Invisible Men (Part 1)

From Raspberry World – Volume 2, Issue 1 (June/July 2007) There are simply too many people in our culture, most demonstrably in film, who help create a medium, and without whom, that medium would have, I think, a lot less to brag about. People like Claude Rains, for instance. A lot of folks hear his name and think, “Oh, yeah – Invisible Man guy!” and let it go at that. The fact of the matter is, though, after his star-making turn in The Invisible Man (1933), Rains went on to work in as diverse a selection of genres as any actor could hope to accomplish. This worked much in the same way that Boris Karloff forced a vein of diversity into his career. In Karloff’s case, however, when he was getting nearer the end of his career and life, determined to keep working ’til the end, the film work he was being offered was almost exclusively horror. He always made it quite clear that he was grateful for his typecasting, and yet… Given some of the roles he played (splendidly) in the wake of Frankenstein, one must wonder whether he was entirely happy.

In Rains’ case, though, if he wasn’t being offered anything that he found interesting and wasn’t contractually obligated to do – he didn’t do it, right through to the end. And I hasten to add that this was largely true of Karloff as well, but Karloff was hampered by something that Rains evidently had no trouble with: arthritis. Karloff, buried in that suit and make-up as Frankenstein’s Creature, thoroughly messed his back, hauling Colin Clive up the ladder into that windmill for hour upon hour, and enjoyed several back surgeries in the ’30s and ’40s, which (with some other health issues) left the “legitimate” theater as an untenable possibility. Ask any actor with a stage résumé, and they’ll tell you that the run of a play can be truly grueling.

Apart from an injury incurred in WWI, which left him almost blind in one eye, Claude Rains had no such difficulties. If one has any doubts about his ability as a stage actor, then remember: he was a favorite of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Not only was he a student at RADA, he also served there as an acting teacher, tutoring such illustrious lights as Sir John Gielgud and Lord Laurence Olivier. When Rains came to America in 1927, Gielgud shook his head at the terrific talent the English stage had lost; later however, he did acknowledge that the theater’s supposed loss was the cinema certain gain.

In the six years between his arrival and his American film debut (he appeared in Build Thy House (1920), an uninspired British silent film), Rains racked up nearly 20 Broadway roles and was working for the Theater Guild when Universal offered him a screen test in 1932. I don’t know how many people eventually saw that test, but his voice alone won James Whale’s admiration.

With the success of The Invisible Man Universal naturally started grooming Rains to follow in the footsteps of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as their ‘House Bogeyman’. Claude Rains, though, was never much of a footstep-follower-inner – if his previous history tells us anything, it was that he was more accustomed to make the footsteps than follow in them. He never shirked his duties on stage or on camera, though, and waded through what Universal gave him to work with until his contract was up. From there, things really started happening. He turned up as a number of villains – Don Luis in Anthony Adverse (1936); the particularly wicked Earl of Hertford in The Prince and the Pauper (1937); and the foppish weasel, Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

He wasn’t exclusive to the Black Hat, however, though it sometimes seemed that way – Rains was just so good at it! Still, he was sometimes not so far beyond redemption, as in his excellent portrayal of Sen. Joseph Harrison Paine, in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington(1939). Then, in 1941, he was literally an absolute angel in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. He also appeared that year as Sir John Talbot, unhappy father of The Wolf Man. Shortly thereafter, he set out on a series of characters that remain as lovable as they are memorable: Dr Jaquith, in Now, Voyager (1942); Capt. Louis Renault, who had some of the very best lines in Casablanca (1942) and the title character in Mr. Skeffington (1944). Somewhere, in there, he managed to sneak in a “horror” role, as Erique, Phantom of the Opera (1943).

Notorious (1946) brought him not only the last of his four Oscar nominations (the others were for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca and Mr. Skeffington, and all for Best Actor in a Supporting Role), but engaged him so agreeably with Alfred Hitchcock that Rains later appeared as guest on television’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents no fewer than five times. From a strangely vulnerable neo-Nazi sympathizer, he then turned up as the ultimate villain, the Devil himself, in Angel On My Shoulder (1946) opposite Paul Muni, who might turn up as a subject in these columns in future.

As Rains and his career rolled into the 1950’s, he embraced the then-new medium of television. Turning up on every sort of show, from Kraft Television Theater to The Alcoa Hour to Playhouse 90, he appeared in productions of every flavor, including his one and only song-and-dance turn as the Mayor in the 1957 TV movie musical, The Pied Piper Of Hamelin , as well as a tele-version of Lost Horizon, retitled, in this case as Shangri-La (1960). Rains could even be found on the dusty trails of the Old West, on Wagon Train and Rawhide.

He never completely left film, though, appearing as Professor Challenger in 1960’s The Lost World , David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia and his final motion picture appearance, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1967), where some might say he reverted to cinematic form, as the wicked King Herod. His screen time is brief, but I remember watching it on television, and Rains scared the beans out of me!

So you see, he wasn’t as “invisible” as all that. As you can see, Claude Rains was everywhere. We just have to take the time to look and remember. And as the 40th anniversary of his demise approaches, this May 30th, I hope you’ll all take the time to ferret through your DVD collection or hit your local video shop or consult Netflix – and “round up the usual suspects”. Claude Rains was too damned good an actor (and, from all reports, a person) to stay invisible.


K.C. Locke

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