The Citadel (1938): Robert Donat’s First Oscar Nominated Performance

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by Paul Batters

Robert Donat is perhaps one of the most loved actors from the golden years of Hollywood and is best remembered for his Oscar winning performance in Goodbye Mr Chips (1939). It was and still is a beautiful and heart-warming performance, and deserves to be remembered as it still resonates with audiences today. It is one of my favourite films which I discovered as a child but it was not my first experience watching Robert Donat. That discovery came with the film which would draw his first Oscar nomination; 1938’s The Citadel. 

It’s also a performance that does not get the acclaim that it deserves and has been greatly overshadowed by the film which eventually brought Donat his Oscar win in 1939.

Based on A.J Cronin’s novel. The Citadel tells the story of Dr. Andrew Manson (Robert Donat) and follows a character arc which sees him shift from a young, idealistic doctor looking to bring change to the world to losing his faith in himself and the world and discovering it again. As a result, the story still resonates and there are some powerful themes that also still resonate, particularly in light of the current socio-economic and political climate of today – the divisions of class that exist within society, the contrasting lives of the poor and the privileged, the lack of health care for the poor and needy and certainly the lack of action on the part of the authorities to accept the need for change and adopt new technologies as well as new thinking.

Yet at the very personal level there exists something that is timeless; the idealism of youth that turns to disillusionment and despair. Critic David Kehr outlines in his review that director King Vidor was always fascinated by the concept of personal rebirth and that certainly comes through strong in the film, as evidenced by the uplifting climax. If anything, it is the central theme of the film which also has a powerful universal connection to audiences. How many of us have felt our idealism slip away or eroded over time or indeed even destroyed quite suddenly? And how many of us have rediscovered that idealism? Two deeply personal questions but ones that legendary directors like Vidor were driven by and Donat certainly seeks to channel answers through his portrayal of Dr. Manson.

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The young doctor is assigned to the mining village of Blaenely, working under the tutelage of Dr. Page (Basil Gill). The opening scenes show Manson’s excitement as he travels there by train, looking at the countryside as well as some of the conditions the men are working under. There is a foreshadowing of what he will face and perhaps what will temper (and then mute) his idealism when he is warned by the coach driver.

Initially, Manson works hard to treat the local miners and notices that their impoverished life and conditions leave them in misery. Yet all his attempts to bring positive change are thwarted, not only by the authorities but also by the miners themselves. He finds friendship in fellow doctor Denny (Ralph Richardson) who will be a great support and indeed share the same ideal, going to incredible and dangerous lengths to do something about the problems of a possible typhoid break out in the town. True happiness will be found in Christine, a school teacher (Rosalind Russell), whom he will marry afters securing his position as a doctor, although their first meeting will not be a pleasant one. However, after Christine comes to him as a patient for a sore throat, something happens between them. But it seems it is not enough and all his efforts in the town come to nothing, leaving the young dejected and lost, and after a particularly traumatic incident, the couple move to London.

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It will be here that he runs into an old classmate from medical school, Dr.Lawrence (Rex Harrison) and Manson finds himself converted to Lawrence’s way of thinking, to Christine’s disappointment. He becomes a very successful doctor for the upper class of London and enjoys the benefits and money that comes with it. But at what cost?

 

This reviewer will not divulge what follows but it will take not only Christine’s pleading to remember who he was and the ideals they both shared, as well as some tragedy, for Manson to realise what has happened to him. Again, Dr. Manson will find the fire within to act for what is best and the final scene is a strong ending, befitting theme of rebirth which Vidor felt so driven by in his films.

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Robert Donat planned his portrayal carefully, measured within the development of his craft and particularly the development of ‘The Emotion Chart’, that was used in preparation for his role as Dr. Manson. Donat saw the importance of regulating the emotional content of the performance, using the character arc as the guide and plotting the emotional response to the ups and downs of the character’s life.  Vicky Lowe’s article in Film History (2007) looks at Donat’s methodology used in The Citadel with incredible depth. She points out that Donat allowed his acting to be informed by other moments in the story whilst in character and thus using the appropriate emotional timbre for that moment, dependant on what had happened before and afterwards in the plot. As a result, the audience can see the dissolving of Manson’s moral resolve and his idealism dissipating which will lead him to a more lucrative professional outlook, underpinned by his disillusionment. But the audience also see Manson’s growth through the key turning points in the film, particularly the first where Manson first feels like a ‘real doctor’ when he saves the premature Morgan baby. Donat’s whole approach to the moment draws our empathy and it is the moment that connection is made firmly with the deepest investment into the character of Dr. Manson. Naturally, this is beautifully aided by the camera work, using close-ups on Donat’s face and so it is through his experience and interpretation that the moment is experienced by the audience. His point of view and his vocation as a doctor finally becomes a reality for both Manson and the audience.

