The setting: The exterior of a London street in Autumn, shrouded in fog.
The outside of formal townhouse, not unlike 221b Baker Street, is barely visible through the mist.
The Time: Oct. 31st.
Fade in: An interior, wood-paneled room in the house, with a long rectangular mahogany table and several Chippendale chairs surrounding it. At the head of the table is a gavel and an hourglass filled with sand. Next to that is mounted a large Oxford English Dictionary. The table is covered in green baize and has pens, paper, and a crystal decanter filled with brandy on a tray with several glasses surrounding it. A flickering fire in the hearth provides a minimum of illumination in the dark room and warms the reception as the guests begin to file in.
The invitations had gone out. The RSVPs had been received and the acceptances came in from Professor Moriarty, the Baron de Varville, Lord Wolfingham, the infamous and fatuous Hynkel's right hand man, Garbitsch, Minister Von Ribbentrop, Henry Brocklehurst, and Dr. Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane. One would think that such a multitudinous—and sinister—bunch would fill the room and all the chairs. Yet at this Halloween party, only one man would have to arrive to bring this distinguished if rather forbidding bunch together: Henry Daniell.
An actor in films for five decades, Daniell's vividly drawn portraits include arms dealers, scoundrels who expect a kept woman to remain compliant, blackmailers who seem to enjoy watching his victims squirm, advisers practicing realpolitik in the Elizabethan age or during the fall of Hitler's Berlin, schoolmasters whose petty, dictatorial whims dominate his young charges, even to the grave, and only occasionally a very human, exceedingly blasé, even sardonically funny authority figure, such as a barrister or a judge.
Fortunately, there were other guests at our imaginary gathering as well—just to keep things lively. Lionel "Pinky" Atwill showed up, sporting his full Inspector Krogh persona from Son of Frankenstein (1939) and wearing his wooden left arm, complete with darts, in hopeful anticipation of a quick game with fellow guest Basil Rathbone.
George Zucco arrives, wearing a fez, as usual, though his world-weary voice drips with sarcasm when greeting the guest of honor, (guess he's still peeved about that "Dr. Zucco" character Daniell played in 1961's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea).
Last to enter are the familiar figures of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Hopefully, Basil will not be sporting that unfortunate Caesar 'do that he wore in those "modern" Sherlock Holmes movies…Look, he's whispering something into Nigel's good ear.
Let's listen…"I tell you Nigel, it simply isn't fair, old man. Zucco has rather demented fans who have awarded his willingness to work in everything from The Hunchback of Notre Dame to dreck in which he wears a fez and a dour expression with several websites. And silly goose Lionel Atwill has far too many exceedingly odd people willing to speculate on his peccadilloes, real or imagined."
As any 19th century man would, Nigel Bruce puzzles over what a "website" might be while listening to his friend ramble on. "What does Henry Daniell merit?" Basil continued. "A mere blurb in a compendium of character actors.Why, you'd think he was that eternal spear carrier Ian Wolfe or some dress extra of that stripe!"
Nigel, attempting to appease his excitable partner, burbles something about giving the "lad" a fair hearing, and then making a decision.
Henry Daniell, who had entered before the others, overhears all this and looks a bit dejected. Though his colleagues begin to take seats at the end of the table near the brandy at one end, Henry plunks himself down at the far end near the hearth, staring off into space, lost in thoughts that only he can know.
Perhaps he's mulling over the long career that began in earnest—like so many others in Daniell's generation, in 1913—just before his turn in the trenches of World War I the following brutal year. When eventually faced with demobilization due to injuries—surprised to have lived through the hell of trench warfare, Daniell and other good, sometimes great, actors chose to return to the footlights rather than the staid pathways of civilian life. Among them were his contemporaries Ronald Colman, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, good ol' Nigel, and even Zucco and Atwill, all of whom found their way back to the theatre as a way of nurturing that creative restlessness that could only be expressed in front of an audience. Henry began to picture it all once again…
Fade out: of wood paneled room with the five men, with swirling harp music playing repetitively…
Fade in: A bustling London Street, teeming with life.
