The incomparable Charles Laughton

 

“People don’t care how you do something, they just want to be amazed.” My old acting teacher Bob Hobbs told us this, “So when you’re being interviewed about a performance you just gave and an interviewer or someone in the audience perhaps or, (and I think he actuality said this), Johnny Carson asks, how did you do that? They don’t want to hear, ‘well I began with a thorough examination of the text, paying particular notice to the mono-syllabic words since they’re always the most important ones and the appositions (words or phrases set against each other I.e. night and day). Then focus on responding to the other actor’s impulses, and oh yes, keep investigating your score, making sure that the individual actions that you’ve arrived at after much thought coupled with trial and error testing actually advance the objective you’ve set for yourself’-no! Don’t do that!” Bob Hobbs concluded, “just say, ‘I don’t know. It just… happens’ and maybe add ‘it’s kind of a mystery.’”

That’s what Charles Laughton believed.

When asked by his interviewer how he had perfected the astoundingly perfect Italian dialect he used in the film They Knew What They Wanted, he replied, “I studied the paintings of Michelangelo, listened to nothing but Vivaldi, and read aloud, in the original Italian, the epic poetry of Dante.”

Garson Kanin, who directed the movie, said Laughton really did this. He went to the museums and all, then sat down with the other members of the cast at the first read-through of the script, and out came:

“Eesasomatingawannayoubout!’ or something like that. The cast, reportedly (I wasn’t there to verify this), looked at him, amazed. Others spoke two or three lines, then Laughton said, “Shubintagaldina.” “Hold it,” said Garson Kanin. “Charles, I know we’re still in the early stages, but I’m afraid the others are going to find it hard to recognize their cues.” “Fuckin’ well right,” said Carole Lombard playing the female lead. “Charles,” said Garson, “there is no Italian anywhere on the face of the earth who sounds like that.”

Only somewhat chastened by their comments he continued with his “perfect accent.” He was summoned to the office of studio head Sam Goldwyn, who had just seen the early rushes, and concurred that Laughton did have the worst Italian accent ever heard, that he was completely unintelligible and that he’d better do something about it. Pronto.

Kanin then sent Laughton to work with his barber for a week whose family had come to America from the exact part of Italy as “Tony’, Laughton’s character, and pronto, problem fixed. A week or so before shooting was scheduled to end, an interviewer from The New York Times came to talk to Laughton on the set.

“—that terrific Italian accent?” asked the interviewer.

“For several months, I have studied the paintings of Michelangelo, listened exclusively to Vivaldi, and read Dante. In the original, of course.” Interviewer and his readership Indubitably satisfied.

But what if you actually want to know how the actor or the director or a writer is “doing that”, how the sausage is being made? At the expense of a loss of wonderment, you are opening yourself up to a lifetime of learning and the awareness that the art of drama is about so much more than how the plot comes out in the end. You are freed from the curse of “spoilers.” But, let me warn you, it comes at a cost, a kind of frustration that probably never ceases, as with every bit of knowledge you acquire you are faced with the realizations of how much you still don’t know, accompanied by older brother frustration of “I know what you’re doing, I can peak a bit behind the curtain of your artistry but I CAN’T DO IT MYSELF AND I AM SO JEALOUS!

Barbara and I listened to audiobooks again on our way back and forth to Brooklyn this weekend. (She was there for Vaccine shot #2, I am also jealous of the ease with which her appointment happened) I’m something of a late convert to the medium of audiobooks. I didn’t think they would hold my attention, but they do, they do.

We were finishing up Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday, one of the best books ever, period! He calls it an autobiographical collage. I call it a primer with which he has empowered to pull back the artist’s curtain just a bit more every time you read it, or now, listen to it.

He has some good advice for writers in there. Since I’ve been turning out these letters and throwing myself into my translation of Mother Courage with a near compulsive passion, I’m beginning to think of myself as a bit of one, which makes me jealous at times of a man who could turn the “information” that two little girls had seen a great river into:

“They had never been off Cape Cod before. When we saw a river, we had to stop so they could stand by it and think about it for a while. They had never seen water in that long and narrow, unsalted form before. The river was the Hudson.”

Later in the book he gives you some advice.

“So your own winning literary style must begin with interesting ideas in your head. Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, that matters.

And “Write the way you talk.”

How’s that? He also said, “Never use semi-colons.” The only thing he left out here, which he did say somewhere else, “Don’t take it all so seriously. You’re learning to play practical jokes.”

Is that like saying always write with a sense of play? Because, right now, on February 10, 2021. I think that’s what writing is: words at play, which is also the title of a most admirable and playful book An Almanac of Words at Play, by Willard R. Espy. Being an almanac it has an entry for each day of the year. The entry for February 10 reads in part:

“I am emboldened to report a translation from Spanish into English by the officials of an international automobile race in Mexico City. According to Joseph Coolidge, they handed out the following instructions to the English speaking drivers: ‘the drivers will defile themselves on the plaza at 10 AM. They may relieve themselves on each other’s convenience.’”

And that’s what’s on my mind this morning. Honest Injun, as we used to say and which I will no doubt get myself into trouble for recording here. But, as I hear people say from time to time today, “I write in draft.”

 

Barbara at the Ufizzi Perfecting her Italian accent

 

 

Jim Niesen

 

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Irondale

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