January 8, 2014

Charles Laughton, Mutiny on the Bounty

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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor
If there was anything I was looking forward to going into Mutiny on the Bounty, it was Charles Laughton. This is because I tend to thoroughly enjoy villainous characters--I just think that the depiction of evil is a complicated art and can be so fascinating on the screen when done right. Further, Laughton's performance as the vile Edward Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street was, in my opinion, the best thing about that movie, so I was pretty curious to see what he would do with the real-life ship captain who was supposedly so terrible that he provoked his men to mutiny on more than one occasion. More fuel to the fire was the fact that Laughton was also the very first recipient of the Best Actor prize through the New York Film Critics Circle, which was just about the only precursor award to the Oscars in 1935 and would remain so until the Golden Globes came along nearly a decade later. I've mentioned in a prior post that there is a steady build-up leading to Bligh's onscreen reveal, and yet once we see him getting aboard the Bounty, director Frank Lloyd (annoyingly) films the entire sequence in long-shot--and just like that this allegedly larger-than-life, terrible man whom everyone is supposed to be so afraid of is cinematically framed to look like another tiny individual amongst a ship of many tiny individuals. A very anticlimactic entrance and very...unremarkable, if you will.

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So I continued to watch Laughton, and I waited diligently to have my world rocked. And by the time the film ended, I was left with a feeling of indifference. A few folks whose opinions I respect have expressed love for Laughton's work, so I gave the film another go to try and see if I had missed anything...but my feelings never changed. Now I'm not saying that I thought Laughton was bad--he certainly isn't--but what I did think throughout his entire performance was that he was rather pedestrian and ordinary, very much in line with his introduction into the film.

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-02at125516AM.jpgI can very well believe that Norma Shearer would be intimidated by Charles Laughton in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. But I wasn't able to buy that macho man Clark Gable and a ship full of men bigger and more muscular than Laughton can be so afraid of him. My primary issue was that I was witnessing this villainous man command floggings and threaten death on his men and yet I myself wasn't afraid of him at all. In an excerpt from Roland Flamini's Thalberg, The Last Tycoon and the World of MGM, it is noted that Laughton was "jealous of, and perhaps a little intimidated by, his co-star's good looks" and that "off the set he ignored Gable totally, and in their scenes together he deliberately and systematically avoided eye contact." So perhaps it was Laughton's insecurities during the making this picture that prevented him from being able to craft a convincing leader and brute. There was just a lot missing for me--for one, a lack of forceful assertiveness in Bligh that we've seen before in Edward Barrett and King Henry VIII. In fact, Laughton walks around in this movie rather flimsily and with an awkward arch to his back, and his voice and enunciation has a poetic and almost flamboyant flair. Is this supposed to be the guy leading this ship and the likes of Gable and Franchot Tone? When Laughton played Edward Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the camera closes in on his eerie face on multiple occasions, which not only accentuates the character's wickedness, but there's this sense that we too are confined in this house along with Shearer. Bligh is mostly filmed in long-shot or medium-shot, so there's always a sizable distance between him and the viewer, both physically and characteristically as he is pretty one-dimensional. The movie never allows Bligh to give us any indication as to why he is the way he is. By the end of the film we don't know if he is at all sorry or regretful for his actions. And Laughton doesn't bring much charm to role, so all I saw was a cranky man trying to make things as unpleasant for everyone as possible for two hours. This act gets really old really quick, and after awhile he just comes off as annoying. There are some nicely acted moments--such as when Bligh and his followers finally see land after being in cast adrift in sea by boat for 45 days--but overall, much like his work in The Private Life of Henry VIII, everything felt a bit one-note. What's worse, it felt uninspired.

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