Henry Daniell's prosperous London family background and education at St. Paul's School in London and at Gresham's School in Norfolk had almost certainly prepared him for a very different and more settled life than the stage. Yet, after being invalided out of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment, it probably seemed as though all bets were off. If life was going to be nasty, brutish and probably short, why not do something you enjoyed? So what if his six foot height, vaguely authoritative presence, and relative inexperience landed him a negligible part as one "Police Officer Clancy" in a forgettable play at the New Theatre in London called Stop, Thief!—at least it was a real start.
Right: Henry Daniell appearing uncharacteristically romantic on stage with Fay Compton in "Secrets" (1929).
Eventually, of course, there were better plays in London for Henry Daniell, and even a successful foray to the Broadway stage in 1921. The upmarket production of an "experimental" play adapted from the Victor Hugo story, "The Man Who Laughed", was penned by John Barrymore's allegedly brilliant and certainly eccentric second wife Michael Strange (née Blanche Oelrichs). The opportunity to appear with two Barrymores on stage proved irresistible, even if the play was claptrap.
The play, christened "Clair de Lune", had scalpers' tickets going for as much as $250, and starred John and Ethel Barrymore, as well as Henry Daniell playing—what else?—a wily king. It was a hit, at least with audiences and members of the theatre community who crowded into the back of the theatre still wearing their makeup after their own shows ended for just a chance to see the "magic" on stage. One skeptic was critic Robert Benchley, who commented that "under the warmth of Miss Barrymore's voice, the lines assigned to her blossom into an unwonted state of lucidity which at times gives the play the appearance of being very clever indeed. And then she leaves the stage; the sun goes behind a cloud of murky pathological poetry; the flood rises and you find yourself obliged to tread water to keep your head up."
The theatre was busier than ever, despite Benchley's qualms and the unlikely and unappetizing spectacle of John Barrymore cutting his own heart out in one climactic sequence. All this folderol was pretty typical of a commerical segment of the theatre in that hectic decade. Fortunately for Daniell, his distinct voice, obvious breeding and hawkishly handsome face, won him more roles on both sides of the Atlantic, and led to his first appearance on film with Ina Claire (seen below) in the now lost film, The Awful Truth (1929). (Based on a play by the prolific, now forgotten Alan Richman, this same material would provide Leo McCarey with a springboard for one of his greatest successes a decade later, when a spritely Cary Grant filled Daniell's dress shoes in the same role).
Mr. Daniell's success also included another turn with Ethel Barrymore in a 1924 Broadway revival of Sir Arthur Pinero's serviceable yet faded play, "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray". Apparently, the actor's personal qualities may also have won him the heart of several diverse ladies, including Miss Barrymore, then in her mid-40s, and a very young Tallulah Bankhead, then in her early 20s.
What little is known about Daniell's private life, he admirably kept to himself, preferring the terse philosophy of Disraeli's "never complain and never explain." Others, however, have mentioned that he was the "kind of man Ethel Barrymore could have loved: British background, deferential, courtly, sophisticated, handsome", and in Daniell's case, "a gentleman who probably would've been happier in the 19th rather than the 20th Century." Since Ethel was rather famously discreet in most of her private life as well, we shall never know the extent of her alliance with Daniell, who was often described, along with Conway Tearle, as her "escort." A far less reticent Daniell devotee who met him during her early success in London was Tallulah Bankhead. That freethinking lady included in her 1951 autobiography a wistful sigh of appreciation for the actor and the man, who apparently was "one who got away," to the eternal regret of the ribald and fitfully very talented actress.
What is known about Mr. Daniell is that he was married to one Ann Knox, who may have been an actress, for some time, though no sources are available to determine exactly when or how long. He also maintained friendships with a variety of talented individuals, including director George Cukor, and several of the mainstays of the Hollywood British colony, in particular grande dame, Gladys Cooper.
