Digital Feature

Ronald Colman Was the Original Hollywood Gentleman

In silent films and then talkies, this English actor embodied a graceful, literate masculinity

HUMANITIES, Spring 2024, Volume 45, Number 2
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“I, myself, have come to think that the morality of a gentleman offers a more complete and coherent understanding of a human condition than any other known to me.” —Shirley Robin Letwin, The Gentleman in Trollope 

In Bulldog Drummond (1929), silent-film star Ronald Colman, playing an amateur detective in his first talkie, in tweeds and trench coat, virtually defined Hollywood’s idea of the suave and rugged gentleman hero. Before Clark Gable, Cary Grant, or Gary Cooper, Colman showed a generation of actors how to perform for the camera and microphone. Born in Richmond, Surrey, England in 1891, it was his expressed desire, after active service in World War I, to pursue a Hollywood career.

Colman drew on a rich tradition of writing about the gentleman from Samuel Richardson to Lord Chesterfield to Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. After becoming a star, Colman stocked their books in his impressive Hollywood library and perfected a persona that was the outcome of more than 200 years of writing about the gentleman, a figure who dominated the screen until the advent of the antiheroes in the 1940s and 1950s, when leading men such as Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, and Marlon Brando set a new rebellious, anti-heroic tone for motion pictures.

What mattered in early cinema—even in the comic shenanigans of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp—was a standard of decorum and comportment that his hat, cane, and tails defined and signified. The example of the gentleman stood for a range of characteristics that seem in contradiction: soft, meek, patient, humble, tranquil, gentle, courteous, loving, learned, valiant, friendly, yielding, obliging. Yet Colman embodied these conflicting qualities better than any other actor.

Colman’s cultured yet colloquial voice, relieved of the deafening silence of his performances in the more than 20 films he made before 1929, caused audiences to cheer the early climax of a career that seemed beyond his reach after World War I. Sometime between 1917 and 1919, playwright and bon vivant Noël Coward met Ronald Colman. What Coward’s biographer Philip Hoare says of his subject at this time applies nearly as well to Colman: “Life was frustrating. His achievements—a few stage appearances and performances of his work—seemed insignificant compared to the company he was now keeping.” That company, for Coward, included actress and theater producer Gladys Cooper, who championed these two young men who had yet to make their mark. Coward recognized a kindred soul in Colman’s impeccable presence and determination to win over audiences. Coward surrendered himself to an actor who carried around with him a pocket Stevenson, whom Colman was wont to quote to himself: “This is the particular crown and triumph of the artist—not to be true merely, but to be lovable; not simply to convince but to enchant.”

In 1921, Coward and Colman renewed their acquaintance on Broadway in New York City—then still a major movie-making center and the site, they hoped, of their ascent to stardom. “The two encouraged each other,” Hoare reports, quoting Coward, “‘by formulating brave ambitions’: Colman’s to get into movies, Coward’s not to leave New York until one of his plays had been accepted.” Yet their frustration—the word actress Tallulah Bankhead applied to Coward—did not abate, as Coward lived on “herbs and berries,” she said, and Colman later recalled tramping around New York City: “Figuring out the best way to spend five cents in an automat was an art at which I became adept. Doughnuts were the main standby.”

The two aspiring artists were not to meet again until they had become theater and film stars, but their 1921 conversation inspired Coward to keep writing and Colman to find work in the theater until he charmed Lillian Gish with one of his stage performances. He exuded an Old World style that she deemed perfect as her leading man in The White Sister (1923), a tragic Neapolitan costume drama that brought Colman to the attention of producer Samuel Goldwyn, who was looking for a versatile, slightly swarthy, handsome star to play debonaire Englishmen as well as daring foreigner Rudolph Valentino roles.

The complicated plot of The White Sister is immaterial, but not Colman and Gish’s delicate love scenes. Their closeups and two shots have a tender, otherworldly quality. When Colman (Captain Giovanni Severini) holds Gish (Angela Chiaromonte), it is not in a full embrace but rather almost a cradling of this delicate creature he wants to cherish and protect. When the valiant Severini is reported to have been killed in an Arab attack on Italy’s Middle Eastern front, she becomes a bride of Christ. When he returns, she is anguished because she cannot renounce her vows. In several striking scenes, Colman never touches Gish while she is in her habit, and yet when he turns away, her urge to touch him almost overpowers her. Ultimately, Colman rides to the rescue of the town about to be engulfed by the eruption of Vesuvius but drowns after a dam breaks. The film ends with the town celebrating his sacrifice. Loretta Young and Greer Garson, two stars who later worked with Colman, named The White Sister as their first memorable sighting of Ronald Colman, whom they revered.

Between 1923 and 1929, Colman’s roles included an honorable Florentine nobleman in Romola, an impecunious but deserving English aristocrat in Her Night of Romance, another lord who repents his role as a seducer in Lady Windermere’s Fan, a straying remorseful husband in Her Sister From Paris, a noble Scottish commoner in The Sporting Venus, a heroic French Legionnaire in Beau Geste, a blinded World War I soldier in The Dark Angel, a gypsy king in The Night of Love. Whatever the role, whatever the misunderstanding or misfortune or lapse from good form and virtue, Colman’s characters eventually righted themselves. Often compared to Garbo in his desire to be left alone, he granted few interviews and never became involved in scandal or controversy.

