William Claude Rains, born in the Clapham area of London, was the son of the British stage actor Frederick Rains. The younger Rains followed, making his stage debut at the age of eleven in “Nell of Old Drury.” Growing up in the world of theater, he saw not only acting up close but the down-to-earth business end as well, progressing from a page boy to a stage manager during his well-rounded learning experience. Rains decided to come to America in 1913 and the New York theater, but with the outbreak of World War I the next year, he returned to serve with a Scottish regiment in Europe. He remained in England, honing his acting talents, bolstered with instruction patronized by the founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It was not long before his talent garnered him acknowledgment as one of the leading stage actors on the London scene. His one and only silent film venture was British with a small part for him, the forgettable — Build Thy House (1920).
In the meantime, Rains was in demand as acting teacher as well, and he taught at the Royal Academy. Young and eager Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud were perhaps his best known students. Rains did return to New York in 1927 to begin what would be nearly 20 Broadway roles. While working for the Theater Guild, he was offered a screen test with Universal Pictures in 1932. Rains had a unique and solid British voice-deep, slightly rasping — but richly dynamic. And as a man of small stature, the combination was immediately intriguing. Universal was embarking on its new-found role as horror film factory, and they were looking for someone unique for their next outing, The Invisible Man (1933). Rains was the very man. He took the role by the ears, churning up a rasping malice and volume in his voice to achieve a bone chilling persona of the disembodied mad doctor. He could also throw out a high-pitched maniac laugh that would make you leave the lights on before going to bed. True to Universal’s formula mentality, it cast him in similar roles through 1934 with some respite in more diverse film roles — and further relieved by Broadway roles (1933, 1934) for the remainder of his contract. By 1936, he was at Warner Bros. with its ambitious laundry list of literary epics in full swing. His acting was superb, and his eyes could say as much as his voice. And his mouth could take on both a forbidding scowl and the warmest of smiles in an instant. His malicious, gouty Don Luis in Anthony Adverse (1936) was inspired. After a shear lucky opportunity to dispatch his young wife’s lover, Louis Hayward, in a duel, he triumphs over her in a scene with derisive, bulging eyes and that high pitched laugh — with appropriate shadow and light backdrop — that is unforgettable.
He was kept very busy through the remainder of the 1930s with a mix of benign and devious historical, literary, and contemporary characters always adapting a different nuance — from murmur to growl — of that voice to become the person. He culminated the decade with his complex, ethics-tortured Senator “Joe” Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). That year he became an American citizen. Into the 1940s, Rains had risen to perhaps unique stature: a supporting actor who had achieved A-list stardom — almost in a category by himself. His some 40 films during that period ranged from subtle comedy to psychological drama with a bit of horror revisited; many would be golden era classics. He was the firm but thoroughly sympathetic Dr. Jaquith in Now, Voyager (1942) and the smoothly sardonic but engaging Capt. Louis Renault — perhaps his best known role — in Casablanca (1942). He was the surreptitiously nervous and malignant Alexander Sebastian in Notorious (1946) and the egotistical and domineering conductor Alexander Hollenius in Deception (1946). He was the disfigured Phantom of the Opera (1943) as well. He played opposite the challenging Bette Davis in three movies through the decade and came out her equal in acting virtuosity. He was nominated four times for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar — but incredibly never won. With the 1950s the few movies left to an older Rains were countered by venturing into new acting territory — television. His haunted, suicidal writer Paul DeLambre in the mountaineering adventure The White Tower (1950), though a modest part, was perhaps the most vigorously memorable film role of his last years. He made a triumphant Broadway return in 1951’s “Darkness at Noon.”
Rains embraced the innovative TV playhouse circuit with nearly 20 roles. As a favored ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ alumnus, he starred in five Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955) suspense dramas into the 1960s. And he did not shy away from episodic TV either with some memorable roles that still reflected the power of Claude Rains as consummate actor — for many, first among peers with that hallowed title.
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