Robert Donat – an actor for all seasons

English film and stage actor Robert Donat appeared in nineteen films. One he directed himself and in two of them he played two characters. Charles Laughton described him as, “The most graceful actor of our time.”

Robert Donat (1905-58) was born in Withington, Manchester, England. He was quintessentially English, although of English, Polish, German, and French descent. Donat made his first appearance on stage in 1921, at the age of 16, with Henry Baynton’s company at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham, playing Lucius in Julius Caesar. His real break came in 1924 when he joined the company of Shakespearean actor Sir Frank Benson, where he stayed for four years.

Donat made his film debut in 1932 in Men of Tomorrow, in which he played an Oxford undergraduate, appearing with Emlyn Williams and a young Merle Oberon (then known as Estelle Thompson). In the course of a relatively brief career, Donat lobbied hard to be cast in two film roles to which he felt he could do justice. He wanted to play the Chorus in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, but the role went to Leslie Banks, and he longed desperately to be cast against type as Bill Sikes in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, but Lean cast Robert Newton instead.

Donat is best known today for four great characters. In Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) he won an Oscar for the shy schoolmaster who falls in love and becomes an institution for generations of schoolboys. He dominated the screen in The Winslow Boy (1948) with his portrayal of the brilliant and flamboyant defence counsel, Sir Robert Morton. He was William Friese-Greene in The Magic Box (1951), in which Olivier played a cameo role as a policeman. And, just before his death, he played the old and dying Mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). His last words on screen (spoken to Ingrid Bergman, who knew how ill he was) were, “We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell.”

Robert Donat’s true love was the theatre – similar to many other film stars such as Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud. On stage, Donat created several memorable roles including Archbishop Thomas à Becket in T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral at London’s Old Vic Theatre in 1953, which received the longest first-night ovation in the history of the theatre.

Below, for those who care to marvel at his acting ability and to catch an echo of his wonderful speaking voice, is a list of all Robert Donat’s parts in films.

  • Julian Angell in Men of Tomorrow, directed by Leontine Sagan (1932).
  • Dick Warren in That Night in London, directed by Rowland V. Lee (1933).
  • Paul Martin in Cash, directed by Zoltan Korda (1933).
  • Thomas Culpepper in The Private Life of Henry VIII, directed by Alexander Korda (1933).
  • Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Rowland V. Lee (1934).
  • Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1935).
  • Murdoch Glourie and Donald Glourie in The Ghost Goes West, directed by René Clair (1935).
  • J. Fothergill in Knight Without Armour, directed by Jacques Feyder (1936).
  • Dr Andrew Manson in The Citadel directed by King Vidor (1938).
  • Mr Chipping in Goodbye Mr Chips, directed by Sam Wood (1942).
  • William Pitt in The Young Mr Pitt, directed by Carol Reed (1942).
  • Captain Terrence Stevenson and Jan Tartu in The Adventures of Tartu, directed by Harold S. Bucquet (1943).
  • Robert Wilson in Perfect Strangers, directed by Alexander Korda (1945).
  • Charles Stewart Parnell in Captain Boycott, directed by Frank Lauder (1947).
  • Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy, directed by Anthony Asquith (1948).
  • Jack Hardacre in The Cure for Love, directed by Robert Donat (1949).
  • William Friese-Green in The Magic Box, directed by John Boulting (1951).
  • The Rev. William Thorne in Lease of Life, directed by Charles Frend (1954).
  • The Mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, directed by Mark Robson (1958).
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