What would happen when the public could hear Colman, after the advent of the part-talkie musical, The Jazz Singer (1927), upsetting the universality of silent film, in which an Englishman like Colman could play Italians, gypsies, a Flemish hero in Two Lovers with Hungarian Vilma Banky as the “Flower of Spain”? Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg called the next two years a Hollywood “identity crisis” with most films “hard on the ear. Many were an equal strain on the eyes, as established methods of acting metamorphosed awkwardly.” Matching microphones and camera movements meant a disruption in an art that Colman had spent years perfecting. “Except as a scientific achievement, I am not sympathetic to this ‘sound business,”’ Colman wrote. “I feel, as so many do, that this is a mechanical resource, that it is a retrogressive and temporary digression in so far as it affects the art of motion picture acting.” He understood, though, that the “public are for the time being demanding this novelty . . . and for the actor to dispute this situation or contend against it would be foolish.”

Beginning with Bulldog Drummond (1929), the cunning Goldwyn shot Colman’s first three talkies as silent films too as movie houses installed expensive sound equipment. “The talkies were . . . creating a new kind of hero, one whom you could tell was a gentleman just by the sound of his voice,” concludes film historian Alexander Walker. In effect, the talkies enabled Colman to reclaim a part of himself that had first appeared on the English stage.

Colman’s transition to sound, however, could not be stagy. Film had already taught him to underplay—not to mime or gesture broadly but to allow the camera to pick up his facial expressions and body language, as he had learned to do by watching the consummate Chaplin. Microphones, Colman realized, could register his intonations and vocal modulations, providing a theatrical experience that at the same time seemed more intimate than any stage performance could rival. Colman’s entrance in Bulldog Drummond’s first scene is done without words but with whistling as he marches through his club, the very figure of the demobilized soldier, a bored officer looking for action—which he finds by saving Joan Bennett, a damsel in distress, caught in the intrigues of a villainous crew intent on bilking her ailing uncle of his considerable fortune.

Throughout the 1930s, Colman became the gentleman adventure hero of Prisoner of Zenda, saving the reign of a dissolute king who learns to reform himself, the troubled hero who forsakes a corrupt world for the serenity of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, and the self-sacrificing hero in his signature role of Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, transcending his disappointment in the way he has dissipated his life to save Charles Darnay, the beloved of Lucie Manette, to whom Carton has become devoted. Carton manages to get guillotined in the place of Darnay during the period of terror in the French Revolution, and departs the world with lines from the Dickens novel, which Colman slightly modified to sound more moving on screen:  “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.”

As the reign of Hollywood’s gentleman hero declined in the 1940s, the aging Colman could function no longer as the powerful cynosure of a society that—at least by the end of his films—had been restored to good health. Hollywood’s gentleman, however, had a last act to play in the advent of a new entertainment medium.

In several television performances on Four Star Playhouse, Colman adapted to a smaller screen and to a tempered treatment of his chivalric persona. Two years before his death, in General Electric Theater’s “The Chess Game” (broadcast December 16, 1956), his last television appearance, Colman is a played-out gentleman, Graham, an alcoholic, and still a witty, if defeated, figure, weary of himself, weary of the world, and waiting, it seems, for the end. His plight is remarkably similar to that of Alan Squiers, a character Colman played in a radio adaptation of The Petrified Forest, aired April 23, 1945. Squiers renews his faith in humanity when he meets budding artist Gabrielle Maple. In “The Chess Game,” a sixteen-year-old boy, Johnny Brooks, shows up in Graham’s room, hiding from the police, who mistakenly believe he has shot and killed a woman. Graham sees the boy as no threat. Johnny is escaping the authorities—and really, the authority of society itself, as is Graham in his own way.

Graham speaks in a sophisticated vocabulary that puzzles Johnny just as Johnny, wearing a cap, puzzles Graham, who offers the boy some cold chicken and observes: “I was brought up to believe that eating with your hat on is bad manners.” He is not so much chastising the boy as he is explaining the code he was taught to practice, a code that now puzzles him as much as Johnny. Graham muses on his upbringing that paid so much attention to good form: “I wonder why. I don't know, in fact, I don’t know why manners seem to persist long after one’s belief in everything else is gone,” yet he asserts his authority over the boy and demands that he take off his hat. The boy obeys, calling him a “pretty funny guy.” Graham replies: “You’re a pretty funny guy yourself.” They are actually perfectly matched—both outcasts, both befuddled by what has been expected of them. Graham explains his background: “blue blood tinged by Harvard crimson.” Johnny is impressed not by Graham’s pedigree but by his openness and generosity: “You’re the only guy who did anything for me without asking for anything back.”

Johnny becomes a kind of surrogate for Graham, who undertakes to encourage Johnny’s education by sending him back to school. Johnny is no murderer, as Graham realizes when he discovers that Johnny’s gun is a toy. Graham invents a biography for Johnny, calling him his nephew, and vouching for him when the police arrive. But Johnny, unable to bear the burden of lies that Graham has to tell on his behalf, turns himself in to the police, earning the respect of a cop who tells Johnny that he believes the judge will find the boy innocent.

The common theme in almost all of Colman’s television appearances concerns the fading world of the gentleman, of a hierarchical and yet humane vision of society, governed by noble values. That vision was always a fiction, if indeed a powerful one, that motivated self-sacrifice and honorable devotion to causes and countries, to individuals and families. If such a world of gentlemen and ladies never quite existed, the very imagination of it is precious and present in the figure of Ronald Colman, still intact and dapper and determined—no matter how worn and about to disappear in the contemporary commotion of society.