Inside Film

Claude Rains: Why he’s one of the greatest character actors ever

The ‘Casablanca’ and ‘The Invisible Man’ actor may not have cut it as the leading man but he often stole the show, says Geoffrey Macnab who looks back at his career on the centenary of his screen debut

Thursday 30 July 2020 14:27
Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart in ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933)
Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart in ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933)

Claude Rains was very short. When he appeared in Notorious (1946), Alfred Hitchcock had to stand him on a box for some of his scenes with Ingrid Bergman. He became a movie star in his early forties with The Invisible Man (1933), in which the audience could only see his face for a few moments at the end. As a leading man, he didn’t really cut it. “You’re small aren’t you. I don’t think you could play heroes,” one of his early mentors, actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, warned him. He had had a deprived and brutal south London childhood. “He grew up in the slums of London,” his daughter Jessica told the audience at a special screening of one of his films in 2012. “He was one of 12 children. All but three died from malnutrition when they were children. It was rough.”

His biographer David J Skal writes about his “wretched diction” and “air of waif-like vulnerability” as a kid. He was wounded, partially blinded, and almost killed in the trenches during the First World War. Married six times himself, he often played cuckolds and repressed and unhappy husbands. Nothing about his background was very grand and yet Rains (1889-1967) has a fair claim as one of the greatest screen character actors of all time.

Rains received four Oscar nominations – all in the Best Supporting Actor category. He combined brilliantly with Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Bette Davis described him as her favourite co-star. David Lean, an arch-perfectionist himself, marvelled at his technique and his meticulous approach.

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