Miss Cooper recalled mischievously a particular dinner party when she and her husband, Philip Merivale, Daniell and his wife, enjoyed conversing during a long, heavy Hollywood dinner while watching their fellow guest, Roland Young, snoring away opposite them at the table. The topic? Genial gossip about Roland Young, of course. Mr. Young reportedly awoke like a gentleman and wished a good night to his companions at dinner before they went home.
Evidently Mr. Daniell found that the sharp edges of his personality could be quite profitable during his career. His slightly wistful disdain, almost Byronic cruelty, disillusionment, and some hint of real danger beneath the surface were all tailored by him very ably in myriad roles in the '30s and '40s. All of these traits glitter from several of his best characterizations in romantic stories such as Camille (1936) and swashbucklers such as The Sea Hawk (1940), making him a compelling figure in and out of the spotlight.
Interestingly, some of his finest moments on film were often when he took advantage of a female's vulnerability, (and sometimes her outright foolishness). Perhaps the shape of his career was molded by that part as a blackmailer who manipulates a hapless Loretta Young until the final frame in some preposterously entertaining tripe directed by Sam Wood, called The Unguarded Hour (1936). In this, Daniell's sixth movie, his vile slithering may have helped to typecast him for much of the rest of the studio era, despite his obvious gifts. It also ensured that he would have a berth at MGM for much of the next 3 decades, in between extended trips back to Broadway for the rest of his career. In his next movie, his portrayal of Baron de Varville in Cukor's Camille (1936), is still startling and may be the best realized character in the movie, (well, at least next to Garbo, okay Greta fans?).
As the jilted nobleman who finds himself betrayed by his mistress (Greta Garbo), who still needs the material security he can provide, he insists on publicly humiliating her and privately gives her money and a slap that hints at worse behavior behind closed doors. He’s hardly likeable, but you respect his apparent coldness and his strength. The emotional complexity of the moment when he slaps Garbo is heightened by his character's awareness that Camille's desire to pay her debts is largely so that she can go to the country with her lover, Armand (Robert Taylor). His actions and expression certainly shows the Baron's contempt and disgust for her—but it also hints at his own revulsion toward himself and his strong desire to possess her. If you think about Daniell's character, he is never pitiable, but he is in some acute discomfort, since his eruption certifies his need for this woman. This very human emotion torments him and and the public cuckolding infuriates him. His character will not allow himself to appear foolish or vulnerable and the situation pricks his pride and even perhaps his heart--neither of which are allowable for a man of his self assurance. More remarkable is the fact that Mr. Daniell was not nominated for any award for this excellent performance.
Parts as Greta Garbo's conflicted lover don't come along everyday, but every film needs a malefactor, and Daniell's notable contributions to that subset of smooth scoundrels includes a particularly good one in the umpteenth remake of Madame X (1937), starring Gladys George. As Lerocle, a card sharp and, once again, a blackmailer who finds Gladys in the depths of degradation and discovers her real identity, Daniell's character seems to be the character's sole friend, even though he is actually the catalyst for her ultimate restoration to her family and her destruction. The movie is a tired warhorse, but the threadbare material is admirably played by Miss George, Warren William as the unforgiving stiff who cast her out, and Daniell as the oily carnivore whose instincts are aroused by the possibility of a big payday. This Madame X is probably the best—and certainly the most creditable—version of the three that I've seen.
Mr. Daniell's serviceable talent was a natural fit for Errol Flynn's adventure movies. He made a jealous Elizabethan courtier in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and was even better as the traitor Lord Wolfingham in the sumptuous The Sea Hawk (1940).
