Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

"Something That Is US": Robert Donat, Screen Performance, and Stardom in the 1930s

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

"Something That Is US": Robert Donat, Screen Performance, and Stardom in the 1930s

Article excerpt

It's true of all wonderful actors that they somehow are in a complex relationship with stardom, particularly British actors; they think they mistrust it, and they want the regard of their peers. They want to be perceived as actors.

Anthony Minghella (qtd. in Woolf 5)

THIS ARTICLE EXAMINES THE "COMPLEX" relationship between acting and stardom in British cinema in the 1930s by looking at the career of Robert Donat (1905-58) and his starring roles in three films from the beginning of his career: The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The Ghost Goes West (1936), and Knight Without Armour (1937). These three films have been chosen because the opportunities presented for role playing within the films themselves complicate the demands of Hollywood-style stardom. In the first film, Donat plays a character at very different points in his life; in the second, two characters within the same film; and finally in the third, a character asked to impersonate another character.

With Donat's first film success as a leading man in The Count of Monte Cristo, an international hit, his stardom was activated in both American and British contexts. American studios saw him as a valuable commodity with box office appeal that did not, as with other British stars of the time, confine itself to specifically British authences. Consequently, from the start of his career, Donat had to reconcile the demands of studios, who wanted to develop and define his roles in line with his emerging star image, with his personal acting preferences, which included burying the "Donat" image under a variety of differing roles and characterizations. Mark Glancy suggests that this had a specifically national aspect, pitting the commercial imperatives imposed by Hollywood against the relative autonomy offered Donat by the British studios. Although the latter certainly involved, as Donat saw it, fewer creative constraints on the actor, British producers such as Alexander Korda and Michael Balcon were just as keen to package Donat as a romantic star, a labeling that Donat strenuously resisted.1

The shifting configurations between actor and star throughout this time are made clear from an examination of how Donat and his roles in these films were presented in magazines and film publicity. The former saw Donat attempting to communicate his acting credentials, invoking such qualities as skill and versatility against the background of the exploitative commercialism of the film Industry. Donat clearly wanted his authence to know that he was unwilling to play the romantic young man, contrasting the importance of image (which made a Hollywood star) with the acting skill that he felt was integral to British stardom.

However, the tensions between actor and star were also played out in his performances, which show a remarkable reoccurrence of theatrical tropes such as role-playing, disguise, and doubling. These emphasize the distinction between performer and role, undermining uncomplicated star appeal. This article traces the reconfigurations of these performance modes throughout his early career to 1938, when after filming Knight Without Armour for Alexander Korda, Donat was the first British star to sign a contract for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's British production arm, MGM-British. This contract, discussed later in this article, gave him significantly greater control over the development of the script and his choice of roles.

Most works on British stars, such as Richards on Gracie Fields (Age of the Dream Palace 16990) or Harper on British actresses of the 1930s (137-51), have approached them in terms of the significance of their star image. This method, despite drawing attention to the actors, finds discursive consequence not in their skills but in the relationship their image has to the culture that gave it significance. This perspective on the actor as "star-text" is derived from Hollywood-centric theoretical models that have directed interest away from performance and acting, aspects that have, as Minghella points out in the opening quotation, a peculiarly British inflection. …

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