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The whole cast is exceptional with outstanding British luminaries such as Richardson, Harrison, Emily Williams and a host of other familiar faces from British stage and screen. As a prestige MGM feature made and produced in Britain, the authenticity is not lost with the addition of the beautiful Rosalind Russell, who was the only American in the cast. According to her fascinating autobiography, Life is a Banquet, Russell did not feel particularly welcome as the local British industry felt an English girl should have held the role. Any animosity certainly did not transfer onto the screen and Russell is outstanding in her supporting role, which she had built a career on at that time at MGM. But Russell’s character of Christine is far more than that; she is a strong character who works to revive Manson’s conscience and rediscover his idealism.

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In truth, the film runs close to the wind in terms of preachiness but when considering the state of the world in 1938, it is understandable. Additionally, the film was a first to champion the need for reform in medical institutions which was quite a courageous act as well. Sally Dux in her interesting 2012 article in the Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television also points out that it was an important film in depicting the incredible social and class divisions that existed in Britain at the time and thus also significant ‘in the depiction of social realism in British cinema… resulting in its pivotal position in the story of the founding of the National Health Service in 1948’. Quite a feat indeed and also indicates that the power of film to influence and bring about positive change in the world has long existed.

What keeps the film together other than the strong performances is the hand of brilliant director, King Vidor, who anchors the film with his vision and knowledge of how to craft a film. Allowing the content of the film to mould and shape the direction of the film, Vidor allowed for the realism previously mentioned to work through. Donat as a result found a solid framework within which to build and develop his portrayal.

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The Citadel was well-received by a number of publications such as the New York Times and when watching Donat’s performance, it is no surprise that he was nominated for an Oscar. The film would also receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay as well, receiving no wins but it was up against some very tough competition in 1938.

As always Robert Donat brings incredible dignity and humanity to the role of Dr. Andrew Manson and was a deserved recipient of the Best Actor nomination. He would lose to Spencer Tracy (for Boys Town) but as classic film fans know, the following year would see him win against the likes of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Laurence Olivier in the year considered the greatest of the golden years. However, it would be foolish to look past Robert Donat in The Citadel and any fan of the great actor should take the time to revisit this wonderful film.

This article is an entry for the Robert Donat Blogathon kindly run by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please visit her site for some wonderful entries on the great actor and of course take the chance to read some great work from Maddy as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Frankenstein Monster: Boris Karloff And His Incredible Portrayal

by Paul Batters

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Of all the monsters in the pantheon of the ‘children of the night’, perhaps none have had such an impact on the sympathies of an audience as the Frankenstein Monster. Many films have been made where Shelly’s Gothic tale is told or at least appropriated. Yet none have ever been able to match Boris Karloff’s performance as Dr. Frankenstein’s near-immortal creation.

This discussion does not aim to focus on the mechanics of the film-making process of the first three films nor their storylines; insomuch that if they are brought up, it’s done so as a reflection of Karloff’s performance. Indeed, a great deal of discussion and discourse has already covered the making of the three films I would like to focus on. If anything, this is a celebration of Karloff’s portrayal.

In popular culture, the Frankenstein Monster has become reduced to a mindless brute – a near-indestructible automaton whose brain can be as interchangeable as a car-battery and is easily identified by his stiff walk and arms stretched out in front of him. With respect to Universal Studios, who played just as important a role as Dr. Frankenstein in bringing him to life, they are greatly responsible in creating this image. Indeed, mention the name ‘Frankenstein’ and the vast majority of people will identify the name as that being of the Monster and not the family name of its’ creator. Even in the Universal world, three other actors other than Karloff (Lon Chaney Jnr, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange) all portrayed the Monster to varying degrees of success yet adding to the demotion of the Monster from the brilliant portrayal borne of Karloff to the aforementioned description. If ever a creature from the dark went through a more incredible array of change in character, none were marked than the Frankenstein Monster.

