Saturday Art: Charles Laughton In I, Claudius, The Greatest Film That Never Was

December 24, 2011

Charles Laughton is one of my favorite actors. He played the Roman Emperor Claudius in the film I, Claudius.

The film is based on the novel of the same name, written by Robert Graves. According to the Wikipedia entry, Graves claimed that Claudius visited him in a dream and told him to write the true story about his life, which Graves proceeded to do.

In 1998, Modern Library ranked I, Claudius as the 14th best English language novel out of 100 written during the 20th century.

Claudius was the 4th emperor of Rome (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius). In 41 AD, at the age of 49, he succeeded Caligula, who was assassinated by members of the Army.

Wikipedia states:

Historically, Claudius’ family kept him out of public life until his sudden coronation at the age of forty nine. This was due to his disabilities, which included a stammer, a limp, and various nervous tics which made him appear mentally deficient to his relatives. This is how he was defined by scholars for most of history, and Graves uses these peculiarities to develop a sympathetic character whose survival in a murderous dynasty depends upon his family’s incorrect assumption that he is a harmless idiot.

There is an absolutely marvelous scene in the film when Claudius is confirmed as the new emperor by the Senate. It begins with Laughton lounging on the throne looking like an imbecile while members of the Senate openly mock him. I could tell you the rest, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Watch the master . . .

The film is called the greatest film that was never made because it was never completed. According to IMDB, Laughton was having trouble getting into the role and not getting much help from the director, Josef von Sternberg, when his co-star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident. He then used her accident as an excuse to quit the film. All of the scenes that were filmed were saved and still exist. If Laughton was having trouble getting into his role, I certainly do not see any evidence of that in this scene.

Here is another scene with the incomparable Charles Laughton from the film, Witness for the Prosecution (1957), directed by Billy Wilder and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power. Wilder wrote the screenplay from a mystery novel by Agatha Christie. Dietrich, who also is one of my favorites, is sensational in the scene while Power is relegated to looking back and forth between the two of them.

The scene takes place in a courtroom, presumably the Old Bailey in London. Laughton is the criminal defense attorney, or barrister as the Brits say, He’s cross examining Dietrich about a certain hand-written letter to a man named Max and he has a problem authenticating it. Can he solve the problem? Watch and see . . .

Happy Holidays!


%d bloggers like this: