Remembering Claude Rains

Recognise the name but can't quite place the face? Aliya remembers one of the greatest actors of all time

He was an actor that nowadays most people couldn’t name from a photograph, but he was in one of the greatest romantic films, one of the most moving weepies, one of the finest thrillers, one of the most rousing adventure stories, and one of the most influential horror movies ever made. I’m talking about Casablanca, Now Voyager, Notorious, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Invisible Man. The actor who links them all is Claude Rains.

Rains brought a quiet realism and a penetrating intelligence to the many movies in which he acted; he could work in any genre and improve any film. Sometimes he played amoral characters, or downright evil ones. Or he could play otherworldly figures – he may be the only actor to play both a devil and an angel. He was great as a father figure, or the mentor to a melodramatic hero or heroine, grounding them with his practical talk. Not many actors can choose to exude either a quiet benevolence or a sinister presence, but with a flex of his eyebrows or a change to his rich, textured voice, Rains could convey either.

His versatility should be legendary, but he’s usually remembered as a horror actor instead of as one of the great character actors of the twentieth century. Still, whatever kind of movies you enjoy, you’ll find something to enjoy in the performances of Claude Rains. He was always utterly watchable.

A brief biography

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William Claude Rains was born in London in 1889. His father was a stage actor, and he pursued acting himself from an early age, and received elocution lessons in order to rid himself of a strong Cockney accent. He served in the First World War and rose from the rank of Private to Captain; a gas attack left him partially blind in one eye for the rest of his life.

After the war he returned to the London theatre, and had some success, but when he arrived in Hollywood his first screen test was a failure. Luckily, director James Whale heard his mellifluous voice and cast him as the title character in The Invisible Man (1933) which launched his career as a horror star. Rains then took roles in a number of genres, and diversified so successfully that in 1945 he became the first actor to make a million dollar salary for his role as Julius Caesar in a film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra.

He was married six times, and was nominated four times for an Academy Award for best supporting actor, but never won. He died in 1967 from an abdominal haemorrhage. He was 77 years old.

8 of his best roles

1. The Invisible Man (1933)

1933 was a great year for special effects. Both King Kong and The Invisible Man were released, and made us believe in things that simply weren’t there; between them, cinema became a place that could take you anywhere, from Skull Island to a laboratory where a Dr Griffin performs experiments on himself, and the result is diabolical…

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Everyone might feel a bit jaded by the idea of the invisible man now, but when you revisit James Whale’s first steps into HG Wells’ story, you’re struck by how scary and fresh it seems. The first sequence, where the mysterious man with his head wrapped in bandages arrives at the Inn during a snowstorm, is a great piece of tension-building. The camera closes in on the faces of the people, the landlord and landlady, as a juxtaposition for that horrible emptiness of the bandages.

This was Rains’ first US cinema role, even if you hardly see him. It is a brilliant vocal performance, from booming hatred to squeaky lunacy. He played Griffin with a megalomaniacal intensity that still gives me the shivers.

2. Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

If Frank Capra movies seem naïve to the modern audience, then I think the fault lies with us – we’re so cynical that the political deceit in Mr Smith Goes To Washington looks like a normality we’re prepared to accept, and James Stewart’s idealistic filibustering makes us uncomfortable.

But here’s a chance to regain your innocence with this tale of a scout leader who gets appointed Senator by corrupt officials who want to use him in their machinations. Mr Smith isn’t half as dumb as they think, and the joy is in watching him come to the realisation that free speech still exists, and that we can all do something about the lying and cheating that surrounds us.

Rains plays Senator Paine, a good man who has had his intentions eroded. He says so much without speaking in this role. Look at the moment early on in the film where Mr Smith reminds Paine of his background as a lawyer who always fought for lost causes. Rains’ expression is a subtle freeze, the first expectation of trouble ahead as he recognises a younger version of himself in Smith, and realises how far he’s fallen. It starts as an understated performance, but come the end, Rains shows us exactly what self-hatred and despair looks like.

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3. The Clairvoyant AKA The Evil Mind (1934)

Rains plays Maximus, a music hall clairvoyant, with Fay Wray in an early role as his assistant and wife. They’re a pretty rubbish act, but suddenly, when newspaper owner’s daughter Christine comes along, Maximus starts to see the future. And it’s not pretty. Then he starts to get the blame for the tragedies he predicts – is he somehow causing them by predicting them? There are some really interesting, intelligent ideas in this Gainsborough film, and some amazing set pieces involving large-scale disasters. The direction is excellent; director Maurice Elvey is hardly remembered now but he was brilliant. He made the most of Rains’ expressive face and penetrating eyes.

There’s so much that’s good about The Clairvoyant, but I think my favourite aspect are the personal relationships. Maximus travels with his mother and father as well as his wife, and it feels like a genuine family. They celebrate and commiserate together, and Fay Wray is so great as a woman who is jealous, confused, horrified of a talent that is destroying her marriage. She may have been King Kong’s muse, but she was better here, without having to scream once.

4. Notorious (1946)

Hitchcock made so many great films, but right up there at the top is Notorious. It’s got Cary Grant in it as a debonair spy, and Ingrid Bergman as a fallen woman who gets roped into uncovering a Nazi plot in South America. Claude Rains is the Nazi who falls in love with her, and jeopardises his evil plans to marry her. But is his love stronger than his Third Reich sympathies? Rains makes us believe every action of a difficult character, and we end up with a layered portrayal of a scared, lonely, jealous, corrupted man.

