Great Performances to Watch: The Best of Claude Rains

Warner Brothers

Warner Brothers

Editor’s note: As part of our Halloween theme, we have asked some guests to contribute their thoughts on the season. JoAnna Jones joins us to highlight some of the noteworthy performances by classic actor Claude Rains, who got his start in a horror classic in which he was barely seen on screen.

The Invisible Man (1933) as Jack Griffin, The Invisible One

The Invisible Man is a classic tale of science gone wrong. The film features Rains in his Hollywood debut as Jack Griffin, a brilliant, yet financially poor chemist, who unlocks the secret of invisibility by using a drug called monocaine. The young Griffin, who sees this as a potential monetary breakthrough, uses himself as a guinea pig and the results of his experiment are successful … sort of. He’s been rendered invisible alright, but as with any drug, there are side effects and Griffin’s abuse of monocaine results in irreversible madness. You will not see Rains’ face until the film’s final moments, yet his performance is one of the finest that you will ever “see” for an actor in an unusual acting circumstance. Rains’ highly skilled voice translates all the emotional distress the character is experiencing as his gradual descent into madness becomes increasingly evident and his grasp on sanity diminishes. His performance, definitely unique for its time, is still as impressive today.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) as John Jasper

Following the success of The Invisible Man, Universal Studios considered tailoring Rains for the studio’s well-known horror factory to share the spotlight with genre greats like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Rains was actually slated to portray Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but was replaced by the marvelous Ernest Thesiger when The Mystery of Edwin Drood became a Universal film property. Rains, who possessed great emotional range as an actor, uses his finely honed skills in his leading role portrayal of John Jasper, the tormented, opium addicted lost soul. Yes, the performance is a bit heavy in the ham department, but Rains is still hypnotic to watch as the demon-like choirmaster. The opium den scenes with Rains and Zeffie Tilbury as the old den hag are particularly fascinating to watch as Rains battles his inner demons under the influence of opium. Rains’ Jasper, for the most part, sulks about pretty much stoned and creepy for most of his screen time, but it’s his performance as the stoned and creepy Jasper that makes for the film’s best asset.

White Banners (1938) as Paul Ward

Wait a minute! Claude Rains portraying a nice, normal guy? White Banners allowed Rains to take a break from villainous roles and play a mild mannered, caring family man. Considering his prior film output to White Banners, Rains makes the transition very nicely from screen baddie to screen goodie. The story evolves around Rains’ Paul Ward, an impoverished high school chemistry teacher who invents the refrigeration process in the early part of 1900s America. Sounds like a really boring plot, doesn’t it? But, don’t let it fool you. The film itself is surprisingly entertaining and contains top-notch performances from the entire cast. Compared to other Rains performances of the time, Claude is rather low-key in his portrayal of Paul Ward, and you will find yourself easily rooting for Rains in his first normal, everyman-type role. This portrayal exhibits Rains’ great range as an actor and you can clearly see an actor who now has an exceptional understanding of cinematic-style acting. When he was allowed to do so, Rains could put together a sympathetic character just as skillfully as a villainous one and his Paul Ward is a fine example of this rare opportunity.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) as Prince John

The Adventures of Robin Hood is a four star film and has one of the finest casts ever assembled. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil. Representing the good, we have the likes of the dashing Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and the lovely Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marion. Representing the evil, we have two of movieland’s finest screen villains: Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Claude Rains as Prince John. With Rathbone’s Sir Guy, it’s obvious even from his first moments on screen that this fellow is a bad man and one who will stop at nothing to see evil deeds carried out. However, if you were to judge Rains’ Prince John as a villain, it might take a while to see how truly destructive his villainy is to Robin Hood’s cause of good conquering all. Rains’ Prince John, relatively short in stature, rather effete and very plump, purrs his evil plans to his henchman in such a way that once you start putting the proverbial two-and-two together, you realize that he’s even more of a threat than Sir Guy because of his ability to mastermind such devious plans. Rains’ sly, villainous performance is intriguing to watch, especially in his interactions with either Flynn or Rathbone. Of course, we know that in the end good will conquer evil, but Mr. Rains and company make it one helluva difficult job for the good guys.

