Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Ronald Colman - 125 Years On, Still the Gentleman of the Screen

Today, one hundred and twenty five years ago, Ronald Colman was born just outside of London, in Richmond, Surrey. It’s another of those impossible numbers when it comes to movie stars. I still have difficulty acknowledging that the actors who are such a large part of my life and thoughts are mainly the product of a long gone era. Film lends its leading lights such immortality that it’s difficult to associate the brightest of stars with a now largely disappeared, unreachable world.

Thoughts of these vanished times are particularly appropriate when recalling of the kind of old world, gentlemanly charm that is associated with Ronald Colman. Lately his brand of worldly sophistication seems to have been overlooked in favour of imitators like David Niven and James Mason (or indeed George Clooney). I remember when I first discovered his films as a teenager, I decided to ask my father what his thoughts were. I knew he wasn’t my dad’s sort of star, he was more of a John Wayne and Gary Cooper person, but his one word reply to me forever stuck in my head: “insipid”. That response has often puzzled me, but I took it to be a criticism of his acting style, often seen as overly mannered. Maybe for many people he is indistinguishable from others in that group of smooth, cricket playing British gentlemen in Hollywood - the likes of Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone and Brian Ahern. Additionally, his distinctive voice and vocal delivery was in its day much parodied, so perhaps in the minds of some, he was so archetypal in his role that he became the archetype.

However, these views do the man a great disservice. When someone becomes so famous that imitations become commonplace, you often lose sight of the qualities and subtleties of the original as all the details become glossed over by a catchphrase in the public consciousness (think the artistry of Frank Sinatra’s immaculate phrasing reduced to ‘do be do be doo’). For make no mistake about it, Ronald Colman is one of the greatest actors and stars the cinema has ever seen, a skilled performer of impeccable judgement, an honourable man who lived a life of integrity off screen and on and a true screen original who managed to make a deep and lasting connection with audiences all over the world.

Ronald Charles Colman was born in Richmond in England on February 9th 1891, the son of a silk merchant, Despite attending boarding school his education was cut short due to a lack of money caused by his father’s sudden death. This led to a spell working as a clerk before joining the London Scottish Regiment of the army where he would see action fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. In October 1914, he received a serious shrapnel wound to his ankle and was invalided out of the army. He would recover from his wounds but walk with a slight limp for the rest of his life. For the 23 year old the war was over but Colman quickly got the acting bug and son started to appear in minor roles on the London stage. By all accounts he wasn’t a natural on stage and it took a number of years before he started to gain any parts of note but he steadily worked away at his craft.

By 1919 Colman’s good looks drew the attention of film makers and he appeared in a number of British silent films. It wasn’t until touring the American stage and co starring with George Arliss in the early 20s that he caught the eye of Hollywood, where director Henry King cast him as the lead in the Lillian Gish feature The White Sister. He was an immediate success and remained in starring roles for the remainder of his career. Colman was a versatile silent screen star, playing the adventurous, dark and handsome romantic leads in such notable movies as Romola, Beau Geste and The Dark Angel. Additionally he proved that he could also turn his hand to comedy with ease, as seen in Ernst Lubitsch’s production of Lady Windermere’s Fan and the bedroom farce of Clarence Brown’s Kiki. Colman co starred with many of the leading actresses of the day such as Lillian Gish, Barbara La Marr, Constance Talmadge and Blanche Sweet and as the silent era began its final years he reached new peaks of popularity for his screen partnership with Vilma Banky,  at times rivalling the similar team of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo.

With the coming of sound to movies, Ronald Colman’s career never missed a beat. In fact, it cemented his star status and brought him to greater heights. It is difficult to think of a leading man of the silent era who survived sound better than Ronald Colman. Indeed, outside of Laurel and Hardy there isn’t anyone whose career benefitted more from the coming of the Talkies. Of course, Colman had the one thing so many of his contemporaries lacked, the smooth, velvety speaking voice that would become his trademark. Colman’s first sound film was Bulldog Drummond in 1929, which even today stands up as a fast paced, exciting adventure and showcases him as a natural in front of the microphone. It’s not just that his distinctive mellow tones were finally unleashed on the world, it’s the way he carries himself. He shows no hesitancy in delivering lines, he refrains from theatrical silent film acting and yet neither does he merely stand still and deliver his lines as if in a stage show. He is a flurry of movement, intimate glances and subtle inflections. He hits the ground running in his sound debut, showing a mastery of the new medium and arriving on screen a fully formed cinematic character.

Colman, who had a long term contract with Samuel Goldwyn, continued to make films regularly throughout the early 1930s. He starred with the likes of Kay Francis in Raffles and Cynara, Loretta Young in The Devil to Pay! and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back and Helen Hayes and Myrna Loy in Arrowsmith to name a few. These films are great examples of 1930s Anglophile Hollywood at its best with their tales of honour and sacrifice, exiled nobility and gentlemen adventurers, and all delivered with the clipped, cultured tones that were a million miles away from the likes of Warner Brothers Depression era social dramas. Nevertheless, these films provided the right degree of romance and escapism and did much to solidify Ronald Colman’s fame and popularity not only in America but in Britain where he regularly topped the box office rankings. In fact the UK published World Film Encyclopaedia in 1933 called him “probably the most consistently popular actor in American films ”.

