Rains was never a minor character
Claude Rains was luckier than most of his character-acting peers in Hollywood’s so-called classic age: He played a pivotal role in one of the few movies of that era that almost everyone has seen -- and goes on seeing. His insouciantly cynical but ultimately redeemable Captain Renault in “Casablanca” has many of the film’s best lines, delivered with insinuating ease. Resolutely unaddled by romantic posturings, political and sexual, that preoccupy the rest in the movie, he is the audience’s perfect surrogate. “What fools these mortals be,” he seems to say, but aren’t they pretty? And aren’t they capable of infectious nobility, despite the darkness of their historical moment?
That said, however, it seems to me that “Casablanca” does a small disservice to Rains. For he was the greatest character actor of his age -- possibly of all ages. Today, people seem unaware of the astonishing range of response that he brought to an extraordinarily diverse group of pictures: the prosecutor whose political ambitions lead to a lynching in “They Won’t Forget”; Napoleon III as Hitler stand-in in “Juarez”; the mysteriously damaged humanist-doctor of “Kings Row”; the openly Jewish (a rarity in movies of that time) investment banker in love with Bette Davis in “Mr. Skeffington.” That says nothing of the many sympathetic father figures he played. Or about what may be his greatest role, as the mother-dominated Nazi spy hopelessly in love with Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” It is a part that, unlikely as it seems, generates our sympathy and not solely because he competes -- talk about hopeless -- with Cary Grant for her favors.
Rains invested these roles with a slight but palpable air of mystery. By never fully explaining himself, he commanded our wondering attention long after the film was over. It was a great, singular career that has long deserved a thoughtful biography, which David J. Skal, working with Rains’ daughter, Jessica, doesn’t quite provide in “Claude Rains: An Actor’s Voice” -- a short, workmanlike, rather dispassionate book. It is another actor bio that substitutes quotations from ill-chosen reviews for passionate critical engagement, while adding a few brisk but not very illuminating discussions of Rains’ several demons.
Skal follows Rains’ modest-to-a-fault lead. He was coolly professional in demeanor, never particularly close to his fellow players (Bette Davis being the notable exception), a man who arrived promptly on set, his lines learned, offering no displays of overt temperament.
When he finished a picture, he would quietly retreat to one of several country places he owned over his American career, which began in 1920s theater. Most people were unaware of his chronic alcoholism (he died of cirrhosis of the liver at 78). Nor was there ever much public discussion of his six marriages, as only two of them were to quasi-public figures (English actresses Isabel Jeans and Beatriz Thomas).
People did talk about his height; he was only 5 feet 6, often wore elevator shoes, generally combed his hair in a pompadour that added another inch to his height and frequently stood on boxes when performing with statuesque actresses like Bergman. He was handsome, but stature barred him from heroic roles and perhaps contributed to his air of detachment -- and, for all we know, his drinking. Smallness was his limiting destiny, which no amount of hard work could overcome.
And he had much to overcome -- poverty, cockney birth, indifferent parents, a dreadful accent. It was show business that saved him. He became a callboy, latterly a stage manager, in London theaters, where the legendary Herbert Beerbohm Tree took an interest in him -- particularly in reforming his voice. Before serving in World War I, which cost him his sight in one eye, he was doing small roles.
After the war, the parts got larger and he became a teacher at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. What had been a flaw, his voice, became his glory. Silky, often pensive, sometimes touched by nameless rue, it was equally suitable for realism and irony, though not for high tragedy.
Many actors, blessed with such vocal facility, rely too heavily on their voice’s musicality (it was often Gielgud’s problem) to capture (overawe) our attention but give the impression that they’re acting in a movie all their own, not fully relating to fellow players. Rains could burn if he had to -- see his “The Invisible Man” or “The Phantom of the Opera” nut jobs -- but he was never inexplicably crazy. He was driven round the bend by the sudden failures of reason. These were lead roles, but far more often his fate was to be the most interesting character in the movie, but rarely its center.
Although he had the title role in “Mr. Skeffington,” Rains’ Oscar nomination was for supporting actor -- a category that Hollywood generally votes for bombast, cuteness or, curiously, non-actors. But his tact, delicacy and intelligence were unsurpassed. And if you search him out now, you will be entranced by paradoxes: the power of his subtlety, the urgency of his patience, the admirably muted passion of his proud professionalism. This was acting as it should be: flexible, self-effacing, yet so often, at the movie’s end, enigmatic in ways that abide in memory.