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Thursday, February 27, 2014

THE REEL REALS: Claude Rains

Claude Raines

Claude Rains made his big cinematic breakthrough in the role in and as The Invisible Man. Over a decade earlier, he'd appeared in only one prior film. Claude was a true thespian, you see. He had little interest in cinema. Born into the land of theater and following in the footsteps of his actor father, he learned the ropes both on the stage and behind the curtain, building up quite the reputation for himself and even earning enough credentials to become a bona fide acting teacher. Born in Britain, Claude spent some time in New York treading the boards, both prior to and following the Great War.

As the talkies took hold, Hollywood began its earnest pursuit of performers with solid voices, and Claude certainly fit the bill. His seductive drawl was filled with implication, alluring and hypnotizing his audiences. The effect was that of the soft sands of an hourglass cascading down silkily on soon to be suffocating victims. Now running the full throttle Monster Train, Universal Studios was looking for an actor who could portray the demented, faceless doctor of the H.G. Wells science-fiction masterpiece with nothing but the power of vocals to maintain the audience's attention. Perhaps for that challenge alone, Claude accepted the part. It would change the course of his career and shape cinematic history.

Claude's Invisible hero is similar to Dr. Frankenstein-- he is on a passionate quest to unlock the secrets of man. However, he is a bit bolder than ol' Victor, as he uses himself as his own test subject. Things do not go as planned, and the doctors dreams of glory disappear with his own flesh. Strangely, the masking of the doctor in bandages to hide his now invisible form only serves to unmask his hidden diabolical nature, that of vanity, fury, and the fragile vulnerability of the human brain. Without his form, what is a man? Insanity unfurled, as it turns out-- a living ghost, an outcast, a shadowless shadow. Using tight and frenetic body language and the many levels of his soon to be infamous voice, Claude gave this anti-hero both shape and substance and found himself locked into the world of Hollywood, whether he liked it or not.

Claude would become a hero to Monster fans due to his involvement in The Invisible Man, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Wolf Man, but his stone cold deliveries and calculating, "I'm ten steps ahead of you" demeanor would serve the industry well in an assortment of character roles. Often playing the arch nemesis or supporting, untrustworthy character, Claude would deliver us into the hands of evil or twist us up in his vicious mind games so adeptly that his villainy was nothing short of art.

Of course, the humanity and intelligence he put into his craft lifted his performances above that of the token sinister character. He too had heart. Therefore, he easily transitioned between his brokenhearted and vengeful wooer roles (Notorious, Deception), his legitimate good guy roles, (Now, Voyager), his questionably bad but somehow likable roles, (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood), and his all-out, corrupt jerks (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) with ease.

Claude could always be depended on to give a story more weight and significance, cementing it in reality and making it as fascinating and intricate as possible. There are layers, and then there are layers. His direct deliveries somehow made it easier to venture on the furthest stretches of the human imagination, which were dangerous but not as scary under his guidance. A veritable magician and craftsman, his potion still works like a tonic on us. He is one star who will never disappear.

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