was suave, genteel and roguishly handsome. While Cary Grant was seen
as a Cockney who rose to higher status, Ronald Colman always struck
us as to the manor born. He was the picture of good manners,
erudition and charm. Even when cast as the heel, he still came off as
a lovable rogue. And while other silent stars went through a rough
time converting to sound, Colman had no trouble, thanks to his
this month, TCM will be showing 22 of his 56 movies, many of them
familiar classics. For a man known to many as the "stereotypical
English gentleman,” Colman’s roots may surprise some. He was born
on February 9, 1891, in Richmond, Surrey, England to lower
middle-class parents Charles Colman and Marjory Read Fraser, the
second son and their fourth child. During his boarding school days in
Littlehampton he discovered an aptitude and love of the theater, even
though he was painfully shy. His goal was to study engineering at
Cambridge, but his father’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1907
made that dream financially impossible.
took a position as a clerk at the British Steamship Company in London
at a salary of 15 shillings a week. Though he rose to bookkeeper, and
later, accountant, he found the work boring. To relieve the tedium he
moonlighted on the stage, becoming a well-known amateur actor and a
member of the West Middlesex Dramatic Society in 1908-09, later
switching to the Bancroft Dramatic Company.
1909 he joined the London Scottish Regiment (fellow actors Claude
Rains, Herbert Marshall, Basil Rathbone and Cedric Hardwicke also
served with this regiment), and in 1914, shortly after his debut on
the professional stage, he was mobilized and sent to France to take
part in the fighting on the Western Front. On October 31, 1914, he
was seriously wounded by shrapnel at the Battle of Messines, giving
him a limp that he would attempt to hide through his dramatic career.
As a consequence he was invalided out of the British Army in 1915.
recovered from wartime injuries he resumed his dramatic career on
June 19, 1916, appearing as Rahmat Sheikh in The Maharani of
Arakan, with Lena Ashwell at the London Coliseum. He kept busy
during the next few years, appearing in various productions, and in
1920 he went to America, touring with Robert Warwick in The
Dauntless Three before joining Fay Bainter to tour in East
is West. In September 1922 he scored a great success as Alain
Sergyll in La Tendresse (Tenderness) at New York
City’s Empire Theatre.
was while starring in La Tendresse that director
Henry King saw him and hired him to play the leading man to Lillian
Gish in The White Sister (1923), where he was an
immediate success. Colman was no stranger to film, having appeared in
films in Britain in 1917 and 1919 for directors Cecil Hepworth and
on his success in The White Sister, Colman virtually quit
the stage for the cinema, becoming a very popular star during the
silent era. Notable films include The Dark
Angel (1925), Stella Dallas (1926) and Beau
Geste (1926). His dark good looks and athletic ability led
to him being cast in exotic roles. In 1926 producer Samuel Goldwyn
signed him and teamed him with Hungarian actress Vilma Banky in The
Winning of Barbra Worth (1926), The Night of
Love (1927), The Magic Flame (1927),
and Two Lovers (1928). As a screen team their
popularity rivaled that of Gilbert and Garbo.
with the coming of talkies he and Vilma had to split up, for Vilma’s
Hungarian accent precluded her from making the jump into talkies. The
coming of sound transformed Colman into a huge star, thanks to his
beautifully modulated and cultured voice. English film critic David
Shipman described him as follows: “the dream lover – calm,
dignified, trustworthy. Although he was a lithe figure in adventure
stories, his glamour – which was genuine – came from his
respectability; he was an aristocratic figure without being aloof.”
1930 he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor based on
his performances in Bulldog Drummond and Condemned.
Among his other notable films were Raffles (1930), Clive
of India (1935), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), The
Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Lost Horizon (1937), If
I Were King (1938), Random Harvest (1942)
and The Talk of the Town (1942). In 1948 he won the
Oscar for Best Actor for his role in A Double Life, and
in 1950 he starred in the screwball comedy Champagne for
Caesar (unfortunately not being shown this month). In 1958
MGM signed him for the lead role in Village of the Damned,
but his death postponed the project, which MGM eventually brought to
the screen in 1961 with George Sanders (who married Colman’s widow,
Benita Hume) and Barbara Shelley.
died from acute emphysema on May 19, 1958, in Santa Barbara,
California. He was 67. He was survived by his second wife, Benita
Hume, and their daughter, Juliet Benita Colman (born 1944).
is a rundown of Colman’s films this month:
pm -The White Sister (Metro,
1923): Captain Giovanni Severini (Colman) is the lover of Angela
Chiaromonte (Lillian Gish). When Giovanni is reported dead, Angela
enters the convent, but Giovanni is alive. He was taken prisoner and
escaped to Italy, but Angela rejects his proposal of marriage, for
she has taken her vows. Giovanni is later killed helping townsfolk
escape the erupting Vesuvius. Remade by MGM in 1933 with Clark Gable
and Helen Hayes.
pm -The Winning of Barbara
Worth (UA, 1926): Engineer Willard Holmes Colman)
is caught between his greedy stepfather, James Greenfield (E.J.