Daughters Courageous (1939) as Jim Masters

If this role was placed in less competent hands, the character of Jim Masters could have been a disaster and furthermore, would have totally ruined this entertaining film. But Rains comes to the rescue and creates another memorable character for his acting portfolio. We learn from the film’s primary characters that twenty years before the modern 1939 setting, Jim Masters, suffering from an extreme case of wanderlust, abandons his wife and 4 young children to see the world. Then, one evening, unannounced, these 20 years later, he returns to the family that he abandoned, trying to make things right. A viewer’s initial reaction will be how Rains, the actor, will handle this in his performance. And strangely enough, he pulls it off in a favorable way. Rains’ Jim Masters is so charismatic that you can’t help to like him. Despite what he did to his wife and family, he really is not a bad guy. The Masters family are understandably unforgiving of this ne’er-do-well, however they begin to gradually see him in a different, more positive light. He never gives the impression that he is only doing this for a few free nights on a sofa to sleep. Masters has now matured and wants to make amends. But he does realize that picking up the pieces and to start anew will take a very long time. There is a standout scene with Rains and Fay Bainter (as Nan, his wife) in which they discuss the situation that Jim has created for the family and the ramifications his sudden appearance will create in the future unless he realizes that no good can truly come of it. In the end, he makes the ultimate sacrifice for the happiness of his soon-to-be former wife and his children and you actually feel bad for him. Rains’ Jim Masters allows the actor to run the emotional gamut and Rains once again shines as a result of it. The film afforded Rains another opportunity to play a sympathetic role and just as he did as Paul Ward in White Banners the previous year, Rains’ Jim Masters is totally believable, genuine and a delight to experience.

Casablanca (1942) as Captain Louis Renault
Nominated for the 1943 Academy Awards as Best Supporting Actor

There has been so much written about Casablanca and its characters, that it is rather difficult to come up with any fresh views about it. However, since we are discussing Rains’ top performances, his Louis Renault has to be included in this list. As a character, Louis Renault should not be a likable man. In the first half of Casablanca alone, he is by no means an honorable individual, and to make matters even worse, Louis is on the right side of the law. Renault will not stand up to the Nazis, he will only give women exit visas if they sleep with him and God knows what else. But, somehow considering Louis’ less than stellar behavior, that Rains magic starts working and he creates a character that becomes gradually more amusing and charming despite his existing character flaws. Of course, we all know that the mischievous Louis redeems himself in the end. But I now wonder since he has turned a new leaf, if Renault will be as much fun when he and Rick finally reach Brazzaville?

Mr. Skeffington (1944) as Job Skeffington
Nominated for the 1945 Academy Awards as Best Supporting Actor

Rains received his third nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Job Skeffington in this Bette Davis-starring vehicle. As an overall product, Mr. Skeffington is the weakest of Rains’ movies in which he was nominated, but the actor’s performance as Job Skeffington is definitely one of the strongest of his Oscar-nominated roles. Although the nomination was for supporting actor, Rains is the film’s standout star. He takes the spotlight away from Bette Davis as the obnoxious Fanny Skeffington and runs acting circles around most of the cast with the exception of Walter Abel as Cousin George and 10 year old Sylvia Arslan as Skeffington’s offspring. Rains is at his most vulnerable and you really feel for his character that, for some crazy reason, idolizes the cruel and inattentive Fanny Skeffington. It’s obvious to everyone else in the universe except Job that she married him only for his money. It’s pretty much a soap opera story, but Rains gives a stellar performance amidst the film’s somewhat ridiculous storyline. Rains’ finest moment in Mr. Skeffington occurs between the actor and young Sylvia Arslan. It’s a tender father and daughter scene and it is played beautifully by the two actors. Get the Kleenex, you’ll need it!

Deception (1946) as Alexander Hollenius

Disciples of Claude Rains place his portrayal of Bohemian composer Alexander Hollenius on a pedestal, and I am no different. Simply put, Hollenius is classic Claude Rains. The film itself is a Warner Brothers potboiler, that, at best, is a 2 ½ star film. Rains reunites with Bette Davis and former Casablanca co-star Paul Henreid in this story of a love triangle gone really bad. Rains’ Hollenius is a moody and arrogant classical music composer who really fires things up when his student and lover Christine (Davis) ditches him for Karol Novak (Henreid), a former beau of Christine’s believed dead, who returns from the war very much alive and kicking. Rains is obviously having fun with Hollenius and you can’t help but to think that he knew he had the upper hand in this acting situation. While Davis is a marvelous actress, she really can’t keep up with Rains in this film either. And Henreid? Forget about it! He’s lost and as the viewer, strangely enough, you know it! Rains creates many memorable moments as the deliciously wicked Hollenius and each one is a gem. The restaurant scene is a particular hoot. The havoc Rains’ Hollenius creates for Karol and Christine at the dinner table is comedic insanity at its best. According to legend, Rains did this scene in one take. If there is fact in this legend then all that can be said about this particular feat is “WOW!” If this performance doesn’t make you a Claude Rains fan, or at least a person who might want to see more of his work, then I give up!