With the release of 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities, Colman’s career began a new phase. Despite the frequency of his film appearances slowing down to around one a year, the remainder of the 30s was a fruitful time for Colman, producing many of his most iconic roles. In fact, the combination of A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Lost Horizon (1937) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and The Light That Failed (1939) provided Ronald Colman with virtual screen immortality, and an almost mythical celluloid persona. In all four films he plays an everyman character seeking a universal truth despite insurmountable odds. In Lost Horizon he perfectly encapsulates the ideals of the story, of an ordinary man pushed to the limit to discover the eternal unknowable secret of Shangri La and his need to believe that such a place can exist. Colman imbues the part with such humanity that it makes the viewer wish that they too had his sense of idealism and courage. With these four powerhouse performances Colman made his mark on the cinematic consciousness. His career after this point continued to be successful but these years were undoubtedly his most memorable.

The 1940s and beyond resulted in a further slowdown of Colman’s output but still resulted in some well remembered parts in movies such as The Talk of the Town and Random Harvest. Finally, in 1948 his hard work and talent was rewarded for when he won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actor with his stunning performance as a tortured Shakespearian actor in the previous year’s A Double Life. After this triumph he made his last starring role in 1950’s underrated comedy Champagne for Caesar and then made only a couple of appearances in ensemble cast spectaculars after that. He left a cinematic legacy of modest numbers but high quality, with each and every performance full of the conviction and integrity he was renowned for. There simply are no bad performances in his back catalogue

While Ronald Colman was a movie star of the highest order, was also a pioneer of television and a regular voice on radio. Colman frequently lent his soothing tones to drama anthologies such as Lux Radio Theater and Screen Guild Theater and hosted (and sometimes starred in) a few of his own drama shows like the wartime Everything for the Boys. Later he starred in the popular sitcom The Halls of Ivy, which successfully transferred to television (and how many silent leading men survived not one but two industry shaking changes?). Colman was a natural on radio, and as would be expected his voice alone was enough to charm the vast listening audience. However, the place where Colman shone the brightest on radio was in a most unexpected place – The Jack Benny Program. Ronald Colman and his wife the actress Benita Hume first appeared on the show in 1945 and continued with regular appearances through to 1951 (with an additional appearance on the television version in 1956).

They played Jack’s long suffering neighbours and each week endured the social embarrassment of Jack's oafish attempts to befriend them. Jack was the neighbour from hell, selfishly inviting himself over for dinner or borrowing things without asking, and blissfully unaware of the trauma he caused the Colmans (who would usually try to hide when they saw him). Of course, being terribly British about it all the couple tried to be polite and the resulting predicament showed Colman’s flustered yet pained and witheringly dry comic abilities at their best. If you know little of Ronald Colman past his movies, the Jack Benny appearances are a revelation. In one memorable storyline, Jack borrows Ronnie’s Oscar then promptly gets it stolen and the ensuing attempts to get it back before he realises are some of the funniest radio shows of all time. And each step of the way Ronald Colman (and Benita) match Benny gag for gag (though Benny had a habit of giving the best lines to his guest stars).

Whatever medium he appeared in, the appeal of Ronald Colman was in what he represented. His characters were invariably courageous, charming, kind, romantic, dignified and yet driven by a steely eyed determination to find truth. Yet, in all these parts and in real life he was never anything less than a gentleman. In her autobiography Myrna Loy has a charming story about working with him on The Devil to Pay! in 1930 :

"At one point I became nervous about a scene we were doing. "Courage, my sweet," he kept saying in that beautiful voice of his. "Courage, my sweet." I liked him very much then, and later on, when we used to see quite a bit of him socially. But he was an Englishman, you know, in every sense of the word."

Ronald Colman died in 1958 aged just 67 and with him died a particular type of old world charm and values. It’s no coincidence that Colman’s cameo on Michael Anderson’s Around the World in 80 Days in 1956 was as a Railway Official stationed at the furthest reaches of the Indian rail system. As the train reaches the end of its long journey and the steam subsides by the platform the dapper figure of Ronald Colman appears – the reassuringly familiar face in a hostile environment and the personification of the British Empire at the edge of the globe, clinging to decency as the world around him changes forever. It’s a highly symbolic appearance, a summation of a career and the celebration of an ideal that was beginning to fade away as the 1950s drew to a close.

It’s perhaps what he represents that has made Ronald Colman less well remembered than many of his contemporaries today. In this day and age all too often common decency and quiet determination are overlooked in favour of the brash and the loud. When I was younger I idolised Cary Grant for this suave sophistication but later when I became a fan of Ronald Colman, Grant’s manner seemed irritatingly hyperactive and borderline rude compared to the understated appeal of Colman. Just a glance, a twinkle in his eye and few words in that reassuring voice could convey so much about what is good in the world, and more importantly, what could be good. Off screen and on, Ronald Colman embodied a sense of decency, of unwavering determination and of easy going, wryly self effacing charm that made him so beloved and respected for generations. Perhaps more than any other movie star he’s the man I choose to live vicariously through, and the man whose ideals I strive to achieve. Like Shangri La it’s an unreachable goal, but definitely one worth trying for.