Obituary: Robert Douglas

ANY ANTHOLOGY of great film duels would have to include the fight on the grand staircase between Errol Flynn and Robert Douglas in The Adventures of Don Juan.

Douglas had a long and prolific career in show business, as an actor on stage, screen and television, and later as a director, but he will be best remembered for the string of superbly urbane and arrogant villains he portrayed after settling in Hollywood in 1948. An expert swordsman, he battled on screen with such action heroes as Flynn, Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger and Burt Lancaster, giving them a determined, if not always totally fair, fight before being ultimately, and inevitably, vanquished.

Born Robert Douglas Finlayson in Bletchley, Buckinghamshire, in 1909, he was educated at Bickley Hall in Kent then studied for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He made his acting debut in 1927 at the Theatre Royal, Bournemouth, in The Best People, and his first London appearance the following year playing Godfrey Marvin in Many Waters at the Ambassadors Theatre.

In A Bill of Divorcement (1929) he played Kit (the role played by David Manners in the 1932 screen version), and the same year made his first New York appearance repeating his role in Many Waters. He had become much in demand and in 1930 starred in three more West End shows before returning to Broadway to repeat his role in one of them, Frank Harvey's The Last Enemy, a fantasy described by one critic as "murky, inchoate and generally doddering", which lasted only four performances.

London plays in 1931 included After All and Vile Bodies, then he returned to New York to star with the famed critic and columnist Alexander Woolcott in S.N. Behrman's comedy Brief Moment. Douglas won excellent notices for his playing of an introverted millionaire who marries an extrovert singer, but later recalled that relations between Woolcott (in his first acting role) and his leading lady Francine Larrimore were strained, and that Behrman had to cut some of Woolcott's funniest lines because Larrimore said the laughs broke her concentration.

After playing in Anthony Armstrong's ingenious thriller Ten-Minute Alibi (1933) at the fringe Embassy Theatre, Douglas entered theatrical management in partnership with Ronald Adam and together they presented Ten-Minute Alibi at the Haymarket, where it ran for nearly two years. Douglas was on Broadway again in 1935 in John van Druten's comedy Most of the Game, co-starring with Dorothy Hyson, who had become his wife earlier the same year (they divorced in 1943).

Douglas first acted on screen in the 1930 farce P.C. Josser, a showcase for the comedian Ernie Lotinga. Foreshadowing later roles, he was an embezzling nobleman in Tom Walls's The Blarney Stone (1934), but in his first starring film role, in Death Drives Through (1935, directed by the American Edward L. Cahn), he played the inventor of a new type of transmission who becomes a racing driver to prove his invention and overcomes murderous rivals. He was a stalwart navy captain helping a kidnapped consul's daughter escape South American revolutionaries in Our Fighting Navy (1937), but a villain again in London Melody (1937) with Anna Neagle.

Concurrently with his stage work, he also had major film roles in the comedy Over the Moon (1937) with Rex Harrison and Merle Oberon, the mountaineering drama The Challenge (1938) with Luis Trenker, a propaganda piece about the outbreak of the Second World War, The Lion Has Wings (1939), and the third screen version of the melodramatic play The Chinese Bungalow (1939), but, though a sometimes top-billed player, he failed to attain major stardom.

From 1939 to 1945 Douglas served in the Fleet Air Arm, after which he briefly returned to the London stage before moving to America and taking up the offer of a contract with Warners. He was given a starring role in his first film for them, Peter Godfrey's The Decision of Christopher Blake (1948), a dire drama about the effect of bickering parents on a sensitive child, but his next role, as the scheming Duke de Lorca in Vincent Sherman's The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), established him as a prime exponent of suave villainy.

Besides his fencing prowess (he was considered to be of a world-class standard) Douglas brought expert shadings and colour to his role of a scoundrel planning to depose the monarchs and become dictator of Spain, and the final duel, beautifully choreographed and shot to the background of a rousing Korngold score on a grand staircase specially constructed for the production, is breathtaking. As he draws his sword Douglas tells Flynn, "I warn you, senor, this time I will cut deeply", and the duel ends with Flynn tossing aside his sword as he states, "The sword is not for a traitor - you die by the knife", before he leaps from midway up the staircase to the floor below to finish off the villain.

Though he played occasional sympathetic roles - a dedicated detective in Homicide (1949), a lawyer in Barricade (1950), Agamemnon in Helen of Troy (1956) - it was as rogues that Douglas made the strongest impact. In The Fountainhead (1939), King Vidor's overblown but entertaining transcription of Ayn Rand's salute to the single-minded innovator (inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright), he dispensed with his usual toupee as a venomous art critic who despises true talent, describing modern architecture as "worthless, because it is merely the work of a few unbridled individualists".

A treacherous nobleman in Jacques Tourneur's buoyant medieval romp The Flame and the Arrow (1950), Douglas is confident of victory as he draws his sword against Burt Lancaster as an outlaw hero who is proficient only with bow and arrow, until Lancaster gains the upper hand by cutting down the chandeliers and plunging the room into virtual darkness. In At Sword's Point (1951), Douglas was again plotting to take over a throne until stopped by the offspring of the original "three musketeers", and he was similarly dastardly in Ivanhoe (1952), The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), and The Scarlet Cloak (1955).

Vincent Sherman's enjoyable soap opera The Young Philadelphians (1959), starring Paul Newman, was Douglas's last film, but he did not stop working. He acted in television productions of The Barretts of Wimpole Street and The Browning Version and took guest roles (usually as the villain) in Columbo, The Vigilantes and other series. He directed some Broadway plays, but he became primarily a television director, making over 200 shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents (10 episodes), The Roaring Twenties and The Virginian. A few years ago he stated that he did not "greatly miss acting".

Robert Douglas Finlayson (Robert Douglas), actor: born Bletchley, Buckinghamshire 9 November 1909; married 1935 Dorothy Hyson (marriage dissolved 1943), secondly Sue Weldon (nee Wilkinson; one son, one daughter); died Encinitas, California 18 January 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?