Iconic British Actor

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Texts :: Header Photo

The header photo just blows me away. Obviously a photo-still from Hitchcock's The 39 Steps with Robert Donat in the foreground hiding from those who hunt him, to me it shows how important the time Hitch spent in Germany studying German Expressionism was. It's got that movement written all over it. The shadows, the body shapes, the stark background lighting ... it's all there.

What 'blows me away' is the guy on the left. A shadowy figure, menacing. Body tight, ready to pounce... The hunter. Who is he? What happened to him? When reality merges into unreality in my mind then whoever has created that moment has created a work of art. I want to know who the hunter is - I want a name to all my fears. I want it easy, I want everything explained.

The hunter is a figure that seeps into the subsconcious. He is the human form who is after me, after you, after all of us. He is as menacing as the Devil and his pursuit is an inexorable quest. He won't rest until he has put us 6ft under.

The Fall. Donat is just few yards away from capture, from losing everything. A rope around his neck: 6ft under. Yards. The hunters are ready to pounce. Shadowy figures. Are they good or are they evil? We know they are wrong but at that moment what we know is immaterial. Or is it?

The photo-still captures the fact that Hitch's films were a hell of a lot darker than many suppose. 39 Steps, for example, was no ordinary thriller, it just full of dark, dark, dark, deep, deep, deep depth in-between the frothy bits. There are shots that are beyond the mere mortal. Instantly springing to mind is the shot of the back of the car with Donat and the detectives where Hitch lingers for seemingly far too long as it disappears into the distance has a power far beyond words. Look out for it when you next view the film and tell me what it makes you feel.

For me, his genius was incorporating German Experssionism into the mainstream of Cinema. That takes a skill only a few possessed.

As for Donat, this is as good as screen-acting can get. He made it look so easy. He is the personification of good caught up in evil to such an extent that I can thing of no-one else who could of played the part. Olivier or Gielgud? I don't think so or even Leslie Howard and he was good. No, Donat made the part his own until now it is his face alone I see when I see Richard Hannay. Remarkable that he had mastered screen-acting so completely by this point when you consider that this was only his sixth film.

He was easy to watch because he was so damn good. They could be making films for another 1000 years and there will never a better British actor than Robert Donat. Why? Because you watch him until all the other actors are shoved into the corners of the screen.

It's called star-quality. And Donat had it in abundance.

~ © Paul Page, 2013

Texts :: Biography

"The most graceful actor of our time."
- Charles Laughton on Robert Donat

Remembered for:

The dashing Richard Hannay in Hitchcock's 39 Steps and the Academy Award winning performance of the dedicated teacher in Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Charles Laughton called him 'the most graceful actor of our time'. Graham Greene said he was 'the best film actor we possess'. Sadly Robert Donat's career was brutally cut short.

Robert Donat had everything an actor could hope for - except clean health. Beneficient spirits attending his cradle endowed him with good looks, a fine voice, height (6ft) exceptional elegance of demeanour. A malevolent spirit gave him chronic asthma.

Born Friedrich Robert Donath in 1905 and of mixed parentage - a Yorkshire mother and a Polish father who came to settle in Manchester - Donat came to the screen in a period when it was very much the poor sister of stage in Britain. It was natural that he should long for the theatre, and indeed he was to become, one of its notable players. He made his stage debut in Birmingham in 1921 and by 1930 had reached the West End. But he was made for the cinema. Alexander Korda recognized Donat's gifts and in 1933 cast him, after a few banal roles, as Thomas Culpeper in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Donat was overshadowed by the bravura of Charles Laughton as the King; but looking back one can see how much his grace and easy charm added to the film. A year later he was in Hollywood playing the lead role in The Count Of Monte Cristo and rags and a beard could not disguise his qualities. In 1929 Donat married Ella Annesley but they were to divorce in 1946.

Back in Britain Donat was Richard Hannay in Alfred Hitchcock's The Thirty Nine Steps (1935), then starred in Rene Clair's comedy The Ghost Goes West (1935) as both the young owner of a scottish castle and his ghost ancestor who is doomed to haunt the castle when it is transported to the USA. Clair was brought over to England by Korda, as was Jacques Feyder, director of Knight Without Armour (1937) - in which Donat played the Englishman faced with the job of getting a widowed countess (Marlene Dietrich) to Moscow after the revolution.

Always Donat was the romantic hero, resourceful, brave, the ideal hero of the Thirties and Forties. Perhaps if health had not handicapped him he might have gone back in triumph to Hollywood and become a truly great star. As it was, illness, increasing diffidence and self doubt, and contractual problems combined to cost him the lead roles in such prestigious films as Captain Blood (1935), Anthony Adverse (1936), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Instead he stayed to work in Britain and there had a brief period of glittering fame in the late Thirties.

