Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Friday, March 23, 2012


CLAUDE RAINS: AN ACTORS VOICE. David J. Skal with Jessica Rains. University Press of Kentucky; 2008.

The consummate and busy actor Claude Rains appeared in everything from The Invisible Man and The Wolfman to Deception and Now, Voyager, [among others] with Bette Davis, to famous classics such as Casablanca and Hitchcock's Notorious to lesser items like The Unsuspected and The Lost World. In this excellent, long-overdue biography, Skal traces Rains' life from his early days in London and his work as a stage manager and actor, to his long and distinguished career in Hollywood, as well as dissecting his private life and disappointing marriages. The book is bolstered by interviews he gave for a planned biography that never materialized due to his death and the death of the biographer. Rains' daughter, Jessica, also contributed much information. Skal looks at virtually all of Rains' films and theater and television work with behind-the-scenes details and insights into Rains' working methods.

Not to nitpick -- this is an excellent book -- but a few passages struck me as odd, especially the following. Writing on Notorious, Skal says: "Hitchcock's first choice for the role was Clifton Webb, whose arch screen persona would likely have underscored the subtextual implications of homosexuality in the mother-dominated [bold mine] character. But the story called for Sebastian to be genuinely, achingly in love with the Bergman character, and Webb would arguably have been not quite believable in the part." First, I'm glad Skal put "arguably" in that last sentence, because Clifton Webb was a superb actor, and regardless of his private life, could play -- and did play -- many roles of heterosexual men in love with women, and he played them well and completely believably. Second, the theory that gay men are gay because their mothers dominated them is a completely -- in fact, hilariously -- out-dated theory --- Is Skal still living in the 19th century?  Well, elsewhere he uses the more clinical "homosexual" instead of "gay" [which is sort of like saying Negro instead of Black] so I guess that answers that question. Of course, we won't even get into the fact that Rains could be seen as being every bit as effeminate as Webb, especially compared to burly American men of whatever sexual orientation. Or that there are lots of gay actors who are perfectly convincing in straight roles, and that most gay men aren't "big queens" anyway. But I digress. To be fair to Skal, the mother-dominated theory was popular at the time the film was made.

Overall, however, Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice is a memorable, well-researched, well-written biography that will interest most lovers of classic film and fine acting.

Verdict: Don't rain on this Rains. ***1/2.

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