Silver Screen Standards: Claude Rains
I couldn’t decide between several movies I had in mind for this month’s column, and then I realized that they all had something in common – Claude Rains.
Rains is one of those actors whose presence makes any film better, whether he’s appearing in melodrama, horror, period adventure, or film noir. While he’s rarely the leading man, Rains commands the screen so thoroughly that he always holds his own and sometimes even steals his scenes from the ostensible leads. His magnificent voice and acting range serve him well in many of classic Hollywood’s most iconic pictures, from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Casablanca (1942) to Now, Voyager (1942) and Notorious (1946). It’s no surprise that he earned four Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor but fairly incredible that he never actually won, especially because it’s so hard to imagine these enduring classics being nearly as great without him.
Claude Rains was born into an acting family in London on November 10, 1889, and he made his own stage debut at the age of 11. His service in World War I left him nearly blind in one eye due to a gas attack, but after the war, he was able to resume his acting career and relocate to the United States, where he worked on Broadway until movie stardom came calling with his breakout debut performance in James Whale’s 1933 horror masterpiece, The Invisible Man. Although he returned to horror occasionally and to great effect, especially in The Wolf Man (1942), Rains avoided being typecast and played a variety of roles in several genres, where his characters ranged from the paternal to the suave and even homicidal. Having arrived in Hollywood rather late in his career, and in his mid-forties, Rains still managed to appear in nearly 80 films and television programs before his death in 1967 at the age of 77 (he also managed to fit in six marriages and five divorces). His final film appearance came in 1965 with the role of King Herod in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Rains’ voice made him a star, given that he was literally invisible throughout his first starring role, but his later pictures proved that his talents went far beyond his voice. He could brood, stare, and smirk with equal brilliance; he could kill with kindness or a wolf-headed cane. He transformed himself into a preening Prince John, almost unrecognizable in a page boy wig, in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he needed only a uniform and a jaunty amorality to become Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca (1942).
His ability to slide between likable and villainous modes served him particularly well in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Notorious (1946), and The Unsuspected (1947), although he could and did play morally upright types, especially in his films with Bette Davis. In Now, Voyager (1942) his kindly, paternal doctor guided Bette’s heroine through emotional upheaval, while in Mr. Skeffington (1944) he played the long-suffering title character opposite Bette’s vain, tragic socialite. It was hardly a stretch to cast him as the Devil in Angel on My Shoulder (1946), as so many of his best characters have a devilish air about them, although his angelic role in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) is more surprising. Costume dramas and period films saw him in a variety of guises, playing the Earl of Hertford in The Prince and the Pauper (1937), Napoleon III in Juarez (1939), Julius Caesar to Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), and finally King Herod in the star-studded biblical epic.
Personally, I prefer a wicked Claude Rains to a virtuous one, and my favorite performances from the actor are his title role in The Invisible Man and his duplicitous Nazi in Notorious. In the first role, Rains cuts loose with murderous abandon and also highlights his talent for a darkly comical turn, while in the second he plays a far more covert sort of murderer whose expressions suggest the dangerous edge beneath his smooth veneer. His Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood is delightfully horrible, but he has to share the villains’ spotlight with Basil Rathbone, and his tortured title character in Phantom of the Opera (1943) actually gets far too little screen time to make enough impact on the audience, especially in comparison with other adaptations of the story. Rains gets a meatier part to play in The Unsuspected, where his magnificent voice perfectly suits his role as the host of a murder mystery radio program.
If you’ve seen all of his most memorable pictures and want more, The Unsuspected is definitely a top pick, but Rains also makes noteworthy appearances in Kings Row (1942), Moontide (1942), and Where Danger Lives (1950). If you’re just starting to appreciate Rains’ career, see his four Oscar-nominated performances in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, and Notorious, and then move on to other major roles in The Wolf Man, Now, Voyager, and Deception (1946). For a really deep dive into Rains’ life and work, check out the 2008 biography, Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice, by horror film historian David J. Skal and Rains’ daughter, Jessica Rains.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.