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Starring Ronald Colman
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Ronald Colman - 8/4

Ronald Colman was born at his parents' home in Richmond, Surrey, England on February 9, 1891, the fourth of five children to Charles Colman, a well to do silk merchant and his Scottish wife, Marjory. As a schoolboy, Colman was an excellent student with no ambitions to act other than in school plays. His first encounter with motion pictures came via his father. As his daughter Juliet wrote, "It was Charles [Colman] who gave him his first glimpse of a film, at the Earl's Court Exhibition. It was a catchpenny show with bands, whirligigs, fortune-tellers, and one new attraction with a sign over its entrance, Animated Pictures. The interior was stuffy and black, and on the little screen an express train rushed out of a tunnel straight at the audience, while a pianist played bass chords and a drummer wildly rubbed two pieces of sandpaper together. Ronnie was as good as tied to the railway track while he witnessed his first films. His hair stood on end. "That invention has a future," said Charles, who should have been in the business. "You watch it! Animated pictures are going to make fortunes for a great many people."

Attending boarding school in Sussex, Colman changed his ambition from ship captain to engineer, but two weeks after his sixteenth birthday, his father contracted pneumonia and died. While there was enough insurance money to support his mother and sisters until they married, college was no longer an option and Colman had to go to work. He became a steamship clerk for $2.50 a week, eventually being promoted to junior accountant. At the same time, he joined the Bancroft Amateur Dramatic Society, where he performed Oscar Wilde, Gilbert and Sullivan, and learned to play the banjo. At eighteen he entered into the London Scottish Regionals where he was still serving when the First World War broke out on August 4, 1914. The next day, Colman went down to the Regimental offices and enlisted. His sojourn in the war was short lived; within two months he had been sent home when shrapnel from an exploding German shell pierced his leg; he would spend the rest of his life with a limp. He returned home to England when he could get around on crutches, but the experience hardened him, "I loathe war. I'm inclined to be bitter about the politics of munitions and real estate which are the reasons for war. It certainly taught me to value the quiet life and strengthened my conviction that to keep as far out of the range of vision as possible is to be as safe as possible. I am not one of those veterans who look back on the war with the happy comrade feeling. There may have been gay times behind the lines - I'm sure there were - but I can't remember them."

Back in England, Colman could not bring himself to return to the steamship company so he went into the theater at the same time that his uncle secured a position for him at an Oriental consulate. "Sitting at home, I held in one hand an encouraging review of The Misleading Lady and my uncle's note in the other. I knew that I had to decide then. I remember that a mere drop of the hand, a reflex action, decided it for me. Automatically, I dropped the note on my desk and went on reading the review. My choice was made." During his early days in the theater, he tried motion pictures. The first attempts, including a cheaply made film called The Toilers (1919) were an embarrassment to Colman, but his name went into the London Casting Bureau, though they noted that he did not "screen [photograph] well." Only a few years later, millions of women were to disagree.

Colman traveled to the United States to try his luck in New York. For months he did all sorts of menial jobs and survived on soup and rice pudding. When his overcoat was stolen from his apartment, he had to brave the New York winter without it. Finally, after several small roles, he landed a part in Fay Bainter's revival of her hit East Is West and went out on a national tour with her. This took him all across the country, eventually landing in Los Angeles. "I haunted the Hollywood studios; I had no introductions. I was just on the outside. I was vastly impressed by what I saw and heard there: the range of buildings, the ceaseless commotion of little knots of people excitedly planning outdoor scenes, whole cinema villages perched on the hillsides and populated only when the camera was there. That first sight of Hollywood gave me ambition. I inquired of a passerby about agents, and sought one out. He was at his desk, leaning back, reading a film magazine and steadily thickening the air with cigar smoke. I told him what I had done and I remained standing there, fumbling with my hat. He did not look up from his magazine. 'Do you think,' I ventured again, 'there might be a chance for me in Hollywood?' 'I wonder,' said he. Just that, nothing more, and I walked out."

