Sunday, May 24, 2015

Claude Rains: An Actor's Side-Eye

Think of Claude Rains, and what usually come to mind is The Voice. That liquid, caressing baritone, with just enough of an English accent. Voices don't come much sexier than Rains'. (If you need reminding, or just because he is excellent in it, here is a recording of "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole," a classic episode of the radio show "Suspense" that stars Rains along with Vincent Price.)

Recently, however, by the simple expedient of noodling around for good photos of Claude Rains (on whom the Siren, like her idol Bette Davis, has a raging crush), the Siren made a discovery. An intriguing discovery, if she says so herself, and she does.

In addition to speech so beautiful that David J. Skal's biography of Rains is called An Actor's Voice, Rains had a world-class side-eye.

In fact, until a challenger comes along, the Siren, by the authority she has invested in herself, awards Claude Rains the prize as The Greatest Side-Eye of All Time.

And here's a curious note about The Voice, and the unique sidelong look he brought to multiple roles over the course of a great career: The evidence suggests both had their roots in adversity.

Claude Rains, who brought a silky hint of culture, wit and high birth to so many roles, was born into a London family of small means in 1889. He had 11 brothers and sisters; in an era of measles, diptheria and a thousand other childhood scourges, many of the Rains children died in infancy. Only three of them, including Claude, made it to adulthood. His father, an actor of sorts, veered from one job to another, and was prone to beat his son for the smallest infraction. His mother spent time in an asylum, and Skal speculates that she suffered from postpartum depression. Young Willie (his birthname was William Claude) had a strong Cockney accent Skal says was picked up in the London streets, as well as both a lisp and a stammer. He got rid of them all by his late teens as he embarked on a career in the theatre, moving from call boy to prompter to speaking roles, and studying elocution books religiously, practicing every exercise.

In 1916 he volunteered for the famed London Scottish Regiment, known around these parts as the Most Devastatingly Attractive Regiment of All Time, including as it did Basil Rathbone, Herbert Marshall and Ronald Colman. Rains was deployed to Vimy Ridge, where months later his outfit was hit by mustard gas. A shell exploded near him and the last words he heard, before he lost consciousness, were "Well, they got Rains."

When he woke up in the hospital, he had lost nearly all the vision in his right eye, and his vocal cords were paralyzed. The voice came back, of course, but with a slightly rougher cast that movie audiences would grow to love. The blindness was permanent. Skal says "it would remain a closely guarded secret" right up to Rains' death in 1967.

It's hard, if not impossible, to know whether this contributed to the signature Rains glance, perhaps as one way of keeping a scene partner in his sightlines, without drawing attention to the right eye. What is indisputably true is that a sidelong look from Claude Rains is more intense than many another actor's head-on stare.

It wasn't an indiscriminate thing. He was too fine and precise an actor for that. You won't find it much, for example, in Mr. Skeffington, one of the Siren's favorite Rains roles, where he has the title role as the near-saintly man who loves Bette Davis' cold-hearted flirt. But when he needed it, hoo boy.  Side-eye is modern slang for a glance of derision, and certainly Rains could do that, so scathingly you imagine whoever is in the scene with him had to put up a fire-screen. But Rains had infinite variations, until that look became an art. With it, he could convey tender love, bitter betrayal, cynicism, defeat, lust, fear, laughter and a sense that the world is mad.

Behold. The Siren has collected evidence.

Publicity photo, or, The Come-Hither Side-Eye, in which Rains at his handsomest appears to glance away
 because you, yes you dear fan-person, you drive him mad with passion. Speaking of which...

Crime Without Passion (1934): "You're blonde now."
Anthony Adverse (1936): Calculating, with a hint of licentiousness. Rowr.

Stolen Holiday (1937): "No, of course I haven't concocted one of the greatest
financial frauds in French history. Bisou-bisou, darling."

They Won't Forget (1937): The Siren can't joke about this one; it's too grim, and fact-based to boot.
 All the same, that's a hell of a look.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): In a scene with Basil Rathbone, former comrade from the Scottish Regiment, the Rains sidelong glance does not hesitate to upstage the Baz something fierce.

Four Daughters (1938): The rarely deployed twinkly version. 

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941): Precisely the look to convey to a subordinate, in this world or the next, that he has made a very big boo-boo.

The Wolf-Man (1941): "Down, boy. My billing's higher than yours."

Building up a "psychic bellyache" in Kings Row (1942).

Now, Voyager (1942): The look of a psychiatrist who realizes he's taking the wrong person to the sanitorium.

As Casablanca was peak Rains, in the public memory if nothing else, so also is it Peak Side-Eye, as here

and here...

and here...

...and of course, here.

Notorious: The "Yes, That's the Low-Cut Gown of the American Spy I Married" Side-Eye

Publicity for The Unsuspected (1946): "I dare you to suspect me."
(Wonderful film, another of the Siren's favorite Rains outings.)

Deception (1947): Side-Eye Emphasizing the Betrayed, Although Admittedly Crazed and Controlling, Lover 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Assessing just how much trouble T.E.'s "funny sense of fun" is going to cause him.

