Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 10, 2009: Rains Reigns

If I asked you to name one of Universal’s most formidable Monster Movie stars, who would be the first to creep into your consciousness? Karloff? Lugosi? Chaney (senior or junior)? I’d wager that precious few would first think of Claude Raines, although he played one of Universal’s most memorable horrors. The problem is he was invisible, so aside from a face swathed in surgical bandages, there wasn’t much to associate Raines with the role aside from his voice. But what a voice! Having a strong Cockney accent and a childhood stutter, Claude Rains was an unlikely choice to play a character almost entirely reliant on his voice for expression, yet his powerful performance still proved his formidable acting abilities, bandages or no bandages.

Rains is in there somewhere.

Rains was the only lead in a Universal Monster movie not to be typecast as some sort of walking nightmare. He went on to sizable roles in some of Hollywood’s most celebrated films: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Now Voyager, Casablana, Hitchcock’s Notorious, and Lawrence of Arabia, to name a few. But he still managed to build a noteworthy horror pedigree. With the possible exception of his turn as Captain Renault in Casablanca, Dr. Griffin in James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) may still be Rains’s most iconic role even though his face is only on exhibition for a few seconds during the final shot of the film. Even hidden by gauze, he displayed all the versatility he’d bring to future roles: dishing out dastardly one-liners with the aplomb of the Joker, romantically cooing his devotion to Gloria Stewart, singing jovially as his seemingly disembodied pants chase a woman down a snowy path, cackling like a looner, madly declaring his intentions to “rob and rape and kill!” At once charming, funny, frightening, and tortured, Rains makes Griffin a more complex character than, say, Lugosi’s Dracula or Karloff’s Mummy. He brought that same depth to his performance as Erique in Arthur Lubin’s Phantom of the Opera (1943), although the film suffers due to its awkward moments of humor and uninspired make-up: compare Rains’s mildly scarred puss to Lon Chaney’s horrifically skull-like countenance. There’s little wonder why Chaney is most associated with the part, but this is hardly Rains’s fault.

Boo! Not quite horrifying as the Phantom.

George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) was a stronger picture than Phantom, although Rains’s role in it was considerably less monstrous. As Sir John Talbot, the father of Lon Chaney Jr.’s cursed Larry, Rains imbued the character with a formidability that transcended his short stature (which is especially apparent when he stands beside the towering Chaney). The elder Talbot is reserved, yet Rains also makes it clear that he cares deeply for his estranged son. The climax of the film, in which Rains inadvertently cures his son’s lycanthropy by most unfortunate means, is the closest a Universal Monster Movie came to Shakespearean tragedy.

The Wolf Man’s daddy.

Apparently, the suits at Universal would have liked to entomb Claude Rains in additional Monster pictures, offering him such juicy parts as Dr. Pretorious in Bride of Frankenstein, Quasimodo in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Wolf Frankenstein in Son of Frankenstein. Surely, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, and Basil Rathbone all gave unforgettable performances in these respective roles, but there’s little doubt that Rains would have delivered his usual superb work had he accepted them. His choosiness—and the anonymity of his most famous creep—kept Claude Rains from sitting at the sides of Karloff, Lugosi, and the Chaneys in terms of Universal’s most revered Monster portrayers, but his incredible work as Erique the Phantom, Sir John Talbot, and especially Dr. Griffin suggest that this situation deserves to be corrected.

Claude Rains was born 120 years ago today.
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