The great actor, Robert Donat, who died too young in 1958, made only 20 films in his lifetime because of his chronic asthma. But what films! Speaking of his need for variety in his work, he said ‘I like my pickles mixed’ and they certainly were. They include: The Ghost Goes West, as a Scottish laird and a ghost (1936), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness as a Mandarin (1958 – his last film, in which he spoke the prophetic lines, ‘It is time to go, old friends. We shall not see each other again, I think.’), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) as Thomas Culpepper, sophisticated Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps (1935), Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy (1948), a Scottish doctor in The Citadel (1938), for which he was Oscar nominated, and the eponymous teacher in Goodbye, Mr Chips, playing him both as a young man and as an 83 year old, and stealing the 1939 Oscar from Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (which had taken all the other awards that year!).
Robert Donat in 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips' (1939)
John Donat, Robert’s son, told me his father’s favourite story from the making of this film:
‘Robert appeared on the set as the Old Chips for the first time and was practising his shuffling walk. Korda (the producer) came on set and asked the camera-man (the great Freddie Young): “Who’s that old fart ?”
Robert regarded that as the finest assessment of his acting career.’
I approached John Donat (who sadly died in 2004) because I was researching for my first book, Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second. In spite of Robert Donat’s enthusiastic defence of cinema in his excellent article, Film Acting, for Footnotes to the Film – his son (who had not read this article before) summed up his father’s attitude thus:
‘My version of his career is that he greatly preferred the stage to the screen – but made money in the Cinema to lose it in the Theatre. A process repeated many times through his career…”
Robert Donat certainly suffered, not only ill health that prevented him going to Hollywood, but also such a conscientious attitude to work that he often feared he would not be the right casting for the character. He turned down the title role in Captain Blood (1935) as he felt the swashbuckling part was wrong for him, and the role was eventually taken by Errol Flynn. Donat reported that,
‘The chief thing in my mind was that I must appear dashing. I distinctly remember in The Count of Monte Cristo pulling my shoulders back and trying to look handsome.’
And handsome and dashing was what he was. He was the favourite actor amongst many of his peers, including Peter Sellers, Judy Garland and Charles Laughton. His stage performances were legendary and included the first performance, playing Thomas Becket, of T.S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. (This is still available as an audio version via Amazon.) Having originally started acting in order to cure a stammer, he found it to be his vocation. He took great pride, not only in his own success but also in the success of others, and his son shared with me his father’s favourite quartet from a show:
Cambridge Festival Theatre, 1928.
An unknown young actor: called Robert Donat.
An unknown young actress: called Flora Robson.
An unknown young director: called Tyrone Guthrie.
being reviewed (either in the Manchester Guardian or Granta) by
An unknown undergraduate: called Alistair Cooke!!!
In spite of Robert Donat’s initial ambivalence to working on film – a view shared by many actors of his generation who saw cinema as a way of making big bucks, but theatre as art – he soon came to understand the perceptive power of the lens. He said of these actors that,
‘Too late, they discover that they have not gone quite the right way about it. Instead of acting “a little bit less”, they find out that they need to act a little bit better.’
Strangely enough, the stage actor’s slight contempt for screen acting has persisted in this country to the present time. Jeremy Irons, who kindly did the foreword for my book/DVD, A Screen Acting Workshop, expressed much the same assessment of this view as Robert Donat, and agreed with him that:
‘Film acting can give you real insight into acting in the theatre, because you can’t lie on film whereas you can get away with lying in theatre. In other words the camera will see you if you are pretending. You have to be.’
Donat came to have great respect for screen acting and echoes the same thought:
‘Of this I am quite certain. I am a better actor for my film experience. Two qualities – concentration and sincerity – are even more necessary on the screen than on the stage, and one’s work cannot fail to be the richer for their exercise.’
The camera really sees you think, sees that sincerity, but the minute you step in and try to show us what you’re thinking, decide how to appear or how to say the line, or feel yourself ‘being sincere’, you are lost. The lens will reveal your lack of truth and depth. To quote Robert Donat again:
‘There is no such thing as Facial Expression, but there is such a thing as an expressive face…the face and eyes will light up, not with a ‘suitable expression’ but with the only suitable expression – the real thing.’
Hitchcock, who directed him in The 39 Steps, says something similar in his own inimitable way:
‘I would almost say that the best screen actor is the man who can do nothing extremely well.’ (Alfred Hitchcock – Footnotes to the Film).
Well, Robert Donat certainly does it extremely well, but it’s a sleight of hand worthy of Hitchcock. It is not ‘nothing’ – it is the surface calm of a man who is seething underneath with thoughts and needs. Directors often do not have a great understanding of the acting process and, in a desire to stop an actor ‘showing’ and thereby ‘overacting’, they ask them to ‘do less’, misunderstanding that it is not about doing less but about being real. The ‘doing nothing’ is what happens – like life – in the moment. (When we don’t want others to read our thoughts or can convey what we want by merely a glance or, because our thoughts are driving underneath, we allow words to simply ‘fall out’ of our mouths, our faces give little away.) But this seemingly effortless work – like the propulsion of a swan’s webbed feet beneath the surface of the water while it glides elegantly above – involves a deep preparation beforehand. In his article Film Acting in Footnotes to the Film, Robert Donat takes as an example a single moment of surprise, and lists what the actor needs to imagine: a) the mental state b) the emotional state of the character at the moment of the surprise c) the nature of the surprise d) the degree of mental and emotional state and e) thinking backwards and forwards in continuity to ‘place’ the acting in proper sequence, size and shape.
These are all conscious decisions (‘though very nearly instinctive in a good actor’) but, in the moment of putting this work onto screen, Donat says it must be ‘unconscious’ – in other words, as the actor places himself into the moment – it will be ‘the real thing’.
