Think of Claude Rains, and what usually come to mind is The Voice. That liquid, caressing baritone, with just enough of an English accent. Voices don't come much sexier than Rains'. (If you need reminding, or just because he is excellent in it, here is a recording of "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole," a classic episode of the radio show "Suspense" that stars Rains along with Vincent Price.)
Recently, however, by the simple expedient of noodling around for good photos of Claude Rains (on whom the Siren, like her idol Bette Davis, has a raging crush), the Siren made a discovery. An intriguing discovery, if she says so herself, and she does.
In addition to speech so beautiful that David J. Skal's biography of Rains is called An Actor's Voice, Rains had a world-class side-eye.
In fact, until a challenger comes along, the Siren, by the authority she has invested in herself, awards Claude Rains the prize as The Greatest Side-Eye of All Time.
And here's a curious note about The Voice, and the unique sidelong look he brought to multiple roles over the course of a great career: The evidence suggests both had their roots in adversity.
Claude Rains, who brought a silky hint of culture, wit and high birth to so many roles, was born into a London family of small means in 1889. He had 11 brothers and sisters; in an era of measles, diptheria and a thousand other childhood scourges many died in infancy. Only three Rains children, including him, made it to adulthood. His father, an actor of sorts, veered from one job to another, and was prone to beat his son for the smallest infraction. His mother spent time in an asylum, and Skal speculates that she suffered from postpartum depression. Young Willie (his birthname was William Claude) had a strong Cockney accent Skal says was picked up in the London streets, as well as both a lisp and a stammer. He got rid of them all by his late teens as he embarked on a career in the theatre, moving from call boy to prompter to speaking roles, and studying elocution books religiously, practicing every exercise.
In 1916 he volunteered for the famed London Scottish Regiment, known around these parts as the Most Devastatingly Attractive Regiment of All Time, including as it did Basil Rathbone, Herbert Marshall and Ronald Colman. Rains was deployed to Vimy Ridge, where months later his outfit was hit by mustard gas. A shell exploded near him and the last words he heard, before he lost consciousness, were "Well, they got Rains."
When he woke up in the hospital, he had lost nearly all the vision in his right eye, and his vocal cords were paralyzed. The voice came back, of course, but with a slightly rougher cast that movie audiences would grow to love. The blindness was permanent. Skal says "it would remain a closely guarded secret" right up to Rains' death in 1967.
It's hard, if not impossible, to know whether this contributed to the signature Rains technique, perhaps as one way of keeping a scene partner in his sightlines, without drawing attention to the right eye. What is indisputably true is that a sidelong glance from Claude Rains is more intense than many another actor's head-on stare.
It wasn't an indiscriminate thing. He was too fine and precise an actor for that. You won't find it much, for example, in Mr. Skeffington, one of the Siren's favorite Rains roles, where he has the title role as the near-saintly man who loves Bette Davis' cold-hearted flirt. But when he needed it, hoo boy. Side-eye is modern slang for a glance of derision, and certainly Rains could do that, so scathingly you imagine whoever is in the scene with him had to put up a fire-screen. But Rains had infinite variations, until that look became an art. With it, he could convey tender love, bitter betrayal, cynicism, defeat, lust, fear, laughter and a sense that the world is mad.
Behold. The Siren has collected evidence.
|Publicity photo, or, The Come-Hither Side-Eye, in which Rains at his handsomest appears to glance away|
because you, yes you dear fan-person, you drive him mad with passion. Speaking of which...
|Crime Without Passion (1934): "You're blonde now."|
|Anthony Adverse (1936): Calculating, with a hint of licentiousness. Rowr.|
|Stolen Holiday (1937): "No, of course I haven't concocted one of the greatest|
financial frauds in French history. Bisou-bisou, darling."
|They Won't Forget (1937): The Siren can't joke about this one; it's too grim, and fact-based to boot.|
All the same, that's a hell of a look.
|The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): In a scene with Basil Rathbone, former comrade from the Scottish Regiment, the Rains sidelong glance does not hesitate to upstage the Baz something fierce.|
|Four Daughters (1938): The rarely deployed twinkly version.|
|Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941): Precisely the look to convey to a subordinate, in this world or the next, that he has made a very big boo-boo.|
|The Wolf-Man (1941): "Down, boy. My billing's higher than yours."|
|Building up a "psychic bellyache" in Kings Row (1942).|
|Now, Voyager (1942): The look of a psychiatrist who realizes he's taking the wrong person to the sanitorium.|
|As Casablanca was peak Rains, in the public memory if nothing else, so also is it Peak Side-Eye, as here|
|...and of course, here.|
|Notorious: The "Yes, That's the Low-Cut Gown of the American Spy I Married" Side-Eye|
|Publicity for The Unsuspected (1946): "I dare you to suspect me."|
(Wonderful film, another of the Siren's favorite Rains outings.)
|Deception (1947): Side-Eye Emphasizing the Betrayed, Although Admittedly Crazed and Controlling, Lover|
|Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Assessing just how much trouble T.E.'s "funny sense of fun" is going to cause him.|
Some more good stuff about Claude Rains:
The Notorious screen-grabs and the ones from Now, Voyager are from the movie writeups at The Blonde at the Film.
His career in horror movies, from John McElwee at Greenbriar Picture Shows.
Karen at Shadows and Satin speculates it was Rains who got the first million-dollar salary.
Moira Finnie at Movie Morlocks has a tribute that mentions the signature look.
A biographical essay at The Hollywood Art, with quotes from Rains' only daughter, Jessica.