Legend has it that despite the terrific action scenes in The Sea Hawk, Daniell could barely lift a sword, much less fence, and that doubles did most of the physical stuff, but no stuntmen were needed for the hurt pride, deviousness and intelligence that the actor brought to Wolfingham. The contemptuous rage and frenzied battle of diplomatic wits and sword that he conducts while appearing loyal to Queen Elizabeth I, (Flora Robson, who's a grand, combative Virgin Queen!), makes one wonder if he'd ever had a chance to play that most mystifying and fascinating Shakespearean villain, Iago. He might've been a great one, though the closest he came was as the advisor to Hynkel in Chaplin's fascist farce, The Great Dictator (1940).
The intelligence that he brought to each role was razor sharp, even when the script may not have been. When he had a rare, perceptively written scene handed to him, as the actor did in Watch on the Rhine (1943), he toyed with it, made it spin and stole the scene. Henry Daniell had a small part as a Nazi Party functionary at the Washington embassy just before the war. In a beautifully played scene during a card game with various Europeans drawn to the German embassy opportunistically by the promise of some reflected glory and power—like pilot fish in the wake of a shark—Daniell assesses the motivations and strength of each character. He is particularly hard on George Colouris, who plays a minor Eastern European nobleman unhappily married to an American (Geraldine Fitzgerald). During the shuffling of the cards, Daniell strips Colouris and his fellow card players of their pretensions and illusions, dissecting one and all during one of best-acted, all too brief scenes of this effective film.
Oddly, one of the few times that Henry Daniell's intriguingly forbidding exterior seemed to win him the heart of a female on screen was in the remarkable Val Lewton produced and Robert Wise direction of a film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher (1945). In that movie, Daniell, as the brilliantly arrogant and trapped Scot surgeon Dr. Wolfe 'Toddy' MacFarlane carried on with his frisky housekeeper Meg Camden (Edith Atwater), despite the grim activities that occurred in the basement of the house whenever Bela Lugosi as MacFarlane's servant had a midnight call from Boris Karloff's Cabman, John Gray. Significantly, given Daniell's screen persona and film history, he won't acknowledge his housekeeper as his common law wife for professional reasons, (meaning, of course, "class distinctions"). Daniell's psychological duels with the unctuous and powerful Karloff in this film are often just as exciting as those he conducted with Errol Flynn as well.
Still, all those memories and "might-have-been" pipe dreams bring a sigh to Henry Daniell. Still lost in his reverie of the past, he fails to notice a commanding form who enters the room with an elegant walking stick, and strides to the head of the table. This individual strikes the gavel forcefully on the table, calling the meeting to order without a word. This tall figure then opens the massive dictionary to a page for the letter "C" and using the gavel as a pointer, finds the word he's looking for.
When last we met our imaginary conclave, a tall, dashing figure had abruptly entered the wood-paneled room where Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce had gathered on a foggy London night. Henry Daniell, separate from the others, gazed forlornly into the flickering hearth, seemingly oblivious to the conversation around him and the dimly lit figure who has just entered.
This tall figure then opens the massive dictionary to a page for the letter "C" and using the gavel as a pointer, finds the word he's looking for. As though the effort of speech required all his flagging will, he manfully reads aloud the following definition in a rich baritone voice that drips with not very well veiled condescension:
"Cad: (kad) n.
A man whose behavior is unprincipled or dishonorable.
Daniell is roused by the voice and lifts his head, peering curiously at the oddly familiar speaker. His companions also turn with a start toward the figure.
Yes, if ever there was a man who knew the meaning of this particular word, it was, undoubtedly, the author of the autobiography "Memoirs of a Professional Cad". Mr. Sanders rose to his full height, looking at Henry with some malicious merriness, enjoying the surprise he'd given him and said that:
"A cad, as members of this, The Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know Club are keenly aware, is a man who, if anything, is consciously aware of the futility of much of human activity. Coming to this conclusion after many years trodding the boards and worshipping Mammon in the hurly burly of Hollywood, we have each learned the hard way that style is most often more important than substance. Physical violence and active psychosis is not a central part of his life--though he's not averse to psychological games...his approach to life's difficulties is usually to look for the easy way out, and to do so with tongue firmly in cheek."