He’s not alone in giving a great performance, though. Ingrid Bergman is mesmerising in her pain and desire, and Cary Grant gives us an early version of James Bond – he’s all suavity and beauty, making love to Bergman but refusing to ever tell her his feelings. The final scene, where Grant goes to Rains’ house to find out what’s happening to the woman he cares for against his will, is as good as film gets.

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5. The Wolf Man (1941)

Poor Larry Talbot. He returns to his ancestral home and on the first night back gets bitten by gypsy wolfman Bela Lugosi. Talbot may not have been the first werewolf on screen, but he is the most influential, with the art of transformation and the lore of movie lycanthropy being made up as it goes along.

Lon Chaney Jr plays the Wolf Man, and Claude Rains plays his father, which is a very odd bit of casting, considering Rains was five foot six and Chaney Jr was six foot one, so they look like Little and Large in their scenes together at times. But Rains overcomes it, and gives a serene, analytical edge to the proceedings, telling Larry that he’s only suffering from a problem of the mind, not the body. Of course, we know he’s not right, but his commitment to his son gives the film a tragic depth that would otherwise be missing.

Part of the joy of The Wolf Man is seeing Universal Studios in action – their European set (a strange mixture of old world charm and new world facilities) being used as a village in some unspecified place, and the fog machine on full with the eerie music blasting out. And the idea of the wolf lurking in all men is so much fun as a metaphor that it endures throughout cinema. Like my favourite moment in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), where The Wolf Man (still played by Chaney Jr) makes an appearance and tells them, come the moonlight, he will turn into a wolf. ‘You and twenty million other guys,’ says Costello.

6. Now, Voyager (1942)

Bette Davis and Claude Rains made four films together. She called him her favourite co-star, and no wonder – he gave her a calm, unflappable presence from which she could shine. In Now, Voyager she plays Charlotte Vale, a dumpy spinster with enormous eyebrows and terrible shoes. Rains is her psychiatrist, Dr Jaquith, who sorts out her inferiority complex by getting her waxed and buffed, and finds a beautiful, confident woman underneath who is capable of accepting love, even if she can’t have the man she wants.

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It’s very simplistic in terms of the psyche, but I love the big sentiments and the makeovers at the centre of Now, Voyager. Davis obviously feels confident in the role, and her relationship with Dr Jaquith is very moving. She returns to him when she needs help, and he grounds her once more with his practical benevolence. If Davis is the undisputed heart of the film, then Rains is the brain of it, steering it onwards, giving the famous weepy conclusion a sense of dignity.

7. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The sheer energy of Errol Flynn is enough to keep The Adventures of Robin Hood bouncing along, even without the great direction and rip-roaring music. In green tights and a jerkin, his bow strung over his back, he runs rings around a cool, calculating Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) and woos an unimpressed Marian (Olivia De Havilland) with panache. Every time he shins up a rope or shoots an arrow you want to let out a resounding hurrah.

Claude Rains plays Prince John, the evil brother of poor ransomed King Richard, and he shows what an intelligent actor he was by finding a place of his own in a cast that would seem to have all the bases covered. Rathbone gives spades of malevolence, so instead Rains plays his role as a self-centred child, amoral and bullying, without interest in consequences. It’s a perfect portrait of a spoiled royal, and the first scene where Robin comes striding into the banquet hall and confronts him is a brilliant portrayal of amusement and unpredictability. Without much screen time, he’s the equal of Flynn and Rathbone.

8. Casablanca (1942)

World War Two. In a town in Morocco, an American expatriate runs a bar that accepts all customers – gamblers, gunrunners, escapees, desperadoes, Gestapo officers and Resistance fighters. At Rick’s Bar no distinctions are made. Until his old love Ilsa arrives in town, and seeks his help for the sake of her Czech freedom fighting husband, and Rick must re-examine his cool detachment, and make difficult choices.

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This is, of course, the main plot of a classic film, but the most satisfying aspect of Casablanca is, for me, the redemption of Captain Louis Renault (Rains), the policeman in charge of Vichy-run Casablanca. Renault undergoes a great change, from a gambler, womaniser, and abuser of power, to an ally to the Resistance. When he throws his Vichy bottled water into the waste bin, we know he’s no longer on the side of the Nazis (well, for now, anyway), and it’s a great, fulfilling moment in a film that doesn’t give us the usual kind of happy ending we want.

But then, Casablanca is filled with great moments. The dialogue is a gift, and Rains uses it fully, with eyebrows raised, and a cheeky eye on the proceedings. His timing is immaculate, and his delight at his ambiguity obvious.

Whatever genre he worked on, whatever role he played, Rains supported his co-stars so well. He forms the foundations of so many great films. It seems fitting that he’s mainly remembered now as the Invisible Man, for his immense skills often seem muted when compared with Bogart, Bergman, Stewart, Grant, Davis, Flynn and Rathbone. And yet they would not have shined without him. And none of the films on this list would be remembered as classics without his presence.

Would have made a great:

Obadiah Stane in Iron Man Dr Carlisle Cullen in Twilight Dr Bruce Banner in The Hulk, Avengers Assemble Bob Harris in Lost in Translation

Also worth watching:

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Angel on my Shoulder Lawrence of Arabia Phantom of the Opera Here Comes Mr Jordan Mr Skeffington

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