Robert Donat

  1. Leslie Howard,   British Agent, 1934.        Part of   his unmade Warners schedule.
  2. Gary Cooper, Peter Ibbetson, 1934.      Paramount had a “verbal option”  on the Brit for Ibbetson  He did not feel bound by it. Fredric March was next up. Then, Coop –  who always said he was miscast as the architect hero. Didn’t stop him playing much the same again in The Fountainhead, 1948. 
  3. Errol Flynn, Captain Blood, 1935.    Robert Donat began  the film but  his asthma forced him to quit. Warner’s first thought was loaning Cary Grant from Paramount. And although it hardly sounded part of his vocabulary, the always histrionic  and  uch hated director Michael Curtiz  protested that  Grant  was “too effete.”  Brian Aherne, Ronald Colman, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Fredric March were in/out/disinterested before  Errol was in like Flynn and became an overnight star.  (Alec Baldwin or Arnold Schwarzenegger  were due for  a re-make in 1994).
  4. Fredric March, Anna Karenina, 1935.  MGM production genius Irving Thalberg wanted Donat opposite Garbo. Producer David O Selznick wanted Gable. Director George Cukor wanted Colman (and he wanted double his usual fee). New director Clarence Brown wanted March as Count Vronsky. And Garbo got garlic – on her breath and in her her undies – to ward off March’s notorious overtures.
  5. Leslie Howard, Romeo and Juliet, 1935. Absolutely preposterous…!!  The 13-year-old Juliet was played by Norma Shearer, who ws 36,  opposite Leslie Howard playing Romeo…  at 43.  “It is comical watching these middle-aged folks act as high school sophomores,” said web critic Matthew M Foster at Foster on  “But even more ridiculous is Romeo’ hotheaded, class clown friend, Mercutio, portrayed by the 54-year-old John Barrymore!”! been worse.  It could have been far worse. Other unlikely Romeos were Brian Aherne, Clark Gable (Romeo with a trash tash?), Fredric March, Franchot Tone, Roberts Montgomery and Taylor. The British Robert Donat, plus John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier (a great recent success playing Romeo and Mercutio alternately in London) made (slightly) more sense… but really. What a sad end to Irving Thalberg’s producing career, even jf it was a love letter to his wife, Shearer – his widow months later in 1936.
  6. Gary Cooper, Peter Ibbetson, 1935.      When helmer Henry Hathaway came aboard,   he changed Donat to Brian Aherne, before falling back on his Bengal Lancer. (Must have hurt!)
  7. Donald Woods, A Tale of Two Cities, 1935.      “A dread of dual roles,” said producer David O Selznick, was the reason why Ronald Colman refused  to play Charles Darney as well as the hero Sydney Carton in the Dickens classic. Aherne and Robert Donat were seen for Darney.  (Colman happily doubled up for DOS’ 1936 The Prisoner of Zenda).
  8. John Loder, Sabotage, 1936.       The thriller based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent… ironically the title of Hitch’s previous movie and Donat was eager for a second Alfred Hitchcock film.   Producer Alexander Korda had other plans: Knight Without Armour with a naked Marlene Dietrich… and Laurence Olivier at the ready in case Donat’s notorious asthma worsened..
  9. Charles Boyer, The Garden of Allah, 1936.        He lost her here –   but Donat was nursed through Knight Without Armour by Marlene the following year in London. She developed a special dialogue technique to assist his long, talky scenes with her. She called him her Knight Without Asthma.
  10. Fredric March, Anthony Adverse, 1936.         His asthma and usual indecision blocked various Warner overtures.

  11. Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Gunga Din, 1938. “From the pages if history and the pen of Rudyard Kipling…”  The always nervous Cary Grant persuaded producer Pando Berman to let him swop roles with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and play Cutter. OK, said Berman, And the ex-Archibald Leach renamed him Archibald Cutter. In 1936, Berman had first attempted the tale  with Ronald Colman (or Robert Donat) and Spencer Tracy. In 1937, he wanted Ray Milland and Franchot Tone. By the 60s, Cannon Films’ Go Go Boys – Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus – sought Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Roger Moore for a re-make.
  12. Gary Cooper, The Adventures of Marco Polo, 1938.      Asthma again.

