From 'Rembrandt' to 'Peter Pan': Charles Laughton and I

I

IN Rembrandt I was cast, as you know, to be Hendrickje Stoffels, and Charles and I started on a little teamwork again.

Rembrandt was the toughest of all our acting experiences together, much the toughest, because both parts were difficult characterizations, and we were doing something which neither of us had ever done before. We had nothing to hide behind. I did not have spectacles, for instance, or a red nose. Charles did not have to speak with a French accent or anything like that. We had to be somebody else, and yet so natural that everybody would say: ‘Is n’t it nice to see them being themselves?’ Actually I represented a feminine little thing. I had to be a much more fragile person than I really am. Charles had a far more difficult task in trying to show the public what a creative genius is, something that in the history of the screen and stage has rarely been a success.

Charles had to approach Rembrandt in a humble way. Of course, if you are doing a strutting turkey, you have to be humble about the strutting turkey. Every part an actor takes should be approached humbly. But when you approach a genius you are most tentative about the whole thing — it is such an elusive and unexplainable quality in man.

My part in Rembrandt was relatively easy. If it had been a film about Hendrickje Stoffels it would have been a different proposition, because I should have had to support an entire story showing how she influenced a genius. As it was, I was only one pillar in the structure. Charles was ten pillars.

Occasionally Charles had black screens put round him for a very sensitive closeup, some rather subtle thing that needed a special effort. In our first day’s work together on the floor in Rembrandt, which was where I had to sit for him as kitchenmaid, we had the screens round us, but I myself found that they made me very self-conscious. I remember hearing a giggle from the other side and it disturbed me. You are in such a tensed-up state when doing a close-up of such a scene — when two people are about to fall in love — that a giggle from somewhere immediately makes you think, ‘They’re laughing at me.’

A number of people said, ‘You see, Charlie Laughton has got his wife into the picture,’ so I just had to be successful. It was a very unpleasant position, because I felt I was acting with a pistol at my head. Every artist should be allowed a few failures, but when I act with Charles I am not allowed this license. I have simply got to be good. Fortunately, in Rembrandt I seemed to get away with the part, and so those who said that Charles had got me into the picture had their heads or tails between their legs afterwards.

With Gertrude Lawrence on the set, there was perpetual gayety; she bubbled over with fun, but she never held the work up. Alex Korda used to think out practical jokes to play on her. I remember one occasion when she came to do her longest and most difficult speech in Rembrandt — the speech when she comes into the paint room to abuse me. She had to come through a door to make the speech, and Alex quietly passed word round before the scene was to start that everybody should hide and be completely quiet. She waited on the other side of the door and nothing happened. As there is silence anyway when they are about to shoot, this was at first not so unusual; there was just that silence as if we were waiting to get word from the sound people saying they were ready. We were all hidden behind ‘flats’ and things. I should think for about ten minutes she was waiting on the other side of the door for her cue. I heard her once mumbling something to herself, and then there was more silence, and still more, and we were all peeping to see when she would make a move. She had to make the move; we would not give in. Eventually the door opened and Gertrude’s face came round. In about the time it takes to count six she seemed to be thinking, ‘Well, I did n’t know it was lunchtime,’ and then she burst out laughing, because she realized what had happened.

Charles liked the character of Rembrandt, but the trouble is that one should not jump at acting the characters of famous people, either contemporary or in the past. Someone comes along to an actor and says, ‘You are going to do Napoleon,’ and he thinks he has a character already drawn and has only to step into its shoes. That’s the first impression. The nearer he gets to the famous personality, the more he appreciates that, because that person is famous, he or she is already established in the public’s mind, and people have different preconceived notions of what that particular celebrity is like. The wretched actor has to be something, a whole, whether like the original person or not, and something so powerful and so true that it will combat the preconceived notion.