Some more good stuff about Claude Rains:

The Notorious screen-grabs and the ones from Now, Voyager are from the movie writeups at The Blonde at the Film.

His career in horror movies, from John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows.

Karen at Shadows and Satin speculates it was Rains who got the first million-dollar salary.

Moira Finnie at Movie Morlocks has a tribute that mentions the signature look.

A biographical essay at The Hollywood Art, with quotes from Rains' only daughter, Jessica.


DavidEhrenstein said...

In his movie debut Rains is "all-voice" until the last shot. That's because he's playing The Invisible Man.

Impossible not to adore him in every role. Whether it's the instant immortality of Casablanca, or his amusement at O'Toole's antics in Lawrence of Arabia, he's on the money.

Mr. Skeffington is of course wonderful. But I find his best battle with Bette was in Deception, where his giddily condescending attitude literally DEMANDS she pull out her revolver and plug him.

As for sightless acting greats, don't forget Esmond Knight.

Birgit said...

He is one of my favourite actors hands down. He was always a bit sinister but jovial with a heart deep down. No matter what he did, he elevated the film he was in. I have read little about him, which is strange for me, so glad to know a bit more about him here

testingwithfire said...

That caption for the Now Voyager gif is just too rich. I read somewhere (perhaps here!) that Bette Davis was in love with Rains ... so many classic films would have suffered so greatly without his presence. Thank you Siren for this wonderful, witty commentary.

Vanwall said...

Rains is the main reason I watch "Casablanca", the man is the greatest thief in film history, stealing so casually every scene he's in, and not just that film, he did it wholesale his entire career. Nice tribute to a great looker, side and any other style.

The Siren said...

David, I should revisit The Invisible Man; as a kid I didn't get it. I also love Deception; that scene in the restaurant slays me. I want to play it for every foodie I know.

Birgit, it's true; even in the few films where Rains is miscast (e.g. They Made Me a Criminal) his presence is a pleasure.

Testingwithfire, Skal's biography ends with a wonderful scene between Jessica Rains and Bette Davis. I won't spoil it but it's the best thing in the book, which is a swift read.

Vanwall, I have about a dozen reasons to watch Casablanca but Rains is way up there. They cleaned up some of his lines but he still got the double-entendre in there. In his TCM tribute John Gielgud says all of Rains' London students were in love with him. Six wives, too (like Henry VIII). Bette and I are not the only ones who found him irresistible.

David M. said...

"Notorious". He inhabited his monstrous character so thoroughly that at the conclusion of the film there was an element of emotional devastation in his predicament that I've never thought was even in the script.

gmoke said...

I wish we knew more about his teaching of acting. He seems to have been well-loved and respected by his illustrious students.

john_burke100 said...

Thanks for this, and particularly for mentioning some movies I hadn't heard of; we watched "The Clairvoyant" tonight and though the soundtrack on the streaming version (from Netflix) wasn't very good, the story and acting kept us riveted.

Skimpole said...

Personally I think "They Won't Forget" is THE example of how pernicious the Motion Picture Production Code was. Because you couldn't say that Leo Frank was falsely convicted, you get a lot of cowardly wishy-washyness. ("I wonder" if he was guilty, my ass.) Also the movie doesn't make clear why its two suspects would want to kill Lana Turner at all. And there's the utterly false equivalence between Frank's murder and anti-southern prejudice. ("We don't deserve this kind of cheap contempt," say many white Southerners. Well what sort of contempt do you deserve? You're the one systematically ruining the lives of your neighbors and fellow Americans. One might think that was worse than Leonard Bernstein being less witty than Tom Wolfe at cocktail parties. And there's also the idea that Northern racism is a hypocrisy the South suffers from, as opposed to a phenomenon the South's political elite have throughout its history done everything to encourage.) The contrast with LeRoy's previous "I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is stunning.

A footnote: there's a similar CYA moment in "A Place in the Sun," when the preacher tells Montgomery Clift on death row that his feelings towards Shelley Winters make him guilty of murder. First off, while Theodore Dreiser doesn't get many marks for intelligence, if he thought this he was more than capable of saying it himself. Second, that's not how the law works. You don't get your sentence changed from guilty of vehicular manslaughter to guilty of capital murder if you once daydreamed of pushing the deceased off the Empire State Building.

Aubyn said...

I've basically had a crush on Rains since a faithful viewing of Casablanca that had me wondering why the middle-aged, cowardly, sexually blackmailing, madly-in-love with Humphrey Bogart, collaborating with Nazis character was still the most attractive man in the movie to me. I can't say the Rains crush follows me to all his movies (the red wig in Robin Hood does nothing for me) but he had incredible charisma and clearly could dial it way up or way down as he so chose.

Personally, I've always thought that the reason Alex Sebastian in Notorious gets so much sympathy from critics and Hitchock himself, to the point where he's seen as nobler than Grant's character, is because Rains' portrayal of the man's infatuation and terror was so darn compelling it makes everyone forget about all the scenes where he's calmly urging Ingrid Bergman to take another cup of poisoned coffee.