Ratcliffe) and Jefferson Worth and his daughter Barbara (Vilma
Banky), whom Holmes loves.
am -Bulldog Drummond (UA,
1929): Former British flying hero Bulldog Drummond (Colman) and his
friend, Algy (Claude Allister) helps Phyllis Benton (Joan Bennett)
free her uncle, Hiram J. Travers (Charles Sellon), from the clutches
of sadistic physician Dr. Lakington (Lawrence Grant), who is holding
Travers in an insane asylum to torture him into signing over his
am -Raffles (UA,
1930): A breezy story with Colman as a gentleman thief who
continually eludes Scotland Yard.
am - The Devil to Pay(UA,
1930): Spendthrift heir Willie Hale (Colman) returns broke from
Kenya, reconciles with his father (Frederic Kerr), and romances
Loretta Young and Myrna Loy in this delightful drawing-room comedy.
am - Cynara (UA,
1932): English lawyer Jim Warlock’s (Colman) marriage to wife
Clemency (Kay Francis) is threatened by his serious dalliance with
Doris Lea (Phyliss Barry).
am - Arrowsmith(UA,
1931): John Ford’s adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a
dedicated research doctor is not without its problems. But the acting
isn’t one of them. Fine performances from Colman, Helen Hayes,
Myrna Loy, Russell Hopkin, David Landau and Richard Bennett make this
one to catch.
pm - Lost Horizon (Columbia,
1937): Frank Capra does a magnificent job turning James Hilton’s
classic story into a compelling film. Five people fleeing a
revolution stumble into a Tibetan realm where health, peace and
longevity are the rule. It has one of the great haunting finales. The
film has been restored to its original length, though several scenes
are missing and are represented by dialogue only. Avoid the 1973
pm - If I Were King (Paramount,
1938): Colman is French poet Francois Villon, matching wits with King
Louis XI (Basil Rathbone) and falling head over heels for
lady-in-waiting Frances Dee. Preston Sturges wrote the script.
pm - Clive of India (UA,
1935): Colman is Robert Clive, acknowledged as the driving force
behind the English colonization of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh at
the sacrifice of his own personal happiness. More Hollywood than
history, but lavishly entertaining with an excellent supporting cast,
including Loretta Young, Colin Clive and C. Aubrey Smith.
am - The Light That
Failed (Paramount, 1939): Colman is London artist
Dick Heldar. He’s gradually losing his sight and is struggling to
complete his masterpiece, the portrait of cockney girl Bessie Broke
(Ida Lupino), before his eyesight fails. Walter Huston and Muriel
Angelus also star.
am - The
Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (20th
1935): Expatriate Russian prince Colman, his money supplied by
Russian ex-pats in Paris, creates a scandal by winning big at the
gambling tables. More charm than substance.
pm - A Tale of Two Cities (MGM,
1935): Colman is outstanding in this adaptation of Dickens’ classic
about two men in love with the same woman during the French
Revolution. With Elizabeth Allen, Edna May Oliver, Reginald Owen,
Basil Rathbone, and the unforgettable Blanche Yurka as Madame De
pm - The Prisoner of Zenda (UA,
1937): Colman stars is a dual role as King Rudolf V of Ruritanian and
his doppelgänger distant cousin, Major Rudolf Rassendyll, who
must impersonate the king when he is drugged and kidnapped. With an
all-star supporting cast, including Madeleine Carroll, C. Aubrey
Smith, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks
am - Kismet (MGM,
1944): Colman is “the king of the beggars,” a savvy musician
whose daughter, Marsinah (Joy Page), is being wooed by the handsome
young caliph (James Craig). With Marlene Dietrich, Edward Arnold and
am - Lucky Partners (RKO,
1940): Colman shares an Irish Sweepstakes ticket with Ginger Rogers
and after a series of events they embark on a tour of Niagara Falls
as brother and sister. But Rogers doesn’t know that Colman is a
famous painter. With Jack Carson.
am - My Life With Caroline(RKO,
1941): Colman is a New York publisher who suspects his wife Caroline
(Anna Lee) is having an affair with Argentinean millionaire Paco Del
Valle (Gilbert Roland). Even Colman’s charm can’t compensate for
this middling comedy.
pm - A Double Life (Universal,
1948): Colman won the Oscar for his performance as a Shakespearean
act playing Othello who finds he can no longer differentiate between
the character and the real person. The Method gone into madness. With
Signe Hasso, Edmond O’Brien, Shelley Winters and Ray Collins. Great
pm - Random Harvest (MGM,
1942): Grand tearjerker about a soldier (Colman) left as an amnesiac
after World War I who is saved from a mental institution by the love
of music-hall entertainer Greer Carson.
am - The Talk of the
Town (Columbia, 1942): Anarchist Grant, on the
lam for a crime he didn’t commit, is sheltered by landlady and
childhood friend Arthur. The problem is how to hide him from her new
tenant, renowned and stuffy Harvard law professor Colman. An
intelligent and thoughtful comedy, well-written and well-acted by all
in the cast. Director George Stevens does a masterful job.
am - The Late George Apley (20th
Century Fox, 1947): Colman is perfectly cast as a stuffy patriarch of
a family of Boston bluebloods who strives to maintain his family’s
social status in this gentle and excellent satire based on the John
P. Marquand novel.
am - The Story of Mankind (WB,
1957): Colman’s last picture and certainly his least. He is the
Spirit of Man, debating the Devil (Vincent Price) over whether
humanity is ultimately good or evil. If you can watch Peter Lorre as
Nero, Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Dennis Hopper as Napoleon, Chico
Marx as a monk, Harpo Marx as Sir Isaac Newton, Groucho Marx as Peter
Minuit, Agnes Moorehead chewing every last bit of scenery as Queen
Elizabeth I, and Bobby Watson reprising his role as Hitler (which he
played in at least eight films prior), without laughing yourself into
unconsciousness, you’re made of better stuff than I am. With stock
footage from Land of the Pharaohs. One wonders what was
going through Colman’s mind as he was acting in this mess. To quote
film critic Michael Weldon: “Unbelievable! Don’t miss it!”