When they first planned to do Rembrandt they thought of showing his paintings on the screen, especially certain more or less familiar self-portraits of Rembrandt from youth to age, so that one could see, throughout the life of the man, what had aged him, using the portraits for dramatic emphasis. But when they came to shoot the picture, as apart from telling the story on paper, they realized that it was better to tell people about Rembrandt the man. It was better that Charles should show them a man, and that they should go with deep curiosity to picture galleries saying, ‘Let’s see what sort of paintings this man did.’

The film showed Charles painting, emphasized his desire to paint, and showed the person that he was painting and why this person inspired Rembrandt, but the audience always saw the back of the canvas.

You can imagine Charles’s agony in searching for the look in the painter’s eye or the feeling expressed by the hand, when he had a close-up camera on him. He was caught in the act of creating something, knowing all the time he had to make people feel that what was coming out of him was greatness. To reveal the inner struggle of a man who is great within himself, apart from exterior and material things, is — I do not know what; in fact at times, at the beginning of Rembrandt, it seemed impossible to achieve it. Charles had retakes and retakes just to get that look of inspiration in his eyes. I suppose they were about eight weeks shooting.

When Charles and I were acting together we did not have much trouble, and fortunately for me there was more continuity in that part of the story where Hendrickje Stoffels came into the picture. By the way, I wrote my own song in Rembrandt, and Charles advised me to keep quiet about it. I was acting a simple girl, and he thought if the public got the idea I was clever it would detract from my performance. It hurt me very much, — I love to be thought bright, — but later I saw what he meant. I only wrote the song because every one they submitted seemed so complicated. I scarcely knew a note of music, but I had a gin and tonic and wrote the words and music in three quarters of an hour, picking out the tune with one finger on the piano and writing it down on ordinary paper.

When we both went over to Holland for the first night of Rembrandt, it was a great event. We dined at the British Embassy in The Hague with Sir Hubert and Lady Montgomery, and then we and the party were whisked off in the enormous cars of the Corps Diplomatique. Although there was a traffic block halfway round the town, one side of the road was kept clear. The roads were lined with people, and we just sped through, which was something that had never happened to me before. Personally, I do not think film actors should be pampered in that way.

On reaching the theatre I was presented with an enormous bouquet of pink carnations, and we were ushered into one of those open boxes — not the nice closed type of box in which one can at least look modest with the aid of a curtain, but a square box right in the middle of the dress circle. The moment we entered, the audience stood up and turned round from whichever part of the theatre they were in, and lifted up their hands to clap — a most embarrassing gesture from the point of view of the clapped. I think film actors should stay at home on such occasions.

The show started the moment we arrived, and when it was over the lights went up, and flashlight photographs were taken from every part of the house. During the interval (the Dutch picture theatres have an interval) we went out of the box to meet and chat with various people. Finally, at the end, they put a blinding white spotlight on Charles and me, and gave him a colossal laurel wreath. It was so heavy that I could not lift it. Charles just managed to heave it off the ground. They gave me another bunch of carnations, red this time, and on both these two final gifts — the wreath and my red carnations — were long streamers combining the English and Dutch national colors, with gold tassels on the end of the ribbon.

Having once more bowed and had more flashlight photographs taken, and met a lot more people who, I think, were more ambassadors, we left the theatre with the whole audience lined up on each side of the staircase right out on to the pavement and along the road. More applause as we passed through this living avenue.

In spite of the crowd we got into the waiting car, and once again the traffic was cleared on one side of the road. We were dropped at our hotel, and after saying good-night to Sir Hubert and Lady Montgomery we took our flowers into the hotel and I went to the bathroom to dewire them, put them in water, and carefully fold up the pretty ribbon, which I always save for our cook’s niece’s hair. When I came to undo the ribbon on my bouquet, which had been flying out gayly from our car as we came along for everybody to see, I found it had Gertrude Lawrence’s name on it instead of mine! So much for fame.

II

Charles and I were first approached to do Peter Pan in 1935, but when we went to ask Korda (to whom we were under contract) he would not let us do it, because he said we were starting a film in two weeks at the outside — absolutely. We were both deeply disappointed, and were very happy when the company again approached us in 1936.

