Happy Birthday Charles Laughton


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Charles Laughton in The Hunchack of Notre Dame (1939)
Charles Laughton in The Hunchack of Notre Dame (1939)

Today, 1st of June, is Charles Laughton’s birthday! DAVID SAUNDERSON picks three of his favourite Charles Laughton horror films

A couple of blocks from where I live is a blue plaque in Percy Street noting that Charles Laughton, the great British actor, used to live there.

The date on the plaque is 1928-1931, so it is fair to assume it was his last home in London before going off to fame and fortune in the United states. It is also fair to assume that he lived there with his wife Elsa Lanchester aka The Bride of Frankenstein. I find this very cool.

Charles Laughton (1899-1962) has long been a favourite actor of mine. Today is his birthday, so it is as good as any time to wax lyrical about why he was so great.

I’m not going to write a biography of him – Simon Callow did a fantastic job of that in his book, Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor. I’m just going to pick a couple of his films that I thought were really awesome.

Charles Laughton plague in Percy Street, London
Charles Laughton plague in Percy Street, London

First up is The Old Dark House (1932) – the original haunted house horror. This film, directed by James Whales, was Laughton’s first Hollywood film. The ensemble piece is a delight and sees him up against Ernest Thesinger and Boris Karloff.
Laughton would go on to play Emperor Nero in the Sign of the Cross and the title role in The Private Life of Henry VIII, which he won the Oscar for Best Actor, but his being in The Old Dark House is what makes him horror royalty.
This next film, Island of Lost Souls (1932), made him a horror immortal.
Laughton, in his evil-scientist, weirdo moustache-beardy combo, mixes charm and bat-poop craziness as Dr Moreau in the adaptation of the HG Wells classic. The film was banned for years for its shocking subject matter. Laughton is genuinely creepy as the sadistic Moreau, who has sought to play God with his humonoid creations. What got me when I first saw it was how Laughton didn’t overplay it – he could have been a wacky mad scientist but he is thoughtful and charming, fully believing that what he is doing is for the good of mankind, which is why he was so frightening.
The last film I will mention is the film that introduced me to Charles Laughton – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
Lon Chaney is the most famous Quasimodo. But I think Charles Laughton’s is the finest. Laughton’s disturbing and most realistic makeup, along with his overall pathetic-ness is heartbreaking. Chaney’s makeup is iconic but I can still hear Laughton saying “She gave me water” even thought I’ve not seen the film in years. I was crying by the end of the film.
Charles Laughton wasn’t in many of what we would call horror films, but he certainly made his mark.

Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls (1932)
Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls (1932)
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