If you’re not a fan of classic cinema, you may not recognize his name. However, in addition to becoming a renowned Oscar-nominated character actor with one of the industry’s most distinctive voices, Claude Rains also taught the craft to some of cinema’s most legendary actors.
Born on November 10, 1899 in London, the future actor who would become known for his elegance and quiet authority had very humble beginnings. His father was a stage actor, and the family lived in poverty, with Rains being one of only three children out of twelve to not die from poverty-related issues. He had a heavy cockney accent and a stutter, and dropped out of school after second grade to earn money for the family. Growing up around the theater, he was soon performing in plays, starting at the age of ten. In 1913, he came to America to find work in the New York theaters, but went back to England to serve with the British regime during World War I. He rose to rank of captain during his service, and lost most of his vision in his right eye due to a gas attack.
Following the war, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, took Rains under his wing, supplying him with elocution lessons to help rid him of his strong accent and speech impediment. The result is one of the most recognizable and unique voices in cinema history, a blend of American and English, with a little cockney thrown in. Rains eventually became one of the best and most popular instructors at the Academy, with his students including such famed actors as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton.
Rains came late to the world of cinema, appearing in only one (forgettable) silent film. His true movie debut was in the 1933 sci-fi horror classic “The Invisible Man,” his rich unmistakable voice soon making him a popular choice for cultured villains. As he was older when he came to the film world, and was a rather small man (only 5’6), Rains was not leading man material. However, he used this to his advantage, garnering a variety of roles in which he could make a huge impact by doing very little, eventually becoming one of the foremost character actors of his generation. He had strong supporting roles in a total of eight films which were nominated for Best Picture Oscars, two of which won and have gone on to become timeless classics: “Casablanca” (1942) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). He himself was nominated four times for Best Supporting Actor, for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939), “Casablanca,” “Mr. Skeffington” (1944) and “Notorious” (1946).
Rains was popular and well-respected among his peers, with four-time leading lady Bette Davis claiming he was her favorite co-star. He was the first actor to receive a million dollar salary, for the big budget “Caesar and Cleopatra” in 1945. Although that film did not do well, Rains continued to be a much sought-after actor. He found success in pretty much every entertainment medium, including several television roles, among which was his only singing and dancing role, in the popular “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” in 1957. That incredible voice was perfect for radio and for audio recordings, and he narrated Bible stories for children. And he continued theater work, appearing in nearly 20 Broadway roles, and received a Tony award for Lead Actor in 1951 for “Darkness at Noon.”
He married six times, with five of those marriages ending in divorce. This would seem to indicate bad behavior on his part; however, by all accounts, this seemed to be the result of bad decision-making on his part as opposed to bad behavior. His longest marriage, to Frances Propper, lasted 20 years and produced his daughter. They managed a farm together in Pennsylvania, which he enjoyed immensely.
Rains died of an abdominal hemorrhage on May 30, 1967. He left a legacy of characters who were not the leads much of the time, but were some of the most important supporting roles in all of cinema history. His voice, his quiet authority, his subtle elegance combined to make him one of the most unforgettable character actors of his time. Tour our photo gallery above ranking his 15 greatest film performances from worst to best.
15. Angel on My Shoulder (1946)
One of Rains’ most famous roles is as an angel in “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” but he turns in an excellent performance as the devil in this fun fantasy film. Gangster Eddie (Paul Muni) is killed by an associate and sent to Hell, where “Nick” (Rains) offers him a chance to go back to earth to avenge his death in exchange for a favor. Eddie looks like a judge that is too noble, causing Nick grief. Nick transfers Eddie’s soul to the judge’s body, so that he can ruin his reputation. However, Eddie is not very cooperative and becomes too involved in the judge’s “perfect” life, messing up Nick’s plans. Anne Baxter plays the judge’s girlfriend, and she, Muni and Rains all give outstanding performances in the types of roles they are each best known for. This is a hidden gem, with Rains using the same creepy laugh he used in “The Invisible Man,” and having a devilishly great time hamming it up at the most well-known villain of all time.
14. The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
What better way for one of the most prolific villains in cinema to end his career than as King Herod the Great, one of the great villains of the Bible? “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is one of a stream of Biblical epics made during the late 1950s, and into the 1960s. It is not considered one of the best, and received mixed reviews at the time of its released, and continues to do so. Many considered scores of cameos to be a distraction to the story. However, Rains’s performance as Herod is deemed one of its finer points, and as usual, he plays the villain with a subtlety that makes him even more sinister, and it is a fitting last role for this great actor.
