Claude Rains is one of my favorite actors. He’s probably most famous for his role as the suavely corrupt police chief in Casablanca, or perhaps for playing an equally corrupt U.S. Senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, both performances nominated for Oscars – he received a total of four nominations in his career and never won once. Entertainingly dishonest characters were his specialty, like the effeminate Prince John (he practically admitted to imitating Bette Davis in the role) in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or the Nazi businessman married to Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Notorious. All four of the films mentioned in this paragraph, by the way, are regularly included on lists of the best films of all time. Certainly in the first half of his film career, Rains knew how to pick winners, and he was in constant demand by the major film studios.
He was born into an acting family in London in 1889 – well, his father at least was an actor, and not a particularly successful one, it seems, since his mother had to take in boarders to help pay the rent. Claude (which was his middle name; his first name was William) grew up with a stammer and a heavy Cockney accent, both of which he lost in the course of pursuing an acting career with the help of the renowned actor and producer Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. He made his stage debut when he was ten and by the 1920s was a highly-regarded character actor in London’s West End theaters. He also taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where two of his students were John Gielgud and Charles Laughton. Peter Ustinov remembered seeing Gielgud on a television interview sometime in the 1960s praising Rains as an actor and a teacher, and adding, “I don’t know whatever happened to him. I believe he failed and went to America.”
Yes, he did go to America, where sound pictures were now a firmly established phenomenon and the studios were in desperate need of stage-trained actors with good, strong voices. His first screen test in 1933 was a failure, but it caught the attention of director James Whale, who hired his fellow Englishman for the starring role in The Invisible Man after accidentally hearing the sound of his voice in the neighboring room. The film was a hit, and Rains’s film career was off and running.
After making a couple more forgettable films in Hollywood, Rains returned to England to star in what could have been another horror film but, in fact, was something a little more interesting than that: The Clairvoyant (also released in the United States as The Evil Mind).
Maximus, King of the Mind-Readers, tours the English music-hall circuit as a clairvoyant, assisted by his wife Rene (Fay Wray). He seems to have taken over the family business: his mother, who accompanies them, often reminds him dolefully that his late grandfather also had the gift. The thing is, Max doesn’t really seem to have the gift. His act consists of standing blindfolded on a stage while Rene goes through the audience, holds up something that an audience member has given her and asks him coded questions (she holds up a watch, for example, and asks, “What am I holding up this time?”). Even the audiences seem to know that it’s phony, but they’re happy to play along.
Until one night, when Max sees a lovely young woman sitting in the balcony and suddenly tells one of the audience members what’s written in the personal letter that he’s offered to Rene – who doesn’t have a code for this sort of thing. A few nights later, Max and Rene are on their way to another venue when the lovely young woman (her name is Christine, and she’s played by Jane Baxter) shows up on the same train, and Max foresees that the train is going to crash. He, Rene and Christine stop the train, get off and walk to the next station. Within a few minutes, the train crashes, and Max’s life changes.
It turns out he does have the gift – but only when Christine is nearby. Max’s career skyrockets, especially after he predicts the unlikely winner of the Derby, and with not a little help from Christine’s father, an influential newspaper owner. Rene, whose on-stage role is no longer necessary, becomes bitterly jealous of Christine; Christine falls in love with Max; and an unwanted prediction about his own mother almost convinces Max to abandon his new-found gift.
It’s about here that the story starts to go awry. A man whom Max saves from suicide convinces him to use his gift for the good of humanity, as a result of which Max is put on trial for causing a mining disaster that he actually predicted, and he has to use his psychic powers to save himself from the law as well as from an angry mob.
This is a decent little film with a plot that starts out interestingly and then starts to fall apart towards the end. It’s well-made, though, making good use of a fairly small budget, and most of the acting is quite good (there’s a particularly entertaining performance by Felix Aylmer as the prosecuting attorney). What makes it particularly interesting is its two leads: Claude Rains and Fay Wray.
Both of them had become major stars the year before The Clairvoyant was released. Fay Wray, a Canadian-born actress with a few leading roles to her credit, screamed her way to stardom as King Kong’s unwilling love interest. Her performance as Rene is fine – she and Rains make a plausible married couple – but she was never a particularly exciting or insightful actor, in my opinion, and King Kong was pretty much the height of her career. After retiring from an active career in 1942, she popped up again in the 1950s and 1960s in supporting roles on screen and on television. One of her last public appearances came at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1998, when host Billy Crystal introduced her unexpectedly from the audience to a standing ovation. She died in 2004 at the age of 96.
1933, the year of King Kong, was also the year of The Invisible Man. This was Rains’ first film (apart from a small role in a silent British film thirteen years earlier), and because he was playing the title character, his face actually wasn’t visible until the last few seconds of the film, so he had to act entirely with his voice. Fortunately, Rains had one of the most memorable and beautiful speaking voices in motion pictures, and he made good use of it for the remaining 30-something years of his career.
He was, in some ways, an unlikely film star (and indeed, although he was always a character actor and frequently a villain, he was unquestionably a name-above-the-title star). He was short and sturdily built, with an interestingly handsome face and a mass of thick hair that he generally combed as high as he could get away with, to compensate for his lack of physical stature. His stage experience allowed him to get the maximum effect from the minimum of effort – a raised eyebrow, an amused look, a vocal intonation could tell you more about the character he was playing than any amount of dialogue could.
Rains, like King Henry VIII, was also renowned in his time for his six wives (although Rains’s marriages had less messy conclusions). He liked women, and they clearly liked him: at one point in his career, the cast for a play in which he was starring included his current wife and two (or possibly three) of his previous wives. Bette Davis made a couple of films with him and admitted to having a crush on him. With his daughter and his fourth, fifth and sixth wives (although not concurrently), he spent much of the second half of his life shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and his farm in Pennsylvania. Apart from a few cheesy science-fiction films, his last roles included a wonderfully cynical English bureaucrat in Lawrence of Arabia and King Herod in The Greatest Story Ever Told. In his last years, he lived in Sandwich, New Hampshire, and died in nearby Laconia in 1967.
Another great British character actor, Sir Felix Aylmer, plays the prosecuting attorney in the climactic trial scene. Not unlike Rains, Aylmer was noted for his extremely distinctive voice. His is melodious – I’d almost call it sing-song – and his diction was almost excessively precise. Peter Sellers used to do a wonderful imitation of Aylmer on his famous BBC radio program, The Goon Show. For much of his long acting career (1911-72), Aylmer played authority figures like judges and members of the nobility. He was a superb Polonius in Laurence Olivier’s film version of Hamlet and, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, he was a familiar figure in epic costume dramas: Anastasia, Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Saint Joan, Exodus, Becket, and, as Merlin, Knights of the Round Table. Aylmer seems to have been in almost 200 films and television shows, as well as dozens of stage productions. He was also an expert on the writings of Charles Dickens, and published two books on the subject: Dickens Incognito and The Drood Case. He died in 1979 at the age of 90.