Though his roles were sometimes small, Claude Rains made a stealthy, acute contribution to many films of the thirties and forties. The son of an English stage actor, Rains was born into extreme poverty: nine of his siblings died in the squalor of a poor section of London. He was handicapped with small stature (standing at 5’ 6 1/2 inches tall), a thick Cockney accent and a serious lisp (his trouble area was the letter “r”). Rains was taken in hand by the famous stage star Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who helped him acquire a distinguished, unplaceable way of speaking. He worked his way up in the theater world as a stage manager, then fought in World War I, where he was gassed and lost most of the sight in his right eye. Rains also lost his voice for a time. When his voice returned, it was throatier, and had an absent, even raspy quality that he learned to use for effects like a trained musician.
Rains enjoyed a thriving theater career in the twenties, appearing in A Bill of Divorcement, The Constant Nymph, and many plays by George Bernard Shaw (oddly, he didn’t do much Shakespeare, but his background in Shaw helped him over the hurdles of Warner Brothers’ expository dialogue). His influence extended far past his own work: as a teacher at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he counted John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton among his students. To Gielgud, he bequeathed his airy vowels, to Olivier, his razor-sharp consonants, and to Laughton, arguably the most important of the three, he taught a way of working that treated the creation of a performance as a slow, detail-based process that scorned the achievement of instant results in rehearsal and cultivated more subterranean means of expression. Rains labored over a character methodically, as if he were building a house, or giving birth, and when it came time for the performance, his fellow actors were invariably startled by the smoothness of his finished work after he had stumbled and tried things throughout the rehearsal period.
The young Rains was also catnip to women, apparently, and he married six times. Gielgud remembered that “all the girls in class were hopelessly in love with him,” and also recalled a time when Rains “once appeared with Beatrix Thomson, to whom he was then married, in a cast that included two of his former wives.” One can imagine Rains keeping a situation like that just on the verge of boiling over, and enjoying the tensions as if they were a show, as he did in so many of his films. He made his movie debut, at 44, in The Invisible Man (1933), so that we grew accustomed to that alarming voice before we saw the shrunken, wry face and the neat little body. In the few films he made after that, before signing with Warner Brothers, Rains is a bit thundery and theatrical; he hadn’t learned yet what will work on screen, but in the daily grind at the overworked Warners lot, he began to play to the camera subtly and confidentially, as if he were sharing a secret with it, a joke, or a livid sense of betrayal. For he usually played outsiders, men who scoffed insecurely on the outskirts of eternal triangles. You never knew where you stood with Claude Rains: he seemed capable of anything beneath the rigidity of his dandyish control. He may have been just a side dish in some films, but there’s no denying the passion and depth of his extra-calibrated relish.
1. Casablanca (1943): As Louis Renault, a “poor, corrupt official,” Rains flirts with Humphrey Bogart’s Rick shamelessly throughout this ultimate classic Hollywood studio film, even calls him “Ricky.” Louis is equal to any situation; he is also so serious that he pretends to be serious about nothing. When talking to Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, he confesses, “if I were a woman, and I were not around, I should be in love with Rick.” Notice the bewildering narcissistic backtracking in that statement: Louis is either the victim of one of the biggest man crushes of all time, or he’s the most careful, qualifying old queen this side of Henry James. Louis talks of women and beautiful blonds, but we never see him with a woman. He’s always after Rick, and he gets him in the end. What will they do after the final fade-out, the fabled beginning of their “beautiful friendship”? I would think that Rains’ Louis would be content to watch over his Ricky, but I might be underestimating Rains’ capacity for outrageousness; the two friends might have as nice a time in Morocco as Paul Bowles did if the hashish is choice. Louis brags that his heart is his “least vulnerable part,” but Rains is enough of an artist to suggest the upheavals that have to be endured before someone can say something as tough as that and mean it.
