London’s BFI Southbank has been hosting an homage to Robert Donat, who died fifty years ago (on June 9, 1958) of a chronic asthma attack at the age of 53.
In spite of his best actor Oscar (for Goodbye Mr. Chips in 1939) and his starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935), Donat is all but forgotten today. To the best of my knowledge, there is no Robert Donat cult, no Robert Donat midnight screenings, no Robert Donat fan websites.
Considering his current obscurity – “debonair” and “charming” are uncool qualities nowadays – and the fact that I’m always disagreeing with everybody, it should come as no surprise that Donat is one of my favorite actors of the 1930s and 1940s.
You can see the wheels turning in his performance as the idealistic teacher in the saccharine Goodbye Mr. Chips and he was badly miscast as a Chinese (!) mandarin in his last movie, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), but he was stiff-upper-lippedly flawless in the title role in Rowland V. Lee’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), as the hero running for his life in the absurd but fast-moving The 39 Steps, and especially as the effete barrister in Terence Rattigan’s excellent The Winslow Boy (1948).
Partly due to ill health and partly due to his own inner demons, Donat, who worked extensively onstage, appeared in only 20 films during his 26-year career. (One of the parts he declined was the title role in Captain Blood, which turned Errol Flynn into a major star.)
This week, the bfi is screening five Donat vehicles – all but one from his later career.
The 39 Steps (1935) – 25 April–1 May
The Cure for Love (1950, which Donat, above with Renée Asherson, also directed and co-wrote) – Sun 27 Apr 20:40
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958, with Curt Jurgens and Ingrid Bergman) – Sat 26 Apr 15:20; Wed 30 Apr 17:50
Lease of Life (1954, Donat’s only movie for Ealing Studios) – Sat 26 Apr 18:20; Tue 29 Apr 18:20