Monday, January 20, 2014

The Five Best Ronald Colman Performances

Ronald Colman was certainly one of Hollywood's most versatile actors, being equally at home in romances, swashbucklers, comedies, and dramas. He even played a murderer once, though villainous roles were not really his forté. He is also one of my favorite actors and that made culling his impressive filmography to just five movies quite a challenge.

Ronald Colman and Greer Garson.
1. Random Harvest - Ronald Colman played dual roles in the same film on multiple occasions. In The Prisoner of Zenda, he starred as lookalikes: one being a Ruritanian king and the other an English gentleman. In A Double Life, he played a stage actor with a split personality, unable to separate his performance as Othello from his real life. But for me, his most brilliant "double role" performance was in the 1942 adaptation of James Hilton's Random Harvest. The film opens with Colman as "John Smith," a World War I veteran who has lost his memory and resides in a sanitarium. During a celebration of the war's end, Smith wanders into a nearby town and meets an entertainer named Paula (Greer Garson). Smithy (as she calls him) and Paula fall in love, marry, and have a child. They live blissfully in the English countryside until Smithy journeys alone to Liverpool and is struck by a taxi. When he awakes, he remembers his life as the affluent Charles Rainer--but he has forgotten his life as Smithy. Years later, he hires Paula--still not knowing who she is--to work for him. As Smithy and Charles, Colman plays two characters that reside in the same man. It's a brilliantly textured performance that also benefits from Colman's chemistry with Garson (I'd rank it as her best film, too). Those who quibble about the plot's happenstances are grumpy bears that should focus on the sublime cast and first-rate production.

With Art Linkletter on the show
"Masquerade for Money."
2. Champagne for Caesar - I'm always surprised that so few people have seen this smart 1950 comedy featuring delightful performances from Colman, Vincent Price, and Celeste Holm. Of course, it doesn't help that it's rarely shown on television, especially compared to other Colman classics. Ronald stars as an unemployed genius who is rejected for a menial job at Vincent Price's soap company ("Milady Soap--the soap that sanctifies!"). To gain revenge (and money), he appears on a quiz show sponsored by Price's company with the goal of eventually bankrupting the soap-maker. It's great fun watching Colman's confident intellect become befuddled when Price sends a beautiful "undercover agent" (Holm) to distract him. A funny film with a satirical edge, Champagne for Caesar also provides Price with one of his finest roles.

Colman and Madeleine Carroll.
3. The Prisoner of Zenda - Ronald Colman played noble characters numerous films (e.g., A Tale of Two CitiesLost Horizon), but none compare to Rudolf Rassendyll. While vacationing in a small European country, this English gentleman agrees to pose as a kidnapped king to prevent a coup by the king's villainous half-brother at the coronation. It doesn't take long for Rudolf to realize his greatest enemy is not Duke Michael (Raymond Massey), but rather himself--for he has become loved by the people and he has fallen in love with Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll). Zenda affords Colman an opportunity to match wits with Massey while romancing Carroll and dueling with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. As an added bonus, he plays the lookalike king with none of the flair and intelligence displayed by Rudolf.

Frances Dee and Colman.
4. If I Were King - Another under-appreciated Colman movie, this one casts him as 15th century French poet, thief, and all-around rascal Francois Villon. One night, while complaining loudly in a tavern about King Louis XI, Villon meets the king...who has donned a disguise while in search of a traitor. When the police try to arrest Villon for theft, a brawl ensues and Francois kills the treacherous traitor. Amused by the poet--and thankful that he disposed of an enemy--King Louis (Basil Rathbone) rewards Villon by making him the court's Grand Constable. What Villon doesn't know is that his new-found life will last only a week, as the king still intends to execute him. This lively historical yarn mixes romance, swashbuckling, and humor in equal amounts. Both Colman and Rathbone are excellent and their scenes together sparkle with wit (no surprise since Preston Sturges wrote the screenplay). It's too bad that Colman didn't make more films like this, though one suspects he was afraid of being pigeon-holed as a swashbuckler in the Errol Flynn mold.