What audiences need to be reminded of is the pathos and touching humanity that truly embodied Frankenstein’s creation, reflected so beautifully by Boris Karloff. As a result, I will speak of the Frankenstein ‘trilogy’ because they feature the great man and are without a doubt the best of the Universal films, after which admittedly they would later denigrate into exploitation, particularly after Karloff left the role.

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Frankenstein (1931) deserves its’ place as one of the most important films in cinema, let alone its’ position as one of the greatest horror films of all time. Unlike its’ equally important predecessor Dracula (1931), it has held up well and has some of the most memorable cinematic moments in film history. As important as James Whales’ direction was, his pick of a 44-year old bit part actor was far more important and fortuitous. Whale could see there was something about Karloff’s face and personality that he couldn’t quite put his finger but knew intuitively would work. If the film and of course the Monster belongs to anyone, it’s Karloff.

The birth of the Monster is without doubt one of the greatest moments in film. The mad machinery will galvanise the Monster, the moving of the hand and the hysterical rantings of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive), who is in the incredible heights of rapture as he ‘knows what it feels like to be God’, all remain as iconic moments in classic horror. Even here, without seeing Karloff’s face, he is able to act with one hand to convey life coming to what had moments before been a dead cadaver.

But out first view of the Monster’s face is that moment when Karloff became the star. Whale built the tension even further by having Karloff walk in backwards to be followed by that slow turn and the close cutting to that horrific face. Lurching forward at his creator, he shuffles forward following Frankenstein’s commands to sit in a chair. The stiffened movements are like that of a child learning to walk but the doctor’s creation is not a child. He’s a reanimated human jigsaw, complete with a ‘criminal brain’ – a plot device non-existent in the novel, which would forever be associated with the Monster. Initially there appears to be no emotion, and Karloff’s heavy-lidded eyes and sunken cheeks evoke in the audience a dread and horror that will soon turn to empathy and understanding. And it’s all a result of Karloff’s mastery. Again, without any words, his pleading eyes and desperate need for warmth and light, breaks the dread  we feel but he is soon faced with not only being ignored but then completely rejected and treated horrifically at the hands of his creator, his former mentor Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) and his cruel and sadistic assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye). By the time we see the Monster in chains in the bowels of the place where he was born, the audience begins to wonder who the real monsters are, with Karloff beautifully portraying a poor and confused being who did not ask to be born and surrounded by hostility from his first interactions with humans.

But murder will follow; Fritz will pay for torturing the Monster once too often and then Dr Waldman before he is about to dissect and examine the drugged Monster. Karloff portrays the Monster with a hungered and desperate confusion, but he is also far more complex than it may appear; a far cry from the mindless shell that stomps around in later films. Karloff’s Monster is the abandoned child who knows nothing of the world and when he finally does find a human connection with a small child (Mildred Harris), it will end in tragedy. As an aside, the re-edited version that was re-released in 1938 and would show on TV screens for decades, was un-intentionally far more suggestive of the Monster doing something far more horrifc to Maria. 

When both creator and creation finally do face each other again, Karloff exudes menace and anger at the God-parent who has rejected him. Dragging Frankenstein to the top of an old windmill whilst being pursued by the enraged villagers, Karloff’s Monster is again surrounded by hostility and violence. His end comes as he is consumed by the flames that he so fears and does not understand, panicked and screaming in terror (a far cry from the final Universal film of the classic horror monsters which shows him walking stupidly into burning flames). It is a terrible end for a being that did not ask to be created, abandoned to the cruelty of a world he does not understand, all beautifully conveyed by the mastery of Boris Karloff.

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But of course it is not the end. Universal realised that the real star of the film was not Colin Clive but Karloff and the resulting Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), is a far better produced film, with a beautiful musical score by Franz Waxman (which was notably absent from the first film) and far greater liberties taken by Whale as director in terms of themes. The film, thus, is a masterpiece with the story continuing where the last film left off. There are some cast changes and the inclusion of Una O’Connor as Minnie, a servant in the Frankenstein household, reflects Whale’s eccentric humour. (As an aside, I find O’Connor’s screeching an almighty annoyance and her being in the film is superfluous). As the audience discovers, the Monster has survived but burnt and injured, fleeing into the woods for refuge. But not after committing two more murders.