George Zucco and Lionel Atwill look at one another and smile, looking like the cats who've gotten into the cream. Nigel Bruce, shifting restlessly in his seat next to Basil Rathbone, murmurs something fairly unintelligible about asking a question. Impatiently, Sanders glares at Basil, willing his fellow member to interpret for Nigel.
"Well, let me see," said Rathbone, "I believe that Dr. Wats—er, I mean, Nigel wanted to know was how he got invited here. He's certainly neither mad, bad or in the least dangerous."
"Only you, Nigel, he continued, "have had the unalloyed pleasure with me of sharing the screen with Henry Daniell as THE one—the one who played Moriarty closest to the description given by the ultimate authority of that Napoleon of Crime. Why, of course, Wats-er-Bruce, I mean Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "
Zucco and Atwill blanched and tensed their right hands into fists, looking down at the green cover on the table and grasping their brandies forcefully with their white knuckled left hand—no mean trick for Atwill with that wooden prosthesis he insisted on wearing from time to time at soirees following his role in Son of Frankenstein (1939).
Both hardworking actors had ventured to play enthusiastic versions of Professor James Moriarty, (Zucco in 1939's Adventures of Sherlock Holmes & Atwill in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon in 1942). They hardly expected to have any latent professional rivalry among them brought into the sanctum sanctorum of the Club.
Cracking open a thick book that he had secreted in the folds of his tweed coat, Rathbone asked that the group listen to a passage from Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem", written in 1891:
'He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. . . He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve, and his two eyes are deeply sunken in his head. He is clean-shaven, pale, and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. His shoulders are rounded from much study, and his face protrudes forward and is forever slowly oscillating from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion. He peered at me with great curiosity in his puckered eyes. . . His soft, precise fashion of speech leaves a conviction of sincerity which a mere bully could not produce…'
Slamming the book shut, Basil fairly shouted, "It's Henry Daniell to the life, surely!"
"Indeed it is, Brother Rathbone" said the President Sanders. "And since I'm nobody's fool, least of all yours, and any more reading whole passages will make the minutes fly like hours, I will take the bait and nominate Henry Daniell for membership in our select group. All in favor, vote Aye!"
As if that descriptive reading from the pen of Sherlock Holmes' creator were not enough, Rathbone reminded everyone that Daniell had been truly chilling in the three cinematic Holmes outings especially in The Woman in Green (1945) when he'd brought Moriarty to life, but also as the antagonists in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943). In addition to the menace and sense of Nietzchean superiority that Daniell brought to the part, he was one of the few Moriartys who ever came close to doing Sherlock in—once by draining him of blood, drop by drop and once by hypnotizing him into walking along a high precipice, (see accompanying picture for documentary evidence).
"Hear, hear, I concur, Holmes—er, I mean Basil," burbled Nigel Bruce. President Sanders gruffly told him that he was a mere guest and obviously didn't vote on such matters.
Sanders looked expectantly at Brothers Atwill and Zucco, waiting for them to make the vote unanimous. Unfortunately, it was to be a long wait. Mumbling and exchanging several of their patented dark looks, Lionel Atwill and George Zucco consulted one another in whispers for some minutes.
Henry Daniell looked pitiably off into space again, apparently stung to the quick that his entrance into the club might be debatable. Or maybe he was just bored...