Colman returned to New York where by chance, he was seen in the play La Tendresse by director Henry King who was looking for a leading man for Lillian Gish's next film, The White Sister (1923). King and his wife were scheduled to see another actor that same night, but King's wife wanted to see La Tendresse all the way through, rather than leaving in the middle. King agreed to stay and in the second act, Colman appeared onstage. King later remembered, "The curtain went up, and Ruth Chatterton came on stage with a young man. They played an act that ran about forty minutes and finally a knock came at the door. She raised the window to let the young man out and then opened the door to Henry Miller, who was playing her husband, and the curtain went down. My wife said, 'There's the man you want for Giovanni!' The name on the program was Ronald Colman." When Colman met with King the next day, he told the director, "I do appreciate more than anything in the world someone calling me for an interview, but I'm not good in pictures. I have been told both in London and New York that I don't photograph well, and I've decided that I'm through with them. I'm going to stay in the theater where I know my way, and apparently I don't know my way in pictures."

King was able to convince Colman to make a test consisting of sitting and talking to King who was off-camera. Getting Colman to relax was the key, as well as King re-combing Colman's hair to get rid of his high forehead and drawing on a moustache with a makeup pencil. The next day, when the test had been screened, King knew he had his man and Colman got the part. The film, which was shot in Italy, was important for Colman for two reasons - it secured his future in films and it marked the end of his brief marriage to Thelma Raye, an actress. Raye had begun an affair with Colman a few years before, living with him in London until her husband sued her for divorce. Colman had never wanted to marry Raye but agreed. It was a bad marriage from the start. Raye had had success in the theater, but Colman's rising star brought out her jealousy and instability. During production of The White Sister she traveled with him to Italy where she made scenes and once knocked him unconscious during a fight. That ended their living together but it would be over a decade before he was able to pay her off. She would show up from time to time in Hollywood and threaten to tell the press. It was the most carefully guarded secret of his life. Hardly anyone in Hollywood knew he was married - both for personal and professional reasons - and he conducted himself with the utmost privacy. He would later divorce Raye in the 1930s and marry actress Benita Hume, with whom he had a daughter, Juliet, and a happy marriage until his death.

After The White Sister and its follow-up film with Gish and King (and also shot in Italy) Romola (1924), Colman was firmly established as a leading man. His handsome features and natural style of acting landed him a long-term contract with Samuel Goldwyn.

During the silent era, Colman was teamed on-screen with some of Hollywood's most beautiful women, and the partnership he had with Vilma Banky in several films proved exceedingly popular with fans. Still, Colman resented the publicity machine that Goldwyn (and all the studios) created to promote their stars. Stories had been placed in fan magazines that he and Banky were a couple off-screen, which was completely untrue. When Banky married Rod La Roque, it was orchestrated by Goldwyn down to the paper maché cake and the selection of attendants, including Colman, who was disgusted by the whole thing.

For many silent film actors, the transition to sound films ended their careers. For Ronald Colman, it only enhanced his. Blessed with a speaking voice so rich and beautiful it was compared to crushed velvet, Colman's first sound film, Bulldog Drummond (1929) sealed the deal. The Los Angeles Times wrote, prophetically, "Bulldog Drummond gives him a new personality. It is apparent that comedy will be his forte, as well as drama, from this initial adventure. He loses nothing by the transition but rather gains a great deal. He has a cultured and resonant voice, and an ability to color words which will probably permit him a large range in his future career. He is one of the most successful in accomplishing the change." The audiences agreed. Unfortunately for Colman, the premiere of the film was not a happy experience. His friend, actor Percy Marmont recalled that after a short speech to the audience, Colman went around to the back of the theater, where a car was supposed to be waiting. "We dashed out of the door and there was no car but a vast crowd waiting. We couldn't go back because the stage door wouldn't open inward. Ronnie just said, 'Jesus!' and we rushed along the side of the cinema until we found a side door we could open, pushed in and slammed it to. It was a dreadful ordeal getting through that mob of people. Ronnie was shaking like a leaf. Eventually we got a message through to Sam [Goldwyn], and the car came around to the front of the house. It was an awful experience for him, and it might have been one of the reasons for not attending opening nights later in his career when there was no pressure."

Colman's career was at its zenith in the 1930s. He was a star of the first magnitude who was able to be more selective in the films he made, like Arrowsmith (1931) directed by John Ford. Ford, never known to like actors, had nothing but positive things to say about the experience, "Arrowsmith was already cast when I went over to Goldwyn. Ronnie and I were friends, so I was delighted. Though he was the leading star of the business then, nobody ever acknowledged what a superb actor he was. They just accepted him as Ronald Colman. He did everything so easily. He never played drunken scenes or grew a beard or did any of those things which get Academy Awards, but he was the greatest actor I have ever known. [...] You didn't have to work with Ronnie - it was that simple. He knew exactly what to do and was letter-perfect when he did it."