During the run of Peter Pan a teacher wrote to Charles from a school for the deaf in the old Kent Road asking if he could use his influence to get about fifteen children nearer the stage than they could afford. This he was able to do, and we took them out to tea afterwards and gave them all a box of chocolates. It was a wonderful experience for us, for the deaf children’s point of view was unexpectedly observant; they had read the play before and did not seem to have missed a word of it. One rather tragic aspect of their affliction was that, having lived in a world of doctors and operations, they thought my flying apparatus had been grafted on to my back, and were very much surprised to find a network of strapping when they examined it in my dressing room afterwards. These children were brought to the theatre by their teachers, who had saved up the whole year to give this Christmas treat to a few picked children. Charles and I were very much moved afterwards when the children, in their turn, saved up their pennies and sent us two beautiful handkerchiefs.

Charles was exceedingly busy during rehearsals for Peter Pan and could scarcely fit them in. He had to go to Rome to prepare for Claudius, and soon after we had arranged to do Peter Pan Irving Thalberg died. This meant that Charles had to replan his future, which led to the new setup with Erich Pommer. Charles does not usually do things for sentimental reasons, but in this instance he wanted to play Hook as a compliment to the memory of Gerald Du Maurier, whom he admired almost more than anybody on the English stage. When I first knew Charles he was greatly influenced by both the actor and the man. Every Christmas he used to drop in to Peter Pan and stand at the back of the pit. He had not always leisure enough to sit through the whole play, but usually found time to see some of the Hook scenes, and he would come home and walk around saying, ‘When Gerald did this’ and ‘When Gerald did that, God how I laughed!’

Gerald Du Maurier invented certain stage ‘ business ’ in the rôle of Hook, and as long as Peter Pan is performed every actor who follows Gerald will respect his interpretation of the part. Possibly Gerald first did these famous bits of business when he felt pleasant one afternoon; or maybe a child had made some particularly rude remark to Hook from the front of the stalls, and Gerald’s reaction fitted in and became tradition; just as in the Comédie Française a new actor may take on an old classic part and add something to it. For instance, when Charles went over to the Comédie, during the famous tirade in Act II of Le Médecin malgré lui he pointed the words les ventricules de l’omoplate by slapping a girl’s behind, and it became, I think, la tradition Laughton. I am afraid Charles not only did that, but many other things which are allowed and even applauded on the French stage, and which, to his delight, were described afterwards in the English press as ‘a wealth of gesture’!

I don’t know whether Charles will do Hook again. He was good, but if he did it again he could certainly be better. Through no fault of his own he was a little too obedient. Barrie said he did not wish us to play in Peter Pan. So we wrote a note saying, ‘Please may we see you,’ and we called at his flat with it. A butler who had been used to protecting the great man for many years opened the door very frigidly, took the note from Charles’s hand, recognized Charles, and shut the door in our faces. After about five minutes the door opened again. We went in.

We were shown into Barrie’s room. He said, ‘I thought you would come.’ We felt very humiliated, because we had spent horrible moments deciding whether or not we dared beard him in his den. He said, ‘I am afraid that you will terrify the children, Mr. Laughton, and after all, Hook must not do that.’ Charles vowed not to frighten the children and looked very gentle, while Barrie no doubt was suppressing visions of Captain Bligh. Barrie had never seen me before, and his eyes did not leave me. Finally he said thoughtfully, ‘I think you would make a good Peter.’ So perhaps he only wanted to see what I looked like, and had already decided that Charles should play Hook.

We felt more or less like a couple of kids begging on a doorstep, and Barrie was obviously enjoying the situation. Fortunately, while we were there Elizabeth Bergner rang Barrie up. He went into another room and was away for at least ten minutes. On returning he said, ‘ I have been speaking to somebody who says that you are both perfect for Peter Pan, and that I shall make a great mistake if I do not let you do it.’ So we have Bergner to thank for the fact that we did it, and we are exceedingly grateful.

