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.

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