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Ronald Colman Actor: From Mad Killer to Lovestruck Amnesiac & Should Humankind Be Spared?

Updated: Following a couple of Julie London Westerns*, Turner Classic Movies will return to its July 2017 Star of the Month presentations. This evening, July 27, Ronald Colman can be seen in five titles from his later years: A Double Life, Random Harvest (1942), The Talk of the Town (1942), The Late George Apley (1947), and The Story of Mankind (1957).

The first three titles are among the most important in Colman's long film career. George Cukor's A Double Life earned him his one and only Best Actor Oscar; Mervyn LeRoy's Random Harvest earned him his second Best Actor Oscar nomination; George Stevens' The Talk of the Town was shortlisted for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. All three feature Ronald Colman at his very best.

The early 21st century motto of international trendsetters, from Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro and Turkey's Recep Erdogan to Russia's Vladimir Putin and the United States' Donald Trump, seems to be, The world is reality TV and reality TV is the world of alternative facts (and armageddon-in-the-making). In the 1947 psychological crime drama A Double Life, which is set in a more innocent, less complex time, the world is the stage and the stage is the world of simple madness and murder. We know from the start that the planet will survive … but about Signe Hasso and Shelley Winters?

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William Shakespeare would have been proud of A Double Life, but this Othello-inspired story about the method actor to end all method acting – and that's even before The Method became The Thing – was actually written by the husband-and-wife team of Garson Kanin and future Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Ruth Gordon (Rosemary's Baby, 1968).

In the film, Ronald Colman plays stage star Anthony John, who ends up taking his role – Othello, what else? – so seriously that he starts living it 24/7. A beautifully cast Signe Hasso plays his wife (in addition to Desdemona in the play within the film) while Shelley Winters, in her first big break, is the waitress with whom John has a fling.

A Double Life was an unusual George Cukor film, as it's quite a bit darker than most of his other work – think Our Betters, The Women, Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, It Should Happen to You, Let's Make Love, My Fair Lady. Having said that, A Double Life came out three years after Cukor's Gaslight, a well-received psychological thriller that earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination (Cukor, however, was bypassed) and a Best Actress Oscar for Ingrid Bergman. In other words, Cukor was hardly new to the film noirish genre.

Overall, A Double Life works for a very simple reason: Ronald Colman. Then in his mid-50s and with three decades of movie experience, the well-respected veteran was brought back to the screen after a three-year hiatus (since the 1944 fantasy Kismet) for both A Double Life and the vastly different The Late George Apley.

The time away from the big screen apparently did him good. As the actor who, like some world leaders (and their followers), can't quite tell the difference between reality and fantasy, Colman delivers the kind of harrowing performance one would expect to find in an Ingmar Bergman effort like Through a Glass Darkly (in which Harriet Andersson loses her mind) – not in a Hollywood movie. In fact, his Anthony John/Othello remains one of the greatest performances of the 1940s, among Best Actor Oscar winners, in film history.

Unlike Gaslight, A Double Life was not nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. Also unlike Gaslight, it did earn Cukor a Best Director nod – his third (following Little Women, 1932–33; The Philadelphia Story, 1940). He lost to Elia Kazan for the more conventionally directed, but more socially conscious, Gentleman's Agreement.

Anyhow, next time some cliché-loving bigot describes George Cukor as a “woman's director” and how his (gay) sexual orientation made him relate to his actresses more intimately – emotionally, that is – remind them not only of Ronald Colman in A Double Life, but also of Best Actor Oscar winners James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story) and Rex Harrison (My Fair Lady), in addition to well-regarded Cukor-directed performances, whether in major or minor roles, by the likes of Cary Grant, Melvyn Douglas, Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, William Holden, Stanley Holloway, Ramon Novarro, Henry Daniell, and many others.

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who switched from racy, fast-paced Warner Bros. Pre-Code fare (Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933) to glossier, more decorous productions at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Waterloo Bridge, Blossoms in the Dust), Random Harvest (1942) marks not only the apex of LeRoy's MGM career, but also one of the peaks of romantic moviemaking, whether in Hollywood or anywhere else.

The story, based on James Hilton's novel, is pure fantasy: World War I veteran suffering from amnesia (Ronald Colman) falls in love with and marries a burlesque actress (Greer Garson). Fate intervenes, and he recovers his memory. How – not if – will he find his way back to that blissful happiness he experienced when he was a man with no past, no i.d., no family; but one who lived zen-like in the present?

Fantasy – or hokum, as some would call it – was never more entrancing. Mervyn LeRoy, who was deservedly nominated for a Best Director Academy Award, works wonders with his cast. Ronald Colman is simply flawless and so is Greer Garson, delivering what could well be the most intensely heartfelt performance of her career. (She won that year's Best Actress Oscar for her – solid – work in William Wyler's more popular Mrs. Miniver.)

As a plus, Random Harvest also boasts the lovely Susan Peters in a supporting role and the best production values that MGM could offer back in the early 1940s: Cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg, music by Herbert Stothart, production design by Cedric Gibbons, and so on.

