Charles Laughton (1899-1962)
- WC Fields, Alice In Wonderland, 1932. For who else but… Humpty Dumpty!
- Frank Morgan, The Affairs of Cellini, 1933. When trying to obtain Laughton for Alessandro, Duke of Florence, head Fox Darryl F Zanuck was thwarted at every turn by a strictly no-loan-deal Paramount. DFZ also lost MGM’s Robert Montgomery that year for another Constance Bennett vehicle, Moulin Rouge.
- Warren William, Cleopatra, 1934. Opposite Claudette Colbert in Theda Bara's old silent role,director Cecil B DeMille wanted"a great StBernard dog of a Caesar, with a chest an army could camp on."(AP reporter Hubbard Keavy suggested: King Kong). Laughton, hilarious as Nero to CB's horror in Sign of the Cross, 1932, was more Pekinese than St Bernard. "Feeble," said CB, signing William, an ex-reporter who worked in Pearl White serials and later played B-movie heroes The Lone Wolf, Philo Vance, Perry Mason.
- WC Fields, David Copperfield, 1934.
Producer David Selznick wanted Oliver Hardy but director George Cukor ran elaborate Laughton tests. Shaving his head, he “looked Micawber to the life.” And was sacked after two days! Why? Rashômon time… (a) His wife, Elsa Lanchester (playing Clickett) said Charlie had lost all confidence. He saw Micawber as a ham actor who was always “on” and “he could not play an actor acting. The more he tried, the worse he was.” (b) Laughton, himself, asked to quit, and to “turn over his role to another” because he felt he could not do the part justice. Editor Hal Kern said: “Laughton looked as if he was going to molest the child.” (c) A David O Selznick memo revealed it was due to costs incurred by Laughton’s delay on his previous Paramount picture due to his illness. (d) Plus MGM had “certain difficulties” with him. (e) . Cukor said Laughton had “a terrific prejudice concerning Jews and needed strange off-stage noises to get him in the mood for acting.” PS from DOS: “Fields would probably make a better Micawber.” (As Laughton had suggested).
- Leslie Howard, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934. Producer Alexander Korda intended his Private Life of Henry VII star should be Sir Percy Blakeney, the “they seek him here, they seek him there” hero rescuing aristocrats from the French Revolution’s guillotine. Laughton did not agree.
- Raymond Massey, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934. Laughton was next offered Chauveiin. Laughton still did not agree.
- Otto Kreuger, Vanessa: Her Love Story, 1934. When he replaced producer Walter Wanger, David O Selznick wanted Laughton as the i husband Helen Hayes was not allowed to divorce - accordng to Victorian UK law - because he was insane!
- Lee Tracy, Sutter's Gold, 1936. Edward Arnold and Tracy were not apatch on the first choices: Edward G Robinson and (as Laughton described himself), "a face like an elephant's behind."
- Robert Morley, Marie-Anoinette, 1938. Charlie's refusal led to Morley making his screen debut in Hollywood after being sacked from two UK films (or so he said). Future roles for the very Englishman: George III, Louis XI and the Emperor of China!
- Leslie Howard, Pygmalion, 1938. Author and playwright George Bernard Shaw wanted Laughton as Professor Higgins and was greatly relieved when Howard stepped out of the next GBS film, Major Barbara.
- Robert Donat, Goodbye Mr Chips, 1939. Literal heavyweights Wallace Beery and Laughton were first considered, but Donat got the role, the lady (Greer Garson), the school and the Oscar. British comic Richard Hearne copied Donat's elderly look for his comic creation, Mr Pastry.
- Monty Woolley, The Man Who Came To Dinner, 1941. Howard Hawks wanted Cary Grant. Orson Welles wanted to direct - and have the lead. Bette Davs wanted John Barrymore as her co-star, but he could no longer remember his lines. Tests of Robert Benchley and Laird Cregar were respectively deemed “too mild-mannered” and “overblown and extravagant,” by producer Hal Wallis. (Probably why Charles Coburn refused to test at all). Director William Keighley also saw Charles Laughton and Fredric March before asking the Broadway play’s star to reprise the titular Sheridan Whiteside.
