on stage in the Nikolai Gogol satire Revizor (The Government Inspector) in 1926 at the age of 27 and achieved his first film role in the 1928 Ivor Mantagu short film The Tonic. However, in cinema, Laughton quickly went beyond short films and small roles in features to go on to be the 6th man to win the Best Actor Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1933 for his performance as Henry the VIII in Alexander Korda's hugely successful The Private Life of Henry VIII, a film that helped establish both his and Korda's career. He also received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance in Frank Lloyd's 1935 classic The Mutiny on the Bounty. And received praise (both timely and belated, upon critical reevaluation) for his performance as Dr. Moreau in Erle C. Kenton's 1932 cult classic The Island of Lost Souls ( a film now considered a modern classic).

490px-Charles Laughton-publicity2

Sword and Sandal Contribution

Despite his recognition across multiple genre's Laughton, like many British film thespians, was a recognizable presence in American sword and sandal film tradition. He was cast as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), as Claudius in Josef von Sternberg and Alexander Korda's unfinished I,Claudius (1937), as King Herod in William Dieterle's Salome (1953), and as Gracchus in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960).

In the last of Cecil B. Demille's Bible trilogy The Sign of the Cross (1932) (the first two films being The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927)) Charles Laughton plays Nero in a tale comparatively similar to that of Quo Vadis?, however due to the film being a pre-code (Motion Picture Production Code) release, the depiction of Nero's atrocities and his proclivities are more overt than the later film Quo Vadis? (1951) and Laughton, himself can be credited with producing the almost comical, child-like menace that was and is the common depiction of Nero, something that was also furthered by Peter Ustinov. Laughton's contribution to Nero's characterization is noted by his wife Elsa Lanchester “DeMille visualized Nero as the menace in the film...Charles thought him merely funny. DeMille was shocked by the idea. He had old-fashioned ideas of villains and heroes" but ultimately Laughton's vision of Nero, "as a triple-jointed voluptuary, a thumb-sucking psychopath."[1] won out and has remained the common vision of Nero cinematically.

His presence as Claudius in the unfinished 1937 Josef von Sternberg film I, Claudius can be best analyzed and appreciated when viewed in the 1965 BBC-TV documentary The Epic that Never Was. Laughton's performance as King Herod in Dieterle's Salome was also well-received, particularly in France where the film did very well. This film too, depicts the same kind of christian conversion seen in films like Quo Vadis?. Laughton's Herod, like his Nero is a purely villainous figure, more overtly lecherous, less flamboyant, and more easily manipulated(by his wife Queen Herodias).

As Gracchus in Kubrick's Spartacus, Laughton served as the pragmatic antagonist to Laurence Olivier's Crassus, combating him politically and monetarily for greater control over the actions of the senate, or rather to keep Crassus from consolidating power. Which he later would through the institution of the first Triumvirate, sharing power with both Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Gracchus in the film would use this political defeat at the hands of Caesar and Crassus, as impetus for his helping of Spartacus's wife and child escape Crassus, and his eventually decision to commit suicide. This film role is one of his more memorable sword and sandal contributions aside from his performance as Nero 28 years earlier.

Later Career  

Laughton also met critical and commercial failure with his first directorial debut The Night of the Hunter (1955), which resulted in his never directing film again, though he still got work as an actor. However posterity has been kind, and critical reevaluation of The Night of the Hunter is almost uniform in its praise. The film has been called one of the best films of the 1950's, and in some measures, it is considered one of the finest films ever made. 

Indeed Laughton, despite his failing to break into directing, maintained his presence in cinema receiving Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his performance in Billy Wilder's 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution, and continuing acting professionally until his death in 1962 from kidney cancer, after finishing work on the critically well-received Otto Preminger film Advice and Consent, for which Laughton won praise for his performance as a Southern US Senator.  

At the end of his career he had acted in 10 stage productions, and 65 film and television productions, directed 5 stage productions, 1 musical revue and 2 films (uncredited direction on The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)), and received multiple writing, producer and musical performance credits (some uncredited). 

By Chris Blackard 

Work Cited  

(Wikipedia and IMDb helped) 

  1. Presley, Cecilia de Mille, Vieira, Mark A."The Wickedest Movie in the World: How Cecil B. DeMille Made The Sign of the Cross". Web, 18 Dec 2014.

Image Copyright information obtained from Wikipedia.

Description English: Publicity photo for film The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934).
Date 1934
Source eBay
Author MGM photographer Clarence Bull

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