Colman's most famous roles occurred during the decade - Sydney Carton in MGM's A Tale of Two Cities (1935) and the dual role of the English Major Rudolf Rassendyll and the Ruritanian King Rudolf V in The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). In that decade were also Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937), a role that those who knew Colman thought the closest to his real-life personality, If I Were King (1938) in which he played the poet Francois Villon, and The Light That Failed (1939).

Now nearing fifty, Colman made two films which damaged his career, Lucky Partners (1940) with Ginger Rogers and My Life with Caroline (1941) in which he played an older man with a much younger wife. Audiences did not take to either film. The Talk of the Town (1942) co-starring Jean Arthur and Cary Grant, in which Colman played a Supreme Court nominee, gave Colman the hit he needed. This was quickly followed by Random Harvest (1942) and Kismet (1944), Colman's first Technicolor film and one in which he was not competing for the leading lady; he played her father.

Colman had become a father himself for the first time during the production of Kismet. At 53, as it does to all leading men, the time had come when the prime roles were no longer coming his way. In an interview with Edwin Shallert of The Los Angeles Times, he said, "It's twenty-two years since I made The White Sister and that's a long time. I'm not ambitious to make too many pictures today, but I have never put any actual restriction on the number. I am guided entirely by the character of the stories which come to me from the studio. Of necessity, one thinks in terms of a picture a year or at the most three pictures every two years under those circumstances, but as far as I am concerned I would have no antipathy toward more if the subject were obtainable. A director might be something to consider for the future, but I am quite satisfied to remain the actor as long as there seem to be assignments at fairly regular intervals. "Ironically, it was when Colman's career slowed down that he finally won an Academy Award for A Double Life (1947), in which he played a mentally ill actor cast in the role of Othello, who murders a waitress the way Othello murders Desdemona. The actress playing the waitress was a young Shelley Winters, who later said that she was very nervous making the film, but Colman was very helpful, "We had these scenes in bed later on, and he was always so proper about the whole thing - it was so sweet. In the scene where he is strangling me, they wanted the implication of sex, but it was only legally possible if he did it with one foot on the floor - that you could see - and one on the bed. He thought that was pretty ridiculous and so did everybody else! He had a gentle way of teasing me. He was patient and kind." On March 20th 1948, Colman beat out William Powell (one of his closest friends), Gregory Peck, John Garfield and Michael Redgrave for the Best Actor award. It affected him, deeply. Journalist Ruth Waterbury, who had interviewed Colman for years, saw him backstage, "I ran straight into him. He was holding his Oscar®. He almost gasped, 'Oh Ruth!' and then he began to cry. That dignified handsome man."

Ronald Colman and his wife had co-starred several times on the Jack Benny radio program as themselves and the audience response was so strong that they were offered their own show, The Halls of Ivy in which Colman played a University professor and Benita Hume played his wife. When television grew in popularity in the early 1950s, Colman was one of the first Hollywood stars to embrace the medium. The Halls of Ivy ran for only one season (1952-53), but Colman's both overseeing the show and acting in it had taken a toll on his precarious health. He had always suffered from various lung ailments, but none of them, as his daughter clarified, were the result of being gassed during World War I. Colman, she wrote, had been invalided out of the war long before the Germans began to use chlorine gas.

Colman continued to work in television, appearing occasionally in guest starring roles on Studio 57, Four Star Playhouse and The General Electric Theater, but he spent the majority of his final years at his home near Santa Barbara, San Ysidro Ranch. San Ysidro had been a retreat since 1893. Colman and future Senator Al Weingand purchased the property in the 1930s and it became Colman's retreat from Hollywood, and eventually his permanent home. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were married there, and it was the site of John and Jackie Kennedy's honeymoon. By the spring of 1958, Colman's health began to deteriorate and he was hospitalized in Santa Barbara, where he died suddenly on May 19th.

Ronald Colman was buried in Santa Barbara Cemetery with a gravestone that has a theater curtain etched into it along with these lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

* Titles in Bold will Air on TCM in August

by Lorraine LoBianco

SOURCES:
Colman, Juliet Benita Ronald Colman: A Very Private Person
The Internet Movie Database
http://ronaldcolman.com/
http://www.sanysidroranch.com

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