Charles Laughton was born on 1 July 1899 in Yorkshire, England, to Robert Laughton and Elizabeth Conlon. After winning a gold medal while attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he made his stage debut in 1926. His first film appearance was in Wolves (1927), and two years later he married Elsa Lanchester, who would later find fame as the Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Laughton made small appearances in bit parts for a couple of years, contenting himself with his stage recitals of George Bernard Shaw in the meantime, but by the early Thirties his plump face (which he himself likened to the behind of an elephant) had become a familiar one in both Britain and America. Horror films The Old Dark House (1932) and Island of Lost Souls (1932) mingled with historical dramas such as The Sign of the Cross (1932), in which Laughton played Nero. The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), in which he took the lead role, won Laughton his first and only Academy Award.
Another defining role arrived with The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), which saw Laughton, when told that his performance as Edward Moulton-Barrett must not contain even a hint of incestuous love, reply that the wicked gleam in his eye could not be censored from the screen. He gave perhaps his most memorable performance as Captain William Bligh opposite Clark Gable’s Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and went on to take the title role in Rembrandt (1936). In 1937 Laughton formed his own company, Mayflower Pictures Corp, with Erich Pommer, but his production of I, Claudius (1937) was never completed.
Laughton worked with another famous Brit, Alfred Hitchcock, on smuggling yarn Jamaica Inn (1939), in which he played Justice of the Peace Sir Humphrey Pengallan in addition to acting as co-producer. Although Hitchcock was ostensibly directing, he later commented that “You can’t direct a Laughton picture. The best you can hope for is to referee.” Laughton then took the title role in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and while still considered one of his finest performances, his performance as the tortured Quasimodo has been criticised as containing signs of the overplaying which would mar for many his later films.
After such a strong series of roles in the preceding decade, the 1940s came as something of an anti-climax for Laughton. He was memorable as Judge Lord Horfield in The Paradine Case (1947) (another Hitchcock collaboration), eaten up with envy of lawyer Gregory Peck because he desires Peck’s wife. Laughton gave a strong performance in The Suspect (1944), and ranted and raved to good effect as Captain Kidd (1945) before starring opposite Ingrid Bergman in Arch of Triumph (1948). By 1950 Laughton was working almost exclusively in Hollywood, and so took American citizenship.
By now Laughton could have been accused of parodying himself, reprising his Captain Kidd in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952) and his Henry VIII in Young Bess (1953). Nonetheless, the American public took him to their collective bosom when he hosted his own television series, This is Charles Laughton, in 1953. His directorial debut, Night of the Hunter (1955), was not well received, but is now regarded as a classic. However, its perceived failure deterred Laughton from making any further forays into directing. Perhaps aware that he should choose his roles more carefully, and possibly due to his declining health, Laughton made fewer appearances as the decade drew to a close. These films, however, represented something of an upsurge in his career. He was excellent as curmudgeonly bootmaker Henry Horatio Hobson in David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice (1954), and also gave an outstanding performance as ailing barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts in Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Three years later, Laughton helped fill out the British contingent in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), appearing as Roman Senator Lentulus Gracchus alongside Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov. Ustinov has since asserted that one of the most entertaining aspects of filming was watching rivals Laughton and Olivier trying to out-act each other.
Laughton died of cancer in California on 15 December 1962. His last film appearance had come earlier in the year as Senator Seabright Cooley in Otto Preminger’s political pot-boiler Advise and Consent (1962). It is a tribute to his screen presence that his chubby features remain familiar ones a hundred years after his birth.