Lemora said...

Thank you for these great photos. Red wig or no, Prince John menacing Maid Marian in "Robin Hood" is so delightfully sinister. Now, I have to see if that restaurant scene in "Deception" can be found on You Tube.

Kirk said...

Admission: I felt a bit sorry for Rains at the end of NOTORIOUS.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, I would have felt MUCH, MUCH, more sorry for Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman had they not made it out of that house and into that car.

Unknown said...

Oh! My! God! I thought I was the only person in the world who had a "raging crush" on Claude Rains! I get all teenybopper giggly, really embarrassing. That wonderful scene in Deception (a favorite film for many, many wrong reasons), the one in the restaurant where Rains never stops babbling and deliberately crushes Paul Henreid's ego into a grease spot on the floor, that's my favorite Rains moment. Among many favorite Rains moments. It looks like he's adlibbing but you know it was scripted to a fare-thee-well.

I wonder if we should form a Rains Fangrrl group, or something. Have a high sign and a mission statement, and do each other's toenails while watching repeats of Now, Voyager and squealing.

The Siren said...

Oh gosh no, my good friend Kim Morgan has a Claude Rains crush too. He WAS married six times. And yes, that restaurant scene is a career high point. Skal's book says that after the read-through Bette Davis took a pause and then said drily, "That's quite a part you got yourself there, Claudie." Some say that she engineered the over-the-top ending to keep her character from being overshadowed. If so, it didn't work. (Relax, Bette, we love you downstage or upstage(d)).

You know what else I love about that movie? The apartment! That bank of windows overlooking the 59th St. Bridge! OK, I know it was a set, but still. Fabulous. Deception is such a great looking film and I love it so much. I think what keeps it from being a great film, period, is lack of cohesion; it lurches around too much from mood to mood. It's a collection of wonderful scenes.

Unknown said...

I heard that the apartment was designed as a copy of Leonard Bernstein's apartment. I cannot remember where I heard that so don't quote me. Both Bette and Henreid were far too old to be playing students, but who the hell cares. Like you, I still want Bette to end up with Dr. Jaquith at the end of Now Voyager. Oooh, another Bette fan. Anyway, Deception is one of those films (like Dragonwyck of FB discussion) that has excellent ingredients but doesn't quite gel. I don't care, I love every minute of it.

KennethCB said...

I recently binged-watched many, many episodes of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," several episodes of which starred ... very memorably, of course ... Rains. Not that the episodes weren't well-written and directed, but Rains raised the proceedings to an even higher level of excellence.

Silents, Please! said...

My partner linked me to this - what a great post! Claude was just fantastic.

Gareth said...

I watched a Rains double bill the other day, consisting The Clairvoyant and David Lean's The Passionate Friends, and spent both movies reveling in every instance of the side eye. The latter film has an especially wonderful section where he invests dry economic commentary with deep emotion, a very clever scene.

mjbirch said...

Siren: Thanks for the article. High time! (I've got the crush, too.) More Rains articles, please.

The scene I replay from "Deception" is post-Restaurant-Debacle. (I have an older brother who is a foodie - I've lived that scene!). Bette Davis storms past the houseboy and into Rains's bedroom. Rains is in his pajamas (what a beautiful neck) and reading the funnies, which kills me. Anyway-- I was watching this for the eighty-fifth time, when I thought "ohmaGawd, Bette & Claude -- George & Martha dream team for 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'" (only something would have to be done about the "Beyond the Forest" reference in the opening lines of Act I)

One side-look you missed from Casablanca: When Joy Page admits that her husband is losing at roulette ("Oh TOO BAD..." -- did anyone ever do unctuous insincerity better than Claude Rains?) he gives her a swift once-over as she despondently walks away. Translation of look: YUMMM...

Steve Paradis said...

In the TCM Star of the Month Davis was quoted that her favorite co-star was Rains: the best actor and the best company on-set. And he'd never made a pass at her: "I was half his age; much too old for him!"

And thanks for the still from "Stolen Holiday". Not only the perfect Stavisky, but you can see Kay Francis relishing the chance to work with someone beside the usual stiffs Warners threw at her.

Tiffany Brannan said...

Dear Siren,

Greetings from the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society! This is a fine article. Claude Rains indeed had a dramatic look. I haven't seen many of the movies you mentioned, but he is indeed a wonderful actor.

I, Rebekah Brannan, have not participated much in the blog world in the past, but I intend to become more involved now.

I would like very much for you to participate in my upcoming blogathon, The Singing Sweethearts Blogathon, which will be my first real participation in PEPS. This blogathon, which will be hosted around Valentine’s Day, is celebrating the famous singing team Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. You could write about "The Phantom of the Opera" from 1943, because Nelson Eddy is in it.

You can read the rules of the blogathon at: If you want to join, please comment and tell me your topic, if you have chosen one. I hope you’ll join me in honoring this brilliant team and the holiday of love!


Rebekah Brannan