2. Mr. Skeffington (1944): For this gargantuan Bette Davis soap opera (145 minutes!), Rains is here to lend a star support, as he did when he played Davis’ firm psychiatrist in Now, Voyager (1942). A vain, cruel society beauty, Bette’s Fanny always has the feeling that Rains’ Job is laughing at her as he loves her through many reels and eras, and we know what she means: even in his most trying moments on screen, Rains’ cannot keep out a bemused, above-it-all defensiveness in his eyes and voice. When Fanny asks Job about his past, and Job speaks of his family’s poverty, Rains clearly does not personalize his emotions as a Method actor would have. Was he even tempted to? Perhaps he knew instinctively that such a tactic might make a mess, for he saves his best work for moments that aren’t personal to him. A lifelong ladies’ man, Rains could not have identified with Job Skeffington’s puppyish devotion to his idiotic wife, but watch the scene where he finally tells her off, or, even better, his scene with his daughter where he lets go of his feelings, which results in a searing mixture of laughter and tears. Rains proved, and taught his magic trifecta at RADA, that the best acting comes directly from the imagination and from an advanced kind of empathy.
3. Notorious (1946): Rains received one of his four Oscar nominations for supporting actor in this Hitchcock masterpiece. The actor plays a horny Nazi dominated by his mother. That might sound lurid, but Rains makes Alex Sebastian a dismayingly ordinary sort of a man, the kind of person who sits by while others kill, or make love (he’s certainly the identification figure for the director, especially as the film goes on). Cary Grant’s agent is such an unmitigated son of a bitch that Rains gathers sympathy as the movie goes on, and his Alex even reaches a heroic level when he admits, on a very long walk down a staircase, that he’s not afraid to die, though he is certainly afraid to live. A seemingly corrupt man, Alex finally discovers, like so many Rains characters, that hedonistic pleasures like sex and food are not enough. He needs genuine love, and this need isolates him. Rains has never seemed smaller or more vulnerable than as this man, who is ostensibly one of the wickedest villains of his career.
4. Deception (1946): In this not-to-be-believed high camp meller, Rains enters folklore as Alexander Hollenius, a piggish great composer who suffers the torments of jealousy and plans a succulent revenge on his rival. As he rips and tears into some of the fruitiest dialogue ever written, Rains shamelessly shows off and returns to his earlier theatrical mode of the mid-thirties, which works spectacularly in this velvety late-Warners context. Hollenius often wears white gloves, smokes from a jaunty cigarette holder, keeps a cat nearby to stroke, retains an Asian houseboy and owns some of the largest lamps ever designed. He is also a fiend for good food, as demonstrated in the film’s funniest scene, where he demands, among other delicacies, a trout “from a good stream.” Faced with a nearly defeated Bette Davis, he quips, “My dear, I have no taste for the abject.” Faced with a smoldering Davis wielding a gun, a sight many men would quake at, the fearless Hollenius merely cries, “Give me that nonsensical object!” before being shot dead and tumbling down a staircase. But nothing can kill a performance this epic; it may not be Rains’ best work, but it is his most enjoyable, and Hollenius lives on, not least as a phantom character in James McCourt’s exquisite cult novel Mawrdew Czgowchwz.
5. Where Danger Lives (1950): Where Dim Noir Plods is more like it, but this little femme fatale number, which was made to showcase Howard Hughes’ new girl, Faith Domergue, contains proof positive that the less Rains is used in a film, the more he haunts it. Looking older and rather tired, Rains has only one scene here. He wipes the floor with dead-eyed Domergue and a somnolent Robert Mitchum, bringing his amused presence to bear on them, then revealing a sudden nastiness, just for fun. He is missed when he is killed, just as Rains was missed when he eventually returned to the theater, winning a Tony for Darkness at Noon (1951). He made a memorable comeback as another poor, corrupt official in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and died in 1967. Last year, two books were published about Claude Rains, and his dramatic life and contribution to the art of acting, in his own work and in the work of his star pupils at RADA, make him an ideal subject for further research.