Barrie crept into one of the rehearsals. He would have come more often, but he was unwell at the time, and little did we realize that this was the last rehearsal of Peter Pan that he was ever to see. He again said that I certainly looked like Peter, and he thought we were both going to be all right in the parts. He and I had an argument about the way Peter Pan should be dressed. I wanted to dress more like one of the other lost boys, because I know from past experience, having been a dancer and having been called ‘elfin’ until I am sick of the word, that I have quite enough of that quality about me naturally. It did not seem necessary to put on wings and dress in the Pan costume, which is in itself elfin. What I needed was to add to the boyishness of the character.

Barrie would not have it, and now I think he was right. If I had flown in at the window in any other costume than the traditional one, all the children who had seen Peter Pan before would have said, ‘Who is this?’ It would have taken me at least the whole of the first act to win their hearts again. It would have been uphill work for me to give them something fresh to remember the next year, and if I had succeeded, Heaven help the next Peter Pan who went back to the traditional costume.

I gave in to Barrie after an argument in which I expressed my own opinion. Most of those sitting round when I answered him back went very white round the gills, because people were scared and stood in awe of the little man. But he appeared to like my talking back at him. I think you will always find that those who have achieved greatness respect being treated in a natural way by a person who is not frightened of them.

III

If Charles and I were n’t a couple of ordinary people who think that life is great fun, I suppose we should find it all rather a bed of thorns. When irritating things happen we feel very grim for about an hour, but it never lasts. We love going out and about, but sometimes we are glad to shut our door and feel that the world is outside. I remember Charles’s buying a lovely lace handkerchief for a Christmas present for his mother to add to her collection of old lace, and some weeks later a headline appeared in a London daily suggesting that Charles blew his nose on £10 handkerchiefs. And then a jeweler has recently broadcast the following description of a visit Charles paid to his shop: —

‘A little while ago Charles Laughton came to me and I showed him a sixteenth-century exquisitely enameled bird. He was so staggered by its beauty that he fell on his knees in silent prayer. He literally turned pale as a moonstone with the excitement of seeing so excellent a piece. He asked me if I would sell it, but how could I sell such a sweet little bird, which I had rescued from the melting pot in the time of the gold rush?’

Actually Charles and I don’t particularly like modern or antique jewelry. He did buy me a £15 ring once for Christmas — I never wear it — and this ring was bought from the same old gentleman who was broadcasting, which only goes to show that well-known people can’t even go shopping with pleasure. Charles told me he had seen a beautiful enameled bird, but I have never seen him go down on his knees to anything. Of course I must apologize to the jeweler if the gem happened to be on a bottom shelf and Charles had to go down on his knees anyway.

Nowadays not only is the mental happiness of the artist in old age a problem, but his physical comfort also.

In a sort of Wellsian country where all men are equal and age is cared for without charity, this is possibly a just position for an artist. But in these times a film star cannot keep what he earns. You will hear what the film industry pays him, you will hear what the public expects him to spend — but if he really lived in this sumptuous manner he would never die in comfort. It is a short working life — possibly a gay life, but when you are dead and have made your contribution to the world . . . Oh well, if you are British and live in England but have to work in both countries, the Governments of England and America will just have to pay for the coffin.

Touring in Peter Pan was one of the most unexpectedly wonderful experiences that I have ever had. I decided to go because Charles was going to be so very busy on Claudius, on the one hand, and I had never been on tour and wanted to toughen myself as an actress, on the other.

If anyone had asked me a year ago, ‘What do you do?’ I should have said, feeling that I was overstating the case, ‘Oh, I act’; but now, after the tour, if I were to be asked the same question I should hold my head up, hit myself a blow on the chest, and say,‘I’m an actress.’ For this reason I would advise any actress, who has the opportunity, to do Peter Pan, and for as many audiences as possible. I was so happy during this tour! True, I played the part with a fractured rib most of the time, and I also had a nasty car smash somewhere near Wigan — but I was very happy. The company and the audiences were all delightful people who threw themselves into the spirit of Barrie’s fantasy without question or doubt.

