Monday, July 3, 2017

Ronald Colman

Stardust: TCM’s Star of the Month

By Ed Garea

He 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 velvety voice.

And 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.

He 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. 

In 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.  

Sufficiently 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.

It 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 Walter West.

Building 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.

However, 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.”

In 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.

Colman 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).

Following is a rundown of Colman’s films this month:

July 6

8:00 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.

10:30 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.

12:15 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 fortune.

2:00 am - Raffles (UA, 1930): A breezy story with Colman as a gentleman thief who continually eludes Scotland Yard. 

3:30 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. 

5:00 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). 

July 7

6:30 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.

July 13

8:00 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 musical remake.

10:30 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.

12:30 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.

2:15 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.

4:00 am - The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (20th Century Pictures, 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.

July 20

8:00 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 Farge.

10:30 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 Rassendyllwho 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 Jr.

12:30 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 Hugh Herbert.

2:30 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.

4:30 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. 

July 27

8:00 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 fun.

10:00 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. 

12:15 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.

2:30 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.

4:15 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!”

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