Again, Karloff’s portrayal transcends the make-up and indeed his work from the first film. Wracked with hunger and desperate for basic human connection, his struggles seem to be over when he meets a blind hermit (O.P Heggie). The kindness and genuine humanity of the scenes that follow are touching and beautiful, and Karloff shines as he hears the prayer of gratitude given by the blind hermit, seemingly amazed by the beauty of words he has never heard before. As the hermit cries, a tear also runs down the Monster’s cheek and he comforts the weeping old man. Here Karloff shows that his portrayal is not of a Monster but a lost soul, who seeks only friendship and love. Much has been said and disputed about the scene; regardless it is as the Hermit states ‘two lonely souls who have found each other’.

Another first for the Monster is that he learns to talk. It appears he has been living with the Hermit for some time, as wounds have healed and he has learned to speak. The words, of course, are basic and the word ‘friend’ is closest to the Monster’s heart. Karloff was against the Monster speaking, feeling that it meant something was lost. With the greatest of respect to the man, this reviewer feels it does not detract from the portrayal and indeed holds firm textual integrity with the original novel, where the Monster not only speaks but is articulate. His desperate need for expression starts to grow and after losing his friend and sanctuary in the Hermit, he is again pursued and abused.

Despite being captured and briefly shown in the now famous ‘crucifixion’ pose (hence highlighting his treatment as an outcast and misfit outside the sensibilities of society to be persecuted), he breaks out, using his incredible strength and thus also planting a seed to another important trope. Karloff again shapes a menacing figure as he makes his way through a graveyard, only to enter a crypt and marvel at the face of a corpse. Despite the necrophiliac-like suggestion, the Monster finally has someone who will not reject him. But during this fateful moment, he will meet and make a new ‘friend’ in the form of the notorious Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) whom the audience knows is planning to create life from the dead with Frankenstein. It is also an important moment of consciousness for the Monster as he verbally acknowledges that he knows Frankenstein made him from the dead, after which the Monster intones: ‘I like dead’. Pretorious responds, ‘You’re wise in your generation’. But here the Monster will be manipulated (or allow himself to be) in order to achieve his deepest desire, a friend – or more to the point, a ‘wife’.

Karloff presents a cruel side to the Monster as he joins Pretorius in forcing and bullying Frankenstein into creating a friend for him. But his brutal menace melts when he first sees his ‘bride’ (Elsa Lanchester). His happiness turns to depression and resignation, noting that his rejection by the world is now complete. Deciding to end it all, he tells Frankenstein and his wife to ‘Go! You Live!’ but warns Pretorius to stay and as he declares ‘We belong dead’, the lever is pulled and the whole laboratory with the Monster is blown to atoms. Again, we see the Monster shed a tear as he looks longingly at his ‘wife’, still desperate for love.

Karloff’s expression of the Monster transcended the first film, not only because he actually spoke but because Karloff was given greater screen time and there was the recognition that he was the real star. If empathy with the Monster was felt by the audience, it is most evident in Bride Of Frankenstein. The damaged Monster is not only physically hurt but wounded deep within, so much that he wants to end his life. Karloff is superb and whilst the film could not have existed without the first, it is an outstanding film. Again, as he did in the 1931 production, Karloff surpasses the make-up with a powerful range of emotion conveyed through his incredible skills and the intuitive powers he held as an actor.

Bride Of Frankenstein was the high point of chiller genius at Universal, and whilst there were solid and successful films in the horror cycle which followed, it is difficult to place them on the same pedestal. The amount of horror films began to dwindle afterwards and the few that were released did not have the level of quality that had first enthralled audiences. But other changes had occurred as well; the new Breen Code, the banning of horror films in Britain and even changes at Universal Studios itself would all have a major impact. However, in 1938, the double billing of Dracula and Frankensteinwas a huge hit and Universal decided to start a second cycle of horror, starting with the production of Son Of Frankenstein (1939).