Donat is the master of the cool exterior whilst his mind races with possibilities. Watch the interrogation scene from The Winslow Boy (1948).
Here, we see the man’s humanity and warmth in his eyes, even whilst he is fiercely grilling the young suspect. But he never gives away what he thinks until the end of the interview, surprising the other characters – and us. The grilling starts gently, to win the boy’s confidence. (Notice the difference in energy and strength between his remarks to the boy and to the father’s interruptions.) As he becomes more sure of the boy’s innocence, he becomes harsher and harder to test him, and to simulate the cross-examination he knows his young client will have to endure, until he reduces him to tears.
During this section, his eyes never leave the child’s face, searching out the truth, and yet we see in them, wry amusement at some of the answers. Donat’s eyes (unlike the child who is good but always ‘on text’) are fully alive and he really listens, really watches.
Look at his use of props. Donat plays with his glove but becomes very still when he needs to know an answer. His cane becomes both a symbol of his position and a means to provide a physical anchor for the scene.
He is centred, upright, taking all the power from his centre. His face is relaxed even at the strongest moments. Nothing is pushed or forced.
Donat’s role, Sir Robert, is accused by the boy’s sister of never letting anyone know the truth about him and of being ashamed of his emotions. Sir Robert says that in his profession he needs ‘cold, hard logic’. So when, in the film, emotion does erupt, it is in spite of himself. Donat never indulges his feelings but plays the man who has spent a lifetime concealing them and his affections, which are never revealed until the last line of the movie. Only watch this clip, with its marvellous last moment, if you’ve already seen the film, as you should watch it all!
In Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), we see the reverse reasons for this hiding of the emotions. The shy, sensitive Mr. Chipping wants so much to say what he feels but cannot because of his insecurity, until it is wrenched out of him by the emotion of parting with his loved one.
See how different his physicality is from the last clip, the sternum slightly collapsed, hands in pockets, the rolling walk. He makes his place in the world smaller. Whereas Sir Robert in The Winslow Boy expanded to fill the room and become the central pivot of it, Mr. Chips tries to fade into the background and avoid becoming the centre of anyone’s attention.
As he sees the love of his life off on her train, he hardly looks at her, not daring to meet her eyes or say the secret that is in his heart – dying to speak his feelings, but unable to give voice to them. At the last moment he tries, but his courage fails when the whistle blows and interrupts him, and he cannot sustain his bravery to push the moment through.
She kisses him and instantly releases him from the self-consciousness that binds him. He runs in a burst of energy and bravery and crumples again as the train leaves and panic sets in. His friend resolves it and fills him with a joy that is hard for him to comprehend.
We understand all these complex feelings that are bubbling underneath the surface of the character in a couple of minutes of screen time. We understand it through the actor’s body. It is so clear here that Robert Donat is totally connected, body and mind. He is a very physical actor whose whole self is immersed in his role’s life, thought-patterns and needs.
As Mr. Chips is released from his self-doubt by love and marriage, he is at last able to show his emotions. And the ending, as the old Mr Chips (Donat playing 83 at aged 34!), is a classic, genuine tear-jerker. In his last moments of the film, the elderly retired schoolmaster makes friends with the homesick new boy at the school and soon afterwards dies, thinking of his thousands of ‘children’. It would be so easy to fall into sentimentality here, but Donat is always firm and true. With his strength faltering as he slips into death, he speaks, with warmth and love in his eyes, practically, truthfully and in a major key, without a trace of self-pity.
The 39 Steps (1935) is well worth watching in full, as it’s a cracking yarn. And if you can’t watch it on film, there’s a youtube version:
Donat is superb as the worldly – and dashing – Richard Hannay, who gets caught up in espionage due to a case of mistaken identity and has to use skill and ingenuity to outwit his wicked opponents. With his jaunty moustache and well-cut suits, he exudes urbane intelligence and charm and there is real chemistry between him and Madeleine Carroll. At around 1.02.00 you will find the night in the country inn where they are handcuffed together. This is a very funny scene, with Donat convincing the romantic-natured landlady that they are, ‘so terribly in love’. It also has a potentially sexually charged moment, made physically amusing by the situation of the handcuffs, when Donat helps Carroll to remove her stockings. Yet again, beneath all the teasing, tough talk and tall tales, we see Donat’s eyes twinkling and his generosity as an actor. He is always playing the scene with her, not indulging himself, but watching and responding to every nuance of the moment.
In the earlier scene at 29.10 between him and the luminous young Peggy Ashcroft as the crofter’s wife (a rare moment of her on screen), we see real moments of tenderness from him as she protects him from her bullying husband.
Again, Donat’s whole physicality is used to the utmost, and often to comic effect, in this action-packed film in which he is always self-assured, but never pompous. And, as always, the teamwork with his fellow actors is perfect.
Robert Donat never short-changes us. He is the master of sub-text and of hiding his feelings beneath the surface. They are allowed to bubble up only when it is truthful for them to do so. The work is spare and genuine, never embroidered for effect – and timeless. As riveting to watch now as when the films were first made. Styles of filmmaking may change, accents may move on, world-views alter, but the truth of great acting doesn’t change. As Donat puts it:
‘ When that relentless eye goggles at us in close-up we may be sure of one thing – we must deliver up to it the finest work of which we are capable; nothing but the truth will do.’
His advice is as absolute a truth now as ever it was. And I end with one last quote from him:
‘…The film actor’s most important asset is the eye. Didn’t somebody once say that the eye is the window of the soul?’
Robert Donat’s soul is still there for all to see who watch his films.
Thank you very much to Julie/jigsmave for permission to include this video.
© Mel Churcher, all rights reserved.
Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second Virgin Books. (2003)
A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD Nick Hern Books. (2011)