13. The Sea Hawk (1940)
The king of Spain has decided to conquer England, and sends ambassador Don Alvarez (Rains) to England to distract Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson). The ship Alvarez travels on is captured by English pirate Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn), who “protects” the seas for England while plundering the ships. Thorpe and the queen privately devise a plan to capture Spanish gold for England; however, one of Elizabeth’s men betrays her, and with Alvarez, put together a plan to have Thorpe and his men captured. This swashbuckler was a huge hit for Warner Bros, and garnered four Oscar nominations. This was Rains’s third and final film with Flynn; they are all memorable for the challenge Flynn’s outlandish adventurous heroes present to Rains’s subtle elegant heroes.
12. The Passionate Friends (1949)
David Lean directed this romance based on an H.G. Wells novel. Howard (Rains) and Mary (Ann Todd) have a marriage based on mutual affection and stability rather than love. At a weekend getaway, Mary by chance reconnects with her true love from her youth, the now-married Steven (Trevor Howard). Howard’s jealousy threatens to destroy the many lives now affected by Mary’s long-ago decision to choose stability over love. Although this is a lesser known effort of Lean’s, all the performances are considered some of the best of each actor, and the film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949. Rains’ quiet simmering rage is one that is easily relatable, and he turns in one of his most sinister self-contained roles.
11. The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Although this film is not considered as scary as the 1925 adaptation starring Lon Chaney, Rains put his own unique mark on this legendary character. As the scarred violinist who secretly loves beautiful soprano Christine (Susanna Foster), Rains plays the part as a tragic hero. Whereas Chaney was well known for his ability to change his appearance and enjoyed testing make-up special effects, Rains wanted to downplay the disfigurement of the character. Although Rains initially received mixed reviews, with many thinking he was miscast, his sympathetic portrayal of the phantom as opposed to strict horror is now appreciated more. Despite lackluster reviews, the film was nominated for four Oscars, and is the only Universal horror film to win the coveted statue, for Cinematography and Art Direction – notable for its beautiful Technicolor.
10. Mr. Skeffington (1944)
Fanny (Bette Davis) is a beautiful and popular woman who reluctantly marries Job Skeffington to save her brother from an embezzlement charge. Although Job is rather bland, he truly loves Fanny; however, she continues to acquire young suitors and mainly ignores her husband. Off set, Davis was going through personal problems, and later admitted herself that she was a nightmare to work with during this time. Nonetheless, both actors were nominated for Oscars (she for lead, he for supporting). Although this is the most forgotten of the Rains/Davis films, it’s a role that truly displays his quiet greatness by his willingness to let other actors take the lead.
9. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
This epic Best Picture winner is based on the life of T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole in an Oscar-nominated role), a British officer who united Arab fighters, leading them and British troops in a revolt against the Turks during World War I. In one of his last big-screen roles, Rains is again a strong supporting character, this time as Mr. Dryden, a British official in the Arab Bureau. “Lawrence of Arabia” won seven of its ten Oscar nominations, as well as numerous other awards, including Best Picture at both the Golden Globes and BAFTA ceremonies. This epic is considered one of the best films ever made and a huge influence in the world of filmmaking, and it is fitting that Rains, who was in so many influential films, had a part in this one.
8. The Wolf Man (1941)
One of the most influential and well-known of Universal’s horror films, “The Wolf Man” stars Lon Chaney, Jr. in the title character of a man bitten by a beast who begins to turn into a “wolf man.” Although the picture is clearly a Chaney vehicle, Rains offers his customary quiet authority as Sir John Talbot, the father of “The Wolf Man.” The film has a hokey storyline, and with a lesser cast, would easily fall into the category of outdated picture. However, each character is perfectly cast, and is now considered one of the greatest horror pictures of its era.
7. Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
There are quite a few 1940s films with guardian angels aiding earthbound humans as the premise, and this trend started with this well-received fantasy romantic comedy. Rains is Mr. Jordan, the “head angel” who realizes that boxer Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) was taken to Heaven by mistake and should have lived another 50 years. Mr. Jordan offers him the opportunity to return to earth in another body to live out the years he was cheated. Although Rains was known primarily for more sinister roles, his unique voice and calm demeanor made him equally adept at playing an “angel in charge.” The film was extremely popular with audiences and critics, receiving seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, winning for Best Story and Best Screenplay.