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The casting of Basil Rathbone as the late Baron’s son, Wolf, was quite a coup and the focus of the film does move to him. Without the direction of James Whale (who had lost the desire to direct), the appointment was given to Rowland V. Lee, who whilst competent and interesting in his vision, cannot bring to the screen the magic touch of Whale. It also didn’t help that the script was incomplete and changes were consistently coming in each day. More importantly for this discussion, the former looming presence of the Monster was reduced to a haunting spectre at least until later in the film. After the heights of the first two films, Karloff’s portrayal becomes somewhat muted, explained in the plot as the result of the psychological and physical traumas that he has endured. Whilst in the previous films, the Monster was a figure of fear, menace and horror, he would be now reduced to one of curiosity. Indeed when the audience first sees the Monster, he is weak, barely alive and in a coma. But the inherent scientific curiosity of Wolf demands that he bring the Monster back to consciousness. 

The sets are fantastic and Rathbone’s performance is memorable, as well as that of Lionel Atwill as the Police Chief. But ironically, the one man who steals the film from everyone, even Karloff,  is Bela Lugosi as the evil and twisted Ygor. It is perhaps the meatiest and most interesting role since his star turn as Dracula, and if ever there was the ‘sideman’s revenge’ for Lugosi, than this was it.

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There ARE moments where the Monster’s humanity shines through; his anger at seeing himself in the mirror and the depths of his self-consciousness emerging, the relationship with Peter, the Baron’s son and the howl he gives when he find Ygor’s body, perhaps reminiscent of his role in The Old Dark House as Morgan, the brutal butler weeping over the body of Saul. But sadly, there is the foreshadowing of the tropes that will soon take hold in the mind of the public when it comes to the Monster. He follows the commands of Ygor without question, and whilst this emerges to some degree in Bride Of Frankenstein, there is a sinister motive to the Monster’s relationship with Pretorius. Now, he is nothing more than a mindless slave being used for Ygor’s mad schemes. This will be repeated ad nauseum in future films. Gone is the desperate and futile search by the Monster for his sense of self and an answer to his creation. The range of emotions once present are missing and we see a Monster that is flat and limited in scope.

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Additionally, the concept of the Monster being almost ‘super-human’ and indestructible emerges, particularly when Wolf states: Two bullets in his heart but he still lives! And even when he is pushed into a boiling pit of sulphur at the end, the audience has already been trained that it’s not really the end. Karloff is still imposing as the Monster particularly in the final scenes but he could see the writing on the wall. He would never play the Monster again in a major film and lamented the direction in which his beloved Monster was headed. Son Of Frankenstein is still a lot of fun and deserves applause for its’ strong cast and exceptional photography. It’s a tight film and the direction holds it together, with an eerie atmosphere on an outstanding designed set. But something seems to be amiss.

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Karloff would never pour scorn on those actors who followed him in the role, for he was too kind and humble to do so. He did, however, feel that the make-up was doing all the work, even during the filming of Son Of Frankenstein. He felt that the character ‘no longer had any potentialities’ but added that ‘anyone who can take that make-up every morning deserves respect’. Karloff adored the Monster and would forever state that he owed it everything, giving credit to everyone from Whale to make-up artist Jack Pierce, characteristically excluding himself. It must have deeply affected this true gentleman when the Monster became the butt of jokes, which he had always hoped would never happen. When asked to assist in the promotion of Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), he reportedly stated that he was happy to do so ‘as long as he didn’t have to see the picture’. Indeed, as much ‘fun’ as the Universal Pictures of the 1940s are, the menace of the Monster from the early 1930s means that the films initially were not meant to be fun and the dark fairy-tale essence of the first horror cycle is missing.

Sadly, to a public long trained to accept popular culture’s depiction of the Monster (now named Frankenstein), the brilliant portrayal of Karloff seems distant. Yet if one truly wishes to discover the origins of the cinematic Monster, they need only need turn to the original trilogy and watch a master at work. Karloff always praised others, such as Jack Pierce for the make-up. But Karloff did what no-one else has been able to do – he transcended the make-up and costume and blended it into his own fascinating and deeply motivated portrayal. Karloff claims he owed his career to the Monster but the Monster owed everything to Karloff as well.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.