Another 1942 release, George Stevens' The Talk of the Town features three major stars: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and third-billed Ronald Colman. Schoolteacher Arthur and law professor Colman outact escaped jailbird and political activist Grant, while former Warner Bros. fast-talker Glenda Farrell offers excellent support.

The intertwining of politics and social consciousness play a secondary role in The Talk of the Town, but that realm of isn't fully ignored in the film, and is worth paying attention to. Big business frames the “little guy” fighting for social justice while the Law & Order crowd seem to be chiefly concerned with preserving the status quo and assorted reality-defying banalities.

In sum, the highly enjoyable, beautifully acted, and thought-provoking The Talk of the Town – it's better than any of Frank Capra's socially conscious movies – remains as relevant in the early 21st century as it was during World War II. And that's human progress for you.

The Late George Apley (1947) was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz a couple of years before winning back-to-back Oscars for directing and writing A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950).

Loosely based on Hendrik Willem van Loon's 1921 book, The Story of Mankind pits Ronald Colman – in his final role, as the Spirit of Man – against another veteran, Vincent Price, as Satan. Should divine intervention prevent a Super-H bomb from wiping out humankind (and fellow Earth dwellers)?

Believe it or not, Satan is on the side of allowing the Super-H bomb to do its clean-up job – a stance that makes absolutely no sense for those who believe in such a creature. After all, what would become of Satan without human beings diligently working to make his plans – ongoing suffering and horror – come to fruition?

Irwin Allen – best known as the producer of 1970s disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and The Swarm – directed The Story of Mankind, which turned out to be both a critical and box office bomb. The all-star cast includes Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, Dennis Hopper as Napoleon Bonaparte, Peter Lorre as Nero, Edward Everett Horton as Sir Walter Raleigh, and Bobby Watson as the best-known human being of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler.

The fact that just about every single historical personage in The Story of Mankind is either European or an American (U.S.) of European ancestry is no coincidence. And to think that just about nothing has changed in the last six decades.

Ronald Colman died of emphysema at age 67 on May 19, 1958, in Santa Barbara, California.

Curiously, he was one of the many English-speaking male film stars – only one of whom, Colman himself, was over 65 – to die in the late 1950s/early 1960s, along with Robert Donat (1958), Tyrone Power (1958), Errol Flynn (1959), Paul Douglas (1959), George Reeves (1959), Mario Lanza (1959), Wayne Morris (1959), Clark Gable (1960), Jeff Chandler (1961), and Gary Cooper (1961).

* Forget John Wayne, James Stewart, and Clint Eastwood; the husky-voiced Julie London was the real Wide Open Spaces icon. TCM's two London Westerns were Hall Bartlett's Drango (1957), with Jeff Chandler and Joanne Dru, and Robert Parrish's Saddle the Wind (1958), with a post-MGM Robert Taylor and a pre-Shadows John Cassavetes.

8:00 PM A DOUBLE LIFE (1947). Dir.: George Cukor. Cast: Ronald Colman. Signe Hasso. Edmond O'Brien. Shelley Winters. Ray Collins. Uncredited: Betsy Blair. Fay Kanin. B&W. 105 mins.

10:00 PM RANDOM HARVEST (1942). Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Ronald Colman. Greer Garson. Philip Dorn. Susan Peters. Henry Travers. Reginald Owen. Margaret Wycherly. Bramwell Fletcher. Melville Cooper. Rhys Williams. Aubrey Mather. Ann Richards. Una O'Connor. Jill Esmond. Norma Varden. Uncredited: Peter Lawford. B&W. 126 mins.

12:15 AM THE TALK OF THE TOWN (1942). Dir.: George Stevens. Cast: Cary Grant. Jean Arthur. Ronald Colman. Glenda Farrell. Edgar Buchanan. Charles Dingle. Emma Dunn. Rex Ingram. Leonid Kinskey. Tom Tyler. Uncredited: Leslie Brooks. B&W. 117 mins.

2:30 AM THE LATE GEORGE APLEY (1947). Dir.: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cast: Ronald Colman. Peggy Cummins. Vanessa Brown. Richard Haydn. Charles Russell. Richard Ney. Mildred Natwick. Edna Best. Nydia Westman. B&W. 97 mins.

4:15 AM THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957). Dir.: Irwin Allen. Cast: Ronald Colman. Hedy Lamarr. Virginia Mayo. Agnes Moorehead. Vincent Price. Groucho Marx. Harpo Marx. Chico Marx. Peter Lorre. Cesar Romero. Charles Coburn. Cedric Hardwicke. Marie Wilson. John Carradine. Dennis Hopper. Helmut Dantine. Edward Everett Horton. Marie Windsor. Reginald Gardiner. Franklin Pangborn. Cathy O'Donnell. Francis X. Bushman. Anthony Dexter. George E. Stone. Melville Cooper. Henry Daniell. David Bond. Nick Cravat. William Schallert. Bobby Watson. Reginald Sheffield. Bart Mattson. Austin Green. Dani Crayne. Jim Ameche. Color. 100 mins.


         
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