Or reflecting on the highs and lows of an actor's lot? Daniell, had, it was true, escaped most of the Grade Z pictures that bad luck and their personality quirks had led Zucco and Atwill to pursue once regular work dried up for them at the big studios. Thanks to the steady work offered him at MGM and Warners, Daniell's only real foray into the horror genre that paid the bills for this pair had been the stylish Val Lewton film mentioned last week, The Body Snatcher--and even that had been more of a psychological thriller than an out and out spook show--though there was that last scene with Boris. Still, even when the business changed and economic reality dictated that Daniell take parts in abysmal work such as The Story of Mankind (1957), there had still been occasional forays into more enjoyable roles as a solicitor supporting a game Charles Laughton in the entertaining Witness for the Prosecution (1957) or the world-weary judge trying to mask his indifference to the affairs--legal and otherwise--of those pleading their cause before him in Les Girls (1957). And even when he deigned to appear in such tv dross as Boris Karloff's Thriller series or even Wagon Train, such mundane work kept his name before the public, and all his many roles always helped to finance his forays back to Broadway and on tour in the stimulating works of Wilde, Ibsen, Behrman and even T.S. Eliot, allowing the actor to always remember what had led him into this daunting field. These memories brought a brief smile that brightened the shadows of Daniell's face for barely a moment.
Lionel Atwill took note, and nudged George Zucco, mumbling, "Look, he's got a smile like the brass fittings on a coffin." Finally, unable to say affirmatively, whether they wanted to belong to a club that would have Henry Daniell as a member, Zucco and Atwill both gave a mute "thumbs down" and looked away from the far end of the table, seemingly absorbed in their brandies.
Just then a tall, previously unnoticed figure shifted in the darkest part of the room. Suddenly aware of the interloper, all the men turned toward the figure who'd been with them all along, half hidden by the gloom of the room and some drapes. "Gentlemen," he intoned as he stepped forward, "if I may cast the deciding vote, I believe that Henry's natural spiritual home would ideally be The Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know Club." Startled by the interloper, Sanders and Rathbone half rose toward the voice in the gloom, ready to eject any troublemaker. Just then, he caught the flickering light of the fire—and was revealed as charter member of the club, Boris Karloff.
Curiously, this moment of apparent triumph startled Daniell rather than exhilarating him. Rather than enjoy his new found fellowship, Henry was moved and clearly discombobulated by the affection being shown for him. Without a word, he rose brusquely, gathering his things, doffing his top hat and went out into the night, completely confounded by the bonhomie and fellowship on display by Rathbone and Karloff.
True misanthrope that he was on screen, Mr. Daniell would not seek the solace of good comradeship with his fellow baddies—but like his erstwhile co-star, Miss Garbo, he may have just wanted to be alone with the mystery of his screen persona. And besides, as with all his greatest characters, Henry Daniell just couldn't be bothered, for, as with most tasks in this life, he found that the best defense is striking a pose of indifference at all times. It wasn't that he may have regarded membership as beneath his dignity: He just didn't want to be seen to care.
In real life, Henry Daniell was, according to several sources, a good companion and longtime friend to many in his profession. Phenomenal workhorse that he was,he appeared in over sixty films from 1929 to 1963. He met his end on the set while working in a small part in his friend George Cukor's production of My Fair Lady (1964). The date was October 31st, 1963.
Henry Daniell's work in classic films can be seen almost weekly on TCM. This Friday at 2AM ET, A Woman's Face (1941), one of the more interesting, lesser known melodramas of the forties directed by George Cukor, can be seen on the network. The film features one of Mr. Daniell's polished little gems of a part and some of the better work of the period from Joan Crawford and Conrad Veidt.
Chic, Brian M., "Henry Daniell", Films in Review, January, 1983.
Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur, The Penguin Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Penguin, Harmondsworth (1981).
McGilligan, Patrick, A Double Life: George Cukor, HarperPerennial, 1991.
Morley, Sheridan, Tales From the Hollywood Raj, Viking, 1983.
Peary, Danny, Cult Movie Stars, Simon & Schuster/Fireside, 1983.
Rathbone, Basil, In and Out of Character, Limelight Editions, 2004.
Twomey, Alfred E. and Arthur F., The Versatiles : a Study of Supporting Character Actors and Actresses in the American Motion Picture 1930-1955 Barnes and Co., 1969.
(Originally published in two parts by me at MovieMorlocks.com, Oct. 31, 2007 and Nov. 7, 2007. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.)