Book Reviews

AN ACTORS VOICE – CLAUDE RAINS

By • Apr 17th, 2012 •

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Whenever I see James Whale’s brilliantly funny and smart horror classic THE INVISIBLE MAN, I pay attention to that final shot in the film where the unseen title character materializes on the hospital bed, just as life leaves him. First you see a skull resting on the pillow, then it’s covered in veins, then it becomes a person – a young looking Claude Rains. Rains is perfectly groomed and shaved after months of being invisible, not able to see himself in a mirror. It’s an early example of cinema’s “the cool factor”. Whale must have known he was starting a great film career for Rains, so he made sure Claude was all prettied up! Up until that point, audiences only heard that signature semi-hoarse British voice brilliantly carry the film. 1933 audiences seeing THE INVISIBLE MAN on it’s first run discovered an exciting new film talent.

Rains was already forty-four when Whale cast him in his debut film. (In 1920, Rains starred in BUILD THY HOUSE, an obscure and now lost British silent film) Fans often wondered – where did Rains come from, what did he do before he caused all that havoc while invisible? Author David J. Skal, a horror film historian noted for such works as Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen has teamed up with Rains’ only child, Jessica, to come up with An Actor’s Voice – Claude Rains, a tasty 290-page biography. Skal and Rains organized volumes of unpublished notes and rare voice recordings of Mr. Rains.

Skal presents this previously unwritten history of Rains’ early life as something of a male version of MY FAIR LADY. William Claude Rains started his career as a teenaged stagehand in England, hampered by a Cockney drawl and a lisp (classmates mocked the youth by calling him “Willy Wains”) Two major occurrences molded that drawl into the velvety voice that made such lines as “I am shocked, shocked, that there is gambling here!” immortal.

It’s that voice, with those old English Theatre barnstorming deliveries that help carry THE INVISIBLE MAN. Could you imagine Brando or Stallone deliver lines like: “Even da moon’s frightened duv me. Duh ho worle’s frighen to debt!” It’s that same barnstorming that made 1937’s THEY WON’T FORGET jump off the screen. My only negative with this book is that it brushes past this and other notable Claude Rains films too quickly. In THEY WON’T FORGET, Rains is Andy Griffin, a backwoods Southern District Attorney whose only occasional duties were scaring the law into the town drunk. Now he’s the prosecution in the trial of the century! When Griffin addresses the courtroom, it’s THE INVISBLE MAN’S insane Jack Griffin let loose again – manic- yelling-gesturing. But Rains’ can be beautifully understated as well. Skal points out the scene in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON where Rains (as a crooked senior US Senator) confronts young idealist Junior Senator James Stewart:

“You see things as black and white. A man as angel or devil. That’s the young idealist in you. And that isn’t how the world is run, Jeff. Not Government or Politics…. Thirty years ago, I had those ideals. I was you.” It’s a very real scene, a dark scene in an otherwise feel good movie.

The crème of Hollywood directors often used Rains to grace their films – Mervyn LeRoy, Michael Curtiz, Alfred Hitchcock, William Dieterle. Skal reprints Rains’ critical reviews to all of his films, including his last film, the overblown THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. Critic Stanley Kaufmann’s review read “There are two exceptions to the generally bad acting here. Rains, as the sick old Herod who slaughters the innocents. The other is Max von Sydow.” Good reading!

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