6. Now, Voyager (1942)
Probably the most famous and enduring of Rains’ pairings with Bette Davis, “Now, Voyager” tells the story of the transformation of Charlotte (Davis) from a frumpy old maid to a beautiful, sophisticated woman who eventually falls in love with an unhappily married man. Charlotte has been browbeaten by her domineering mother, and she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown when she is introduced to Dr. Jaquith (Rains), a psychiatrist who helps her break free from her shell. Rains’ quiet authority helps to ground Davis, and he is a great support for her. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Davis for Best Actress, and won for Best Music. It is one of the best melodramas from the 1940s.
5. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
In this much-lauded version of the tale, Prince John (Rains) steals the throne from his brother King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter) with the help of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). As John over-taxes the Saxons to maintain his position of power, Sir Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) forms a band of merrymen to fight John and defend Richard’s place on the throne. Rains later said that co-director Michael Curtiz was instrumental in teaching him the understated qualities of film acting, and how to perform in front of a camera. As such, Rains’ Prince John is an excellent foe to Flynn’s Robin Hood, and Rains is able to keep up with Flynn’s magnificent hamming, creating one of Hollywood’s most memorable action adventure films. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won three. It was one of the highest-grossing movies of 1938, is named on many “best movies ever” lists, and has been preserved in the National Film Registry.
4. Notorious (1946)
Rains received his fourth and final Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for this film noir directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Devlin (Cary Grant) is a spy who uses beautiful Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a group of exiled Nazis in Argentina. Distraught by Devlin’s use of her, she marries one of the Nazis, Alexander Sebastian (Rains), creating an intricate love triangle/espionage tale that is now considered one of Hitchcock’s best. Rains’ Sebastian is the first time in film a Nazi is shown in a sympathetic light, as he is truly in love with Alicia and she is betraying him. It says a lot about Rains’ ability to convey human emotion that you almost root for him, despite the fact that he is a dangerous Nazi.
3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
The films that withstand the test of time not only have the great leading actors of the generation, but are generally surrounded by the best character actors of the time as well. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is an example of perfect casting in each and every role. James Stewart is the naive Jefferson Smith, who is appointed to a Senate seat due to the death of a Senator and picked because the corrupt people in charge think they can get him to agree to anything. Rains is the senior Senator Joseph Paine, a once noble man dedicated to “loss causes” who has been corrupted. The end would be cheesy and laughable if not for Rains’ ability to transform from a man who defends his corruption to one who truly feels shame and publicly admits his wrongdoing. With a supporting cast that includes Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Harry Carey, Edward Arnold and Guy Kibbee, the film went on to earn a total of 11 Academy Award nominations, winning for writing. Both Stewart and Rains were deservedly nominated, but the year was 1939 and “Gone with the Wind” was the picture to beat that year. However, the performances of these men, and the picture itself, are among the best in the history of film, and the tale is one that remains relevant today.
2. Casablanca (1942)
When people think of this Best Picture classic, it is Humphrey Bogart as Rick and Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa who come to mind, in one of the most celebrated cinematic love stories of all time. However, Bogie doesn’t walk into the sunset with Bergman… in one of the most iconic film endings of all time, he walks into the fog with Claude Rains. And although the film is primarily revered for its romantic element, it is also a war picture, with a central plot being Rick’s ability to help Ilsa escape with her husband Victor (Paul Henreid), a Czech Resistance leader. Rains is the somewhat corrupt (mainly for survival’s sake) yet romantic police chief Louis Renault, who Rick brings into his plan to help his true love Ilsa and her husband get away to safety. Although both men are proven cynics, they are both heroes in the end, working together on the right side, the final moment of the film belonging to the two of them: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
1. The Invisible Man (1933)
Rains made a spectacular American film debut in this sci-fi horror classic that has a little bit of comedy thrown in too. Based on the H.G. Wells novel, this version is considered an excellent representation of the novel. Rains is Dr. Jack Griffin, a scientist who has discovered a way to become invisible with the intention of selling the formula to the government. However, the element that causes the invisibility has also made him go mad, causing him to go on a maniacal murderous rampage. Rains was not in consideration for the part; however, famed horror director James Whale overheard the unknown actor audition for another role and knew that was the voice for the role. With its impressive (for its time) special effects and Rains’ performance, “The Invisible Man” was extremely successful, with “The New York Times” placing it on its year-end Top Ten Films of 1933, and led to sequels with other actors. Although Rains himself is only actually “visible” in the last few minutes of the film, his career took off. He acted with his voice- that magnificent, unmistakable voice along with an unforgettable fiendish laugh- leading to the beginning of a long and prolific career.