- Charles Coburn, Unexpected Uncle, 1940. After thoughts about Laughton or John Barrymore opposite Ginger Rogers, Coburn ruled as the titular, cigar-smoking con-man.
- Akim Tamiroff, For Whom The Bell Tolls, 1943. Lost out in the usual Tamiroff-Oscar Homolka casting tussle.
- Akim Tamiroff, Dragon Seed, 1943. Insulting! Pearl Buck’s book had a point - exposing Japanese atrocities in China. MGM made it a farce, with the unlikeliest-looking Chinese ever spawned by Hollywood. Taped eyelids for Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon, Akim Tamiroff… Laughton was deemed doable for Wu Lien and then left for The Canterville Ghost. Laird Cregar and Sydney Greemnstreet were inevitably seen as his replacement but failed to pass their Eurasian tests. (As did Edward Arnold, Fay Bainter, Donald Crisp, Greer Garson Van Heflin, Hedy Lamarr, Frank Morgan, Walter Pidgeon Edward G. Robinson for other roles).
- Vincent Price, Moss Rose, 1946. In a September 19 memo to director Gregory Ratoff, head Fox Darryl Zanuck suggested Henry Daniell as Police Inspector R Clinner. One month later, a new memo nominated Laughton.
- Walter Slezak, The Pirate, 1947. Over the years, MGM aimed the Broadway drama at (a) Mrs Miniver and hubby, Garson and Walter Pidgeon; (b) Garson, Laughton, Cary Grant; (c) Myrna Loy; (d) the Notorious couple, Grant and Ingrid Bergman; (e) Lamarr and William Powell. No one saluted. So, it was churned into a musical - with (f) a prancing Gene Kelly and an imploding Garland. Metro lost $2m. Including for the first time in any Hollywood budget, paying a shrink. For Judy.
- John Mills, The History of Mr Polly, 1948. An earlier Hollywood version with Charlie was cancelled following the outbreak of WWII. Laughton and Mills co-starred in David Lean's Hobson’s Choice, 1954.
- Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Ichapod and Mr Toad, 1948. Two years in the Willows section of the Disney cartoon. Finally it was Rathbone, with Bing Crosby relating The Story of Ichabod Crane tale.
- José Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1950. Surprisingly, after three Laughtonfilms were simultaneously nominated for Best Picture in 1935, producer Alexander Korda cancelled their Cyrano (Vivien Leigh was set as Roxanne)following rows about the size of the nose, shooting in colour and in both English and French. Charlie tried to interest Hollywood in his vision. But Ferrer was the new hottest thing on Broadway and this role shook him out of his Muniesque torpor, although falling short of the sheer grandeur and gusto of Depardieu's definitive portrayal in 1990.
- Spencer Tracy, Father of the Bride, 1950.After Jack Benny’s “terrible” test, Laughton, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon entered the frame as Tracy went through his usual ponderous routine of swift refusal, making suggestions, hating the first draft and more final alterations.The book’s author, New York banker Edward Streeter, said he’d heard reports “ranging from Harpo Marx to Paul Robeson...Tracy is the one I wanted. Laughton is my idea of nobody and as for Benny, I’d nominate Abbott and Costello. Better, I’d nominate myself.”
- Peter Ustinov, Quo Vadis, 1950. Peter Ustinov, Quo Vadis, 1950. Took Hollywood 26 years to film Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 epic novel about ancient Rome. MGM won the rights in 1925, with Wallace Beery in mind for Nero in 1935, then Broadway star Alfred Lunt or Orson Welles in ’42 and Laughton in ’43. Well, he had been Nero in Paramount's 1932 Sign of the Cross… He agreed a reprise if Robert Z. Leonard was directing. He was not. Ustinov was Oscar-nominated in 1951.
- Robert Newton, Blackbeard, The Pirate, 1951. Wallace Beery played him, Boris Karloff nearly made this version, but no one has equalled Newton’s “ARRRRRRRR!”, hammy, eye-rolling, over-the-top and greatly imitated piratical performance. Not Wallace Beery, Hobart Bosworth (as far back as 1910), Johnny Depp, Dustin Hoffman, Charles Laughton, Victor McLaglen, Geoffrey Rush, Peter Ustinov or 1960’s Murvyn Vye.
- Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen, 1951. “A story of two old people going up and down an African river,” sneered Alexander Korda. “Who’s going to be interested in that?” After Columbia passed on the project for Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester, Warner Bros moved in, buying the rights to the CS Forrester novel for Bette Davis. Then, SP Spiegel (later reverting to Sam Spiegel) and his Horizon Pictures partner, John Huston, snapped it up.
- Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957.
Losing Laurence Olivier, director David Lean thought of his Hobson's Choice star. They wanted to work together again. "He found plenty of excuses," said Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester, "the heat of the Ceylon location, the ants and being cramped in a cage - Charles was not in the mood for degradation in life or even in drama." Lean had the better reason: Laughton was not lean enough. "You can't have a fat man among all these half-starved people." Laughton then actually increased his weight. “He looks like… Moby Dick,” producer Sam Spiegel reported. “I frankly feel that Laughgton is unable to go through with a diet.” (Nor, apparently, could Sam!). Ironically, Lean was anti-Guinness because he didn’t have “the size” required… Besides, he would have taken forever to unravel the major nagging question about Colonel Nicholson - insane or traitor? When Guinness collected the Oscar on March 26, 1958, the losers included Charlie for Witness For The Prosecution.
- Kenneth More, The Admirable Crichton, 1957. Bing Crosby was the butler in We're Not Dressing, 1934. Laughton abandoned a re-make during the 1937-9days of his Mayflower combine, formed with ex-UFA producer Erich Pommer. Elsa Lanchester had been set as Tweeny, the maid.
- Raymond Massey,The Naked and the Dead, 1958. Concert booking agent Paul Gregory turned producer by persuading Laughton to return to the stage in one-man show readings (Don Juan in Hell, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, both superbly edited by Laughton) and the star's screen directing debut,Night of the Hunter. YetLaughtonfought against acting in or directing Norman Mailer's 721 page novel."Nothing to do with his hatred of war, itself," said ElsaLanchester.As withRiver Kwai, "he just didn't understand or want to understand the male and his battling instincts."He did, however,write an "absolutely brilliant" scriptthat interested both Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.
- Thomas Mitchell, Pocketful Of Miracles, 1960. Laughton, Burl Ives, Fredric March, Edward G Robinson… For what proved his last (and unhappiest) gig, director Frank Capra went through many possibilities for the perfect Judge Henry Blake. And when he got him, Jackie Oakie fell ill and his scenes were re-shot with Mitchell.
- Arnold Foa, The Loves of Salambro, France-Italy, 1963. The plan was Gina Lollobrigida, Harry Belafonteplus three ofthe Spartacus XI: Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov. Italy could not afford them.
- Lou Jacobi, Irma La Douce, 1962. Director Billy Wilder wanted Laughton, six years after their triumphant Witness For The Prosecution. “The perfect Moustache. He was enthusiastic, had a million ideas. But he was very, very sick and he died before we started shooting. Poor soul.” It was cancer. Both men pretended it wasn’t. Laughton grew a huge, white moustache and Wilder visited his bedside several times a week over six months, with new pages of his and IAL Diamond’s script. Moustache went to Jacobi, who had previously been unable to get free from a Broadway contract in order to play Dr Dreyfuss (written for him by Wilder and Diamond) in The Apartment, 1959.
- Derek Jacobi, I,Claudius, TV, 1976. Alexander Korda's production wasquickly halted in 1939 by MerleOberon's car crash (as good excuse as any other to halt the troubled project), plus directorJosef von Sternberg's treatment of an often weeping Laughton as heagonisingly searched for his hook, finally found - too late - in Edward VIII's abdication speech.The BBC version was a TV masterpiece. Actor Simon Callow said “Laughton rummaged among the capacious folds of his personality for his roles, while Olivier built new men on top of his.”
- Topol, Galileo,1975. All set for Joseph Losey’s film of their 1947 Broadway hit. "The pressure of the Roman Catholic Church barred any possibility of a filmin Hollwyood," saidLosey. He held the English-language rights for some years (a gift from Bertold Brecht) but could never mount a movie.