The Sunday train call was a contrast to the rest of the week, but we all had a lovely time in our various ways. I used to play poker with the manager, the stage director, and the stage manager, and I know that an eight-hour journey often passed like twenty minutes. It was hard work — two shows a day most of the time, which meant from 1 P.M. until 11 P.M. in the theatre.

When I got back to London things seemed to be getting along quite nicely at Denham, until that awful day when Merle Oberon had a car smash, and Alex had to stop the Claudius production until he could find out whether Merle would be fit to carry on. Everything came to a standstill, Merle remained in hospital, and everybody was naturally terribly upset. Without any farewells, everyone connected with the picture drifted away; Joe von Sternberg went back to America via a handful of other countries; Merle took a much-needed rest to recover from the shock of her accident; and, as had been planned to happen when Claudius should finish, Charles became his own master for the first time in his life.

When I say ‘his own master,’ of course I refer to his partnership with Erich Pommer. At the moment I must say that Charles is the gainer in so far as he has learned, and is still learning, what has to happen in the film business on the other side of the desk. And who in the world is a better person for this new enterprise than Erich Pommer? Charles as an actor has had a very high average of successes. Erich Pommer as a producer has an even higher average. I think Farewell Again (his second English picture) is the first really fine film about contemporary English life.

Charles is intensely happy nowadays, which is very catching, and makes our flat quite a noisy place. I thought I had married an actor; but no, between films he pecks me on the forehead every morning at ten o’clock and says, ‘ Goodbye, darling, I’m late for the office,’ and I scream after him, ‘What time dinner — seven or eight? Is anyone coming?’

In finding myself on the fringe of this new business I also find life very exciting. If Charles is learning to sit on the other side of the desk, I am certainly learning to be an inkstand or penwiper on it. I have had several very good ideas, and I now know when not to speak. I look at lovely girls without envy, since if they have talent they may mean future bread and butter for us. I also look at men to see if they have sex appeal and talent — I’d do that anyway, of course, but a bread-and-butter eye is more critical.

Sometimes when business gets extraimportant I keep out of the way. Erich Pommer and I have a fatal effect on each other at times. We both have mechanical minds, and we both fiddle with matchsticks or bits of paper while talking. Many a serious moment has been broken up by one of us taking a camera, cigarette lighter, or such object to pieces, and the other one wanting to mend it or put it together again.

IV

At the moment Charles is very keen on modern stories because he has appeared in so many period pictures. Naturally there are fashions in pictures, and the historical film has more or less had its day. But Charles feels now that we should concentrate on modern pictures about England, American pictures deal with life in the North, South, East, and West of the United States, and they deal with all classes of people. The world knows America through its films. You cannot say the same with regard to British films. There has been a spate of comedies called Bottoms Up and Bottoms Down and titles of that description, but they have not dealt with true English life. If English novelists and painters tell the world about England, then why should n’t the film business also, which has a much larger public than either of those other branches of art?

There are some exceedingly good writers for the films, but very few new ones seem to be coming along. We spend a lot of time looking for a new writer, and we find that the modern writer has lost the art of storytelling. He is brilliant at dialogue. You can get twenty people to write a certain type of dialogue for a certain film, but story value is rarely there. Many novelists say that films are badly written. Then you suggest that they write an original script, and they produce something much worse than the worst Hollywood Western or more highbrow than what Proust might have written for Eisenstein. Charles and I consider the films to be potentially the most vigorous form of art to-day. When this new medium starts to produce its own writers, then will begin the period of great movies.

I think dramatists can be helped by having definite actors and actresses in mind when they write plays or film stories. Shakespeare and Molière wrote for a known company of actors. Yet it is always the fate of the actor to die and the glory of the writer to live. But perhaps immortality does not appeal to the modern writer.

People often ask what are our favorite acting parts. The answer is, every part has been our favorite part in turn. When you are acting you must believe, and deeply, in what you are doing.

When a job is finished you usually carry away the pleasantest memories of it. Charles has never achieved a performance without some suffering, but the procession of characters he has brought to life all have friendly faces now. You look back through rose-colored spectacles.

(The End)