  13. Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938.     Cowpoke Roy Rogers paid $2,500 for Olivia De Havilland’s golden palomino, Golden Cloud. And came up with a new name: Trigger.
  14. Ralph Richardson, South Riding, 1938.     For the Squire. Paul Muni said of Donat’s next work, Goodbye Mr Chips:   “The most magnificent performance I’ve ever seen on any screen. Not a false motion – a wasted gesture. He is the greatest actor we have today.”
  15. Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights, 1938.
  16. John Clements, The Four Feathers, 1938.     He had signed for the far from cowardly Harry Faversham when Paramount  (which made the 1928 version with Richard Arlen) suddenly refused to part with its rights.  Clements took over when London producer Alexander Korda, made Paramount an offer it couldn’t refuse.
  17. Laurence Olivier, Pride and Prejudice, 1939.       MGM house genius Irving Thalberg was due to supervise his pet project – co-starring his wife Norma Shearer and Gable – when the production chief tragically died at age 37. By 1939, Shearer was still aboard with Donat – or Errol Flynn! – as Mr Darcy. Metro played safe with Olivier opposite  Greer Garson. Olivier was very unhappy with the result. “Difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth.”
  18. Louis Hayward,   The Son of Monte Cristo, 1940.     Refused to have   anything to do with the sequel to the film that made his name in Hollywood in 1934.
  19. Spencer Tracy, Jekyll and Hyde, 1941.    WWII ruined MGM’s plan for Donat tobe transformedin London. In LA, a pal warned Tracy off it. “You would not be good in it,” said Lynne Overman.  Why? “Nobody ever is.”  Tracy was, understanding the tale first-hand. Not about some magic potion, he said. “It’s just booze. I do know.”  Indeed.
  20. Tyrone Power, This Above All, 1941.   King George VI’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, the future UK queen, donned uniform during WWII, so why not Joan Fontaine as the aristocratic Prudence Cathaway… falling for an AWOL soldier offered to Donat, Richard Greene and even Laurence Olivier. Title stemmed from the Polonious soliloquy in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true…” As John Wayne could have told you; he could recite the entire play. With more pauses than Shakespeare intended…. 

  21. Gary Cooper, For Whom The Bell Tolls, 1943.     He had been in the running – for a wee while – alongside Clark Gable,   Sterling Hayden, Ray Milland, Tyrone Power, Robert Preston.
  22. Robert Taylor, Stand By For Action, 1942.     What a difference a war makes… The November 1941 plans to shoot at MGM’s UK studio  were hurriedly switched to Burbank. Once the US entered WWII,  Donat, Edmund Gwenn and the Royal  Navy became  Taylor, Brian Donlevy of the US Navy – where Taylor served during  1943-1946.
  23. Walter Pidgeon, Madame Curie, 1943.    ‘Twas the biopic season… and as usual, MGM was thinking big. Greta Garbo and Spencer Tracy, or Irene Dunne  and Donat, as the  radium and polonium researchers, Marie and Pierre Curie. Finally, MGM went with  Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. The Minivers discover radium…!  Totally daft.  
  24. Robert Newton, This Happy Breed, 1944.      Donat refused and   directed David   Lean asked for an   actor he   had a great weakness for. “He   used   to drink far too much. [Then] he would   speak the absolute truth… bang on the dot. Withering.   Cruel but undeniably true. I loved him!”
  25. Leslie   Banks,   Henry V, 1945.      Laurence Olivier wanted Donat as the Chorus –   and   later made the Hamlet that Alexander Korda planned for Donat in 1934.
  26. John Mills, So Well Remembered, 1946. One stiff upper lip for another in one of the first Anglo-American movies made after WWII – co-produced by RKO and Arthur Rank’s (pre Rank Organisation) Alliance.
  27. Walter Pidgeon, If Winter Comes, 1947.     Gone With The Wind producer David O Selznick bought the morality tale in 1939 for Leslie Howerd and Joan Fontaine – or Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh. They all passed. So did DOS, selling his rights in 1940 to UK producer Alexander Korda… who did the same to MGM, which wanted Donat and Greer Garson as the feuding Sabre couple who finished up as Pidgeon and Angela Lansbury… on, for the historic first time, non-flammable film.
  28. Robert Newton, Oliver Twist, 1947.        He tested as Bill Sikes opposite Alec Guinness’ Fagin.  “He looked very good,” recalled Alec Guinness, “and he was a beautiful actor but I don’t think he’d got the vitality to cope.”  Enough, though, to  triumph that year   in The Winslow Boy.
  29. Richard Todd, Flesh and Blood, 1949.        Donat was busy planning The Sleeping Clergyman.   Not for long.
  30. Basil Sydney, Treasure Island, 1949.      The speculation in town – or certainly in Hollywood Reporter, March 29, 1949 – was that the UK star would be Captain Smollet – in Disney’s first entirely live-action feature shot in England.

  31. James Stewart, No Highway, 1951.    Fussbudget aeronautical engineer Theodore Honey was just perfect for him (and Marlene Dietrich). Not for his health.   The reason he managed  just   20 films in 23 years.
  32. Stewart Granger, Beau Brummell, 1953.  Figuring it always had the better British actors on tap, MGM bought the subject from Warner  Bros in 1938.  Donat  was  producer David O Selznick’s choice  for the  dandy Captain George Bryan Brummell, sacked from the Army , yet made personal adviser to the 1796  Prince of Wales. Took another 15 years to assemble an all-British cast: Granger, Elizabeth Taylor, plus James Donald, Robert Morley, Paul Rogers, Peter Ustinov.  Queen Elizabeth II attended the 1954 royal UK premiere.  Her review?  “What a bad film!”
  33. John Mills, Hobson’s Choice, 1954.        He required oxygen cylinders near   him on   the stage so the insurance companies banned the asthmatic actor. “This,” he said, “may end my career.”
  34. Vittorio Gassman, War and Peace, 1956.       Alex Korda’s big plans – Orson Welles writer-directing the Oliviers, Donat   plus   the entire Red Army –   went up in Cold War smoke.
  35. Peter O’Toole,  Lawrence of Arabia, 1962.






 Birth year: 1905Death year: 1958Other name: Casting Calls:  35