What an actor. He could read the phone book on screen and enchant an audience.
He also is a stand-up guy. Consider the following:
We are probably all too familiar with that annoying personality trait that compels some insecure types to flatter the powerful — those above them in status — while at the same time demeaning the ‘little people’ below.
Not to be vulgar about it, but in Hollywood the syndrome is known as sucking up while excreting down.
One of our most admired classic film actors, Claude Rains, came relatively late to movies (he was in his mid-40’s when he made his debut in 1933’s The Invisible Man) after a successful stage career on both sides of the Atlantic.
The London-born actor was a genuine cinematic gift, costarring in some of the most memorable movies ever made including Alfred Hitchcock’s superb 1946 thriller, Notorious, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman; Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with James Stewart; 1942’s Now Voyager with his good friend Bette Davis and Paul Henreid; and 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, playing a worldly diplomat opposite Peter O’Toole’s title-role visionary.
Rains’ most famous screen role by far was ‘Captain Louis Renault’ — who is “shocked” to discover that gambling is going on at Rick’s Cafe — in 1942’s Casablanca. The character is, to quote British critic David Thomson, a most engaging cynic, surviving with amusement amid so much compromise.
Rains’ key costars in Casablanca are, of course, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Henreid, who wrote about his experiences in making the picture on the Warner Brothers lot in his 1984 book, Ladies Man: An Autobiography.
The director of the picture was Michael Curtiz, a native Hungarian described by Henreid as a charming man, balding, in his late fifties …. But as charming as he was to his major stars, he was just as rude to the bit players. He treated them abominably, as if he had to let all his meanness out on them so he could be extra sweet to the actors, who in his view, mattered.
One day Rains overheard Curtiz yelling at a bit player, a refugee German aristocrat: ‘You stupid son of a bitch! Can’t you understand English?…you idiot — just listen to me, and don’t be such an asshole.’ Rains, who Henreid described as always the perfect gentleman, was deeply offended.
The actor convinced Bogart and Henreid to confront Curtiz. ‘Mike,’ he said, ‘Paul, Bogie and I all feel we should have a happy set from the first to the last day. We don’t want to hear an ugly word from you to anyone on this stage.’
His voice hardened as he spoke. ‘Not to a grip, a cameraman, or even, God help us, to a bit player!’ He nodded toward the crushed German actor.
Do it again, threatened Rains, and the three stars would walk off the set.
Henreid wrote that Curtiz’ eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Finally collecting himself the director promised Rains ‘it won’t happen (again), believe me!’
And until the very last day of the shoot — when Curtiz lost it again, and screamed at a bit player, prompting a walkoff by Bogart, Rains and Henreid — the director kept his promise.