As promised in my last blog I think it's time I related the Claude Rains story that Anthony Quayle told me. I think the facts may be known by some but this is straight from the horses mouth so it may well be an unreported theatrical anecdote. If so, I am delighted to introduce it in to the ether as it is one of my favourites.
I was once having a picnic lunch with Anthony Quayle and he told me that he had once done the same thing with Claude Rains, the famous actor who played Inspector Renault in Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart, on a hill outside Rome whilst filming the Fall of the Roman Empire. A bit more glamorous than our little lunch near Bath. For anyone who needs reminding, here's a clip of Casablanca on YouTube http://youtu.be/FDhGS4EJS8M
Tony asked Claude Rains why he didn't use a French accent when he played the French Inspector in this famous film? As you can see from the clip, Claude Rains had a fantastically clipped and upper class British accent. Apparently, according to Tony, CR said that he didn't like doing accents as it had been hard enough to learn the one he ended up with. Tony was surprised. He had assumed that CR's voice was the one he had always had. CR told him this story.
"I was a cockney from the East end of London, a right little oik. And I had a thick accent. I fell in love with the theatre and longed to be an actor but I didn't know how I could ever do it. I thought the best thing to do would be to get a job in a theatre so that at least I could study the actors from close up and maybe pick up their secret? I was willing to do anything, but was lucky enough to get a job as an assistant dresser for a company run by the great Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, one of the most successful actor/managers of the time.
I spent my time in the wings, dressing the actors, whilst all the time trying to mimic the way they spoke and stood and carried themselves. But I just couldn't get it. I always sounded like a fake. Vowels wrong. No diction. It was hard.
Then, one day when I arrived at the theatre, the company manager told me that I was to dress Mr Tree that day as his normal dresser had been taken ill. I was very nervous. He was a big star and quite imposing for a small cockney lad like me. I prepared everything in his dressing room and waited. He swept in, flinging his coat and jacket on the chair and emptying his pockets of their change on to the dressing table. The coins fell everywhere. All over the table and on to the floor. I quickly began to scoop them up. I had never seen so much money but to him it seemed like a mere trifle. 'Leave it, boy,' he said, 'Dress me first.' I did dress him and once he had left the room to go on stage I picked up the rest of the money. As I said, I had never seen so much. I was paid shillings and here were florins, half crowns, and sixpenny pieces. I couldn't help myself. I put a florin in my pocket and gathered the rest in a pile on the table. He'd never miss it and my mum would be so pleased to receive so much.
Of course, I couldn't live with the guilt and resolved to return the coin the next day. I arrived at the theatre early and was instantly stopped by the company manager who told me that Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree wanted to see me in his office. I knew why.
'So, you're a thief, Rains?' he said. 'I can't have thieves in my company!'
I was desperate. I pleaded with him. 'Please sir, I know I've done wrong and I've lost your trust but I swear I'll never do it again. I've got the coin here, sir. I was going to return it tonight. Please give me another chance to prove myself? To regain your trust. I want to be an actor like you, sir. I've been watching, sir, and trying to learn. Please? You won't regret it, sir?'
He looked at me for a second and then said, 'No, it would never work. Theatre is based on trust. Everyone must trust everyone else to do their job for the good of the show. Without trust the whole thing falls apart. And you've lost my trust, Rains.'
'Let me prove myself, sir? If you sack me now I'll never be an actor.' 'You'll never be an actor anyway.' Tree replied, 'Not with a voice and accent like that. You have to enunciate. And learn to speak properly.'
Beerbohm Tree stared at me for what seemed ages and then he opened his desk drawer and wrote on a piece of paper. He then opened his wallet and took out a five pound note! He handed it to me with the piece of paper on which was written a name and address.
'This is a friend of mine.' Beerbohm Tree said, 'Take this note to him and tell him I sent you. He is one of the best voice teachers in London. Come back when you can speak properly.'
I did as I was told. Several months later I returned to the theatre, went to Beerbohm Tree's office and in my new voice, clearly and distinctly, said, 'Good morning. I hope this is better?' 'Indeed it is,' he replied, 'I think I may have a job for you?' "
And that is why Claude Rains didn't use a French accent in Casablanca.