Claude Rains - 8/5
Acting was in his blood. He was born William Claude Rains into a theatrical family from the Camberwell section of London on November 10, 1889. His father, Frederick William Rains was an actor and director who would later appear in and direct silent films such as A Case of Comfort (1918) and Odd Tricks (1925). One of his last films The Clue of the New Pin (1929) co-starred a very young John Gielgud. Claude Rains literally grew up backstage, and at the age of 11 in 1900 made his theatrical debut as a singing street urchin in Nell of old Drury . It was an appropriate role according to his daughter Jessica because as a young man he had a thick, Cockney accent, "He was born on the wrong side of the Thames. He was one of twelve children and all but three of them died from poverty-related illnesses. He never went to school beyond second grade, had a strong Cockney accent and a terrible lisp. But he fixed all that by himself when he was 18 or 19." To his great good luck, the preeminent actor of his time, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, took a liking to the young Rains and saw his potential. Tree paid for Rains to attend diction lessons and bought him text books. During the time he was studying as Tree's protégé, Rains worked in the theater as a page boy, actor, and eventually a theater manager.
The lessons and Sir Herbert's belief in Rains paid off because the actor's most memorable characteristic as an actor is his voice, one that is so rich and distinctive that it is instantly recognizable regardless of the costume or makeup he was wearing. He could use it to shout accusations or lower it to a purr as he murmured lines like, "Better make it 10. I'm only a poor, corrupt official" or "How extravagant you are, throwing away women like that. Someday they may be scarce" (from Casablanca ).
In 1913 Rains came to the United States for the first time to appear on the New York stage. His trip was short-lived when England entered World War I the following year and Rains returned home to join the London Scottish Regiment. While fighting in Europe, Rains' regiment came under attack and he was gassed. The result was an almost total loss in vision in one eye, but this injury did not keep Rains off the stage for long. After the war, he resumed his stage career and appeared in his first film, a silent called Build Thy House in 1920.
During the 1920s, Rains' reputation as a popular stage actor grew. He also became an instructor at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his pupils included future stars Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud who later wrote, "I found him enormously helpful and encouraging to work with and was always trying to copy him in my first years as an actor, until I decided to imitate Noel Coward instead." Gielgud later remembered Rains' dynamic personality was like catnip to women. "Extremely attractive to women, he was divorced several times, and once appeared ...with Beatrix Thompson, to whom he was then married, in a cast that included two of his former wives. Needless to say, all the girls in my class at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was one of the best and most popular teachers, were hopelessly in love with him." Rains would eventually marry six times, mostly to actresses such as Isabel Jeans, best remembered as Aunt Alicia in Gigi (1958).
Returning to New York in 1927, Rains played over 20 roles on Broadway as well as worked at the famous Theatre Guild. Five years later he was offered a screen test with Universal Pictures and came to Hollywood to make his talking film debut in the title role of The Invisible Man (1933). It was a unique role for Rains as he is only seen at the very end of the film. Director James Whale had refused the studio's preferred choice, Boris Karloff, who with Bela Lugosi was the studio's biggest star. Whale is said to have chosen Rains because he wanted an actor with "a cultured voice." To "appear" as invisible, Rains dressed head to toe in black, was filmed against a black background and his dialog was later dubbed in. Jessica Rains went to see the film years later with her father, who was wearing a scarf wrapped around his face because of the cold. As he tried to buy the tickets, the seller recognized his voice and let them in for free.
It was the beginning of a thirty-year film career and the 1930s and 1940s would prove to be his busiest decades. Starting at Universal Studios, he signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. in 1936 where he would create his most memorable characters. Typecasting was practically the norm during the years of the Hollywood studio system, and Rains often found himself playing cruel characters. It was a role he didn't seem to mind, once saying "I think playing a villain is lovely! After all, we spend most of our lives trying to be good, trying to do what we know is right, don't we? We try not to hurt other people or to give in to our wicked impulses. But at heart, we are primitive like children. Often we'd secretly like to do the very things we discipline ourselves against. Isn't that true? Well here in the movies I can be as mean, as wicked as I want to and all without hurting anybody. Look at that lovely girl I've just shot!" When asked the secret of his success, he said simply, "I learn the lines and pray to God."
Audiences remember Rains mostly for the indelible characters he created like the rabble-rousing attorney in They Won't Forget (1937), the evil Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), Senator Paine in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Vichy police Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca (1942), the compassionate psychiatrist in Now, Voyager (1942) and ex-Nazi Alexander Sebastian in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). He once played Heaven's emissary in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and The Devil himself in Angel on My Shoulder (1946).
As television began to erode film audiences in the 1950s, Rains film career slowed down and he returned to Broadway, where he won a Tony award for his performance in Darkness at Noon . He also made the transition to the small screen in shows such as The Kraft Television Theatre, The Alcoa Hour and several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents . When his health began to fail in the early 1960s, Rains was forced to curtail his appearances. His last film role was as King Herod in George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Claude Rains had become an American citizen in 1939, shortly after the birth of his daughter and for many years lived on a 380-acre farm in Western Pennsylvania. He continued to live on the East Coast where he died on May 30, 1967 at the age of 77. Forty years after his death he was honored by the writers of the hit television show Heroes . The character of Claude, played by Christopher Eccleston, has the ability to become invisible and once delivered the line "Me? I'm no one. I'm the Invisible Man. I'm Claude Rains."
by Lorraine LoBianco
All Things Claude! The Claude Rains Web Site
The Internet Movie Database
* Films in bold type will air on TCM