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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 623

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This is the grave of Claude Rains.

Born in 1889 in London, Rains was the son of actors which meant he grew in poverty. I mean serious poverty–nine of his eleven siblings died of malnutrition and related causes. He stuttered and had a very strong Cockney accent–not the normal material for a future legendary actor. He left school after he finished second grade to work as a news boy, selling papers on the street, which is what the poorest of the poor kids did in both the U.S. and the U.K. But he worked hard on his voice and stayed around his father and the theatres as often he could. By 1910 or so, he was a relatively successful figure in the London theatre scene, getting good reviews for parts. Wanting more money though, he planned on coming to the United States in 1913 to work in New York. He did, but then when the British entered World War I, he returned to fight. He started as a private and ended as a captain. He suffered through a gas attack and lost most of the vision in his right eye. But he survived. He also married Isabel Jeans in 1913, who would later be known for her work in several Hitchcock films, but they divorced in 1915. This was the first of Rains’ five marriages.

After the war, Rains chose to stay in London and act there. It was at this point that Rains, under advice from Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who was the founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, really worked on eliminating both his speech impediment and his Cockney accent entirely, succeeding quite well. Once he did that, he became the hottest actor in London. He started teaching at the Royal Academy as well, including schooling John Gielgud and Charles Laughton. He had a huge hit playing Ulysses S. Grant in John Drinkwater’s play by that name. I wonder what the British saw in a play about Grant. Anyway, he moved to New York in 1927 to work on Broadway, where he was the lead in several major plays.

Rains wasn’t very interested in the movies early in his career. He did appear in one silent film–Build Thy House, in 1920. That was only a minor role. He did not show up in the movies again until 1933’s The Invisible Man, directed by James Whale. In his entire life, this is the only film of his he ever saw, as he despised watching himself. He also would not watch the rushes of the day’s screening for the same reason. But he had success on the screen. In 1935, Warner Brothers signed him to a 7-year contract. He was not really a leading man given his age (he was nearly 50 by this time) and his accent, but he was great as the foil or villain. He played Prince John in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood and the corrupt senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He received his first Academy Award nomination for the latter, as Best Supporting Actor. He also played the police chief in Casablanca, which is probably his most known role today. He worked with Bette Davis on films such as Now, Voyager and Deception. He was the first actor to receive a million dollars for a movie when he played Julius Caesar in 1945’s Caesar and Cleopatra, which was not a real financial success. He was the Nazi agent in Hitchcock’s Notorious in 1946, Dryden in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, and King Herod in The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965, which was the last movie he ever worked in.

Rains became an American citizen in 1939 and really loved the idea that once poor kids like him could buy land. He started a big farm in Pennsylvania that he really loved and worked himself until one of his marriages went broke in 1956. He moved to New Hampshire after that and lived there when he wasn’t working. Rains never won an Academy Award, but he was nominated four times for Best Supporting Actor–for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, and Notorious. He did win a Best Actor Tony in 1951 for Darkness at Noon. He died in 1967, at the age of 77.

Let’s watch some of Rains’ work, which is more minor work because that’s what’s available on YouTube. But hey, if you don’t want to work today, you can just watch Rains on your desk all day!

Claude Rains is buried in Red Hill Cemetery, Moultonborough, New Hampshire.

If you would like this series to visit some of the actors Rains worked with, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Just in terms of the linked films above, Paul Muni is in Los Angeles and Ida Lupino is in Glendale, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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