Colman and Richard Haydn.
5. The Late George Apley - Based on John P. Marquand's 1937 novel and play, this appealing social satire takes aim at the Boston upper class circa 1912. Colman plays the family patriarch, who is determined to retain his blue-blooded values even as the world changes around him. Imagine his shock when his daughter falls in love with a "radical" young man from New York! The beauty of Colman's performance is watching George Apley evolve--somewhat painfully--from a stodgy, firm Bostonian to a man who recognizes his mistakes and becomes determined to correct them. Although I like Life With Father, I think The Late George Apley is a much better choice for a Father's Day movie.

Honorable Mentions:  A Double Life, A Tale of Two Cities, Lost Horizon, and Under Two Flags.


  1. I have to go with A DOUBLE LIFE, a fabulous film with Coleman as an actor who cannot separate his stage life from his real life.

  2. Believe it or not, I have seen only 1 of those films---Random Harvest. It is one of my all-time favorite romantic dramas, so I have no doubt it is my favorite Ronald Colman performance.

    I have to admit, I love the the Stewart Granger/James Mason version of The Prisoner of Zenda, so I have never bothered to watch this one.

    Ronald Colman had such an incredibly beautiful voice!

  3. I have yet to see "If I Were King" and am intrigued by your comments. Absolutely adore Mr. Colman.

    I made a top 10 Colman list a couple of years ago and stand by it:

    The Late George Apley
    Random Harvest
    A Double Life
    Lost Horizon
    The Prisoner of Zenda
    The Talk of the Town
    Champagne for Caesar
    A Tale of Two Cities
    Beau Geste
    The Light That Failed

  4. I bought Champagne for Caesar on DVD, recently and did not get it at all. However, I will try again!!! I recommend Kismet with Marlene Dietrich. It's a hoot! I think his reading of Dickens' "It's a far, far, better..." is extraordinary in the extreme.

  5. While he never gave a bad performance, I want to sneak a few silents in there just to honor his fine pre-talkie career: Her Night of Romance, Her Sister from Paris, Beau Geste and The Winning of Barbara Worth.

  6. OHHH, A Double Life and Tale of Two Cities, without doubt! My faves, anyway. I've always been more of a fan of drama than comedy, but when I see his name, I watch it, no matter what! Great list, Rick!

  7. A lovely piece on this wonderful actor. I appreciate that you highlight some of Colman's lesser-known performances in the films Champagne for Caesar and The Late George Apley. Both films are utterly charming (helped by Colman's presence, of course), and Caesar is very funny - and Colman has great chemistry with Celeste Holm, who just sparkles!

  8. Ronald Colman truly had one of cinema's loveliest voices. I could listen to him for hours! I thoroughly enjoyed your post and your justifications for your choices. I laughed out loud when I read your comment about those who find challenges with happenstances of "Random Harvest" are grumpy bears. There are no grumpy bears in my home with this or your other choices. I did like Flick Chick's mention of his silent films, too. Well done, all!

  9. "The Prisoner of Zenda" for me, though "If I Were King" sounds marvelous. A splendid list.

  10. Great comments and recommended additions. For me, there are very few Colman films I don't like. Both BULLDOG DRUMMOND movies are fun. ARROWSMITH and BEAU GESTE (which several of you have mentioned) are quite good. Even the cheesy STORY OF MANKIND is amusing in its own way. The only Colman pic I don't like is THE TALK OF THE TOWN. Maybe it was a case of not meeting high expectations, given the cast for that one.

    1. Colman's scene with Glenda Farrell in "The Talk of the Town" is priceless. If nothing else, just watch and enjoy Professor Lightcap's attempt at being a wolf.

  11. What?! No mention of "The Talk of the Town"? ;)

    Great list! Am pleased to see "The Prisoner of Zenda" made the top 5.