Notorious (1946) as Alexander Sebastian
Nominated for the 1947 Academy Awards as Best Supporting Actor

Claude Rains received his 4th and final Oscar nod for his portrayal as the tragic Alexander Sebastian in this brilliant Hitchcock thriller. By far, this is the strongest of all Rains’ Oscar nominated performances. Sebastian is an extremely complex individual and Rains creates in Sebastian a finely textured performance of a psychologically troubled man. Despite Sebastian’s issues, Rains instills in his character many human qualities in which we ourselves can easily relate. Sebastian is a mature, successful man who has a very unusual relationship with his mother, played by Madame Konstanin. The 50-something business tycoon is a mama’s boy in the best Hitchcockian sense of the word and Rains and Konstanin give this odd couple relationship some of the film’s creepiest moments. This film illustrates how brilliant Rains was at sculpting a full-bodied character when given the proper material as a foundation.

The Unsuspected (1947) as Victor Grandison

Victor Grandison is a well-known host of a popular mystery radio show. Bored with all his successes, both professionally and financially, he tries his hand at another hobby to amuse himself: murder. As Grandison (aka The Unsuspected!), Rains develops a multi-faceted character whose life is slowly, but surely crumbling around him as his self importance swells to the point of ridiculousness. He’s a pretty cocky fellow and even compares himself to God when talking to his henchman, Press (Jack Lambert). No matter how despicable a Rains character may be, the actor never shortchanges his fans with his performance. The ending moments with Rains are terrific when old Grandy realizes he isn’t so dandy anymore.

The Claude Rains Honorable Mentions
The following don’t qualify as “Top 10” performances, however if you start to like Rains’ work, these are films that you should definitely seek out to further your education of all things Claude.

Crime Without Passion (1934) as Lee Gentry

Nobody plays people descending into the throes of madness like Claude. Prior to this movie, Claude could often be seen on the Broadway stage in productions for the Theatre Guild. Since this is an early film in the Rains catalog, he’s still pretty theatrical, but that’s what makes this performance an absolute hoot to watch.

The Man who Reclaimed His Head (1934) as Paul Verin

The role of Paul Verin was originated by Rains during the 1932 season on Broadway. Universal picked up the rights to produce the film version of the Jean Bart play and tapped Rains to reprise his role. In the play, Verin suffers from asthma, is crippled and has been deformed since birth, yet possesses a brilliant mind and a beautiful soul. Theatre critics at the time likened his Verin to that of a Lon Chaney, Sr. type of performance. Interestingly, Universal dropped the Chaneyesque approach considering that the studio was at the height of its horror film cycle at the time. However, despite being absent of his maladies, Verin is still a complex and intriguing character.

The White Tower (1950) as Paul Delambre

Once again, Rains plays a kind-hearted soul who is doormat for all of humanity. Delambre is a sympathetic character whose world is crumbling around him and who turns to the bottle for solace. His moment of realization regarding his life is a haunting scene.

The Lost World (1960) as Professor George Edward Challenger

Oh! This performance is a fun one! I’m not telling you a word about it. You just have to trust me and see khaki Claude tear up the screen!

Battle of the Worlds (1961) as Professor Benjamin Benson

Battle of the Worlds is a piece of cinematic drek and fine Mystery Science Theater 3000 material. However, Rains is awesome as the cigar chomping, venom spewing big brain scientist. The role is quite a departure from his usually sophisticated roles, which makes it all the more enjoyable. It seems that Rains is having a field day as well and he steamrolls the cast without much effort. This film could have easily been a take the paycheck and run type of film performance for Rains. However, he doesn’t take the film that lightly which only illustrates the kind of professional he was as an actor. To further illustrate this point, several years ago, I was looking at Rains’ own archives donated to Boston University. In the boxes of Rains artifacts, I found a calculus book in Italian containing a note from a mathematics professor hoping that the book provided will help Rains for the preparation of his new film role. Upon reading this brief note, I realized that this book was used by Rains to prepare for his role as Professor Benson! How cool is that?

Have we whet your appetite to seek out Rains’ films? Check the Amazon listings below, and remember, any purchase made through our links helps support!


The Invisible Man [Blu-ray]

Price: $13.49

4.7 out of 5 stars (291 customer reviews)

22 used & new available from $3.92

Mystery of Edwin Drood

Price: $17.00

(0 customer reviews)

14 used & new available from $16.99

The Adventures of Robin Hood [Blu-ray]

Price: $14.39

4.8 out of 5 stars (965 customer reviews)

37 used & new available from $4.99

Daughters Courageous (Remastered)

Price: $17.99

(0 customer reviews)

15 used & new available from $9.12

Casablanca (70th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]

Price: $7.50

(0 customer reviews)

43 used & new available from $7.06

Mr. Skeffington

Price: $13.99

4.6 out of 5 stars (195 customer reviews)

39 used & new available from $3.07

Notorious (hitchcock) [Blu-ray]

Price: $54.99