He had not been happy in Hollywood in any case, but he had made an impression, and when MGM broadened their empire to include production in Britain they made him one of their leading players. King Vidor directed him in The Citadel (1938) and drew from him a performance of consideable range as a doctor who moves from Wales to fashionable England.

In 1939 came the film with which the name of Robert Donat has been linked with ever since: Sam Wood's Goodbye Mr Chips. Insisting on the role, he audaciously broke away from the smmoth, confident face; the easy elegant movements of the ideal film star. He played a master at an English pulic school, at first helplessly ragged by the pupils, then taught self-assurance by his beautiful wife (Greer Garson), desolate as a widower and finally a whiskery old sentimentalist. It was a character of fantasy, but still solid enough for Donat to pull off a superb performance and win a Best Actor Oscar. Decades after, Donat's Chips is still remembered, putting all other performances of the part, including Martin Clunes' recent turn, to shame.

He never did as well again. Turned down for military service, he gave a decent but uninspired performance in the flagwaving The Young Mr Pitt (1942); and returned to action in Adventures of Tartu (1943), a piece of flummery in which he played a wartime British sabotage agent. It was not worthy of his powers. But increasingly Donat was engaged in the fight against illness. He was unremarkable as the husband who resumes marriage with Deborah Kerr after war-enforced separation in Perfect Strangers (1945) - both his and Korda's last film for MGM - but more commanding as the defence counsel in The Winslow Boy (1948). In 1949 he produced, adapted (from Walter Greenwood's play) directed and starred in a pleasant but tame Northern comedy The Cure for Love for Korda. Donat played a soldier pursued by a coarse, overbearing fiancee (Dora Bryan) and a sweeter girl (Renee Asherson) who wins him in the end; in 1953 Donat married Miss Asherson in real life and though they separated in 1956 they were due to be reconciled at the time of his untimely death.

He was touching as the film pioneer Freise-Green in the Festival of Britain picture, The Magic Box (1951) but, by now very ill, had to refuse roles in No Highway (1951) and Hobson's Choice (1954). Oxygen cylinders were kept in the wings for him when he acted in T.S.Eliot's play Murder in The Cathedral in 1953 and there was mordant irony in his casting as the dying country parson in Lease of Life (1954). In 1958 he summoned up the last of his strength to play the mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. A Month later he was dead.

Donat could have been one of the universal stars of cinema. Illness, however, corroded the later years of his comparatively brief life. It could not destroy his brilliant gifts but it shortened his career, and one might say, blunted it.

Texts :: Filmography

1933 - Men of Tomorrow

1933 - That Night in London (USA: Overnight).

1933 - Cash (USA: For Love or Money).

1933 - The Private life of Henry VIII.

1934 - The Count of Monte Cristo (USA)

1935 - The Thirty Nine Steps.

1935 - The Ghost Goes West.

1937 - Knight without Armour.

1938 - The Citadel.

1939 - Goodbye Mr Chips.

1942 - The Young Mr Pitt.

1943 - Adventures of Tartu.

1945 - Perfect Strangers.

1947 - Captain Boycott (guest).

1948 - The Winslow Boy.

1949 - The Cure for Love (+ dir; + co-sc; + prod).

1951 - The Magic Box

1954 - Lease of Life.

1956 - The Stained Glass at Fairford (short) (voice only).

1958 - The Inn of The Sixth Happiness (USA).

Gallery :: Photos

robert donat

robert donat

robert donat goodbye mr. chips

More: Alfred Hitchcock film posters both vintage and repros @ ebay.com (direct link) - just checked & a bigger selection than i have seen everywhere else
Related Links: The 39 Steps Photo Gallery

Gallery :: Film Posters

Below are film posters other than from The 39 Steps. Those are here.

You won't be surprised to know but the company with the most varied of Robert Donat repro. film posters is amazon. There are a vast array of his posters there - far, far more than here.

They come in various sizes and usually work out to be less than $10 per poster which I don't think is too bad. You get an unusual and beautiful item to hang on your walls and I bet your friends won't have it.

Here, occasionally, you will find an original poster from the time of the release of the movie. They are obviously far more expensive but if you have the money they are worth it as they are works of art in their own right.

Robert Donat Film Posters available @ amazon.com.

More: Alfred Hitchcock film posters both vintage and repros @ ebay.com (direct link) - just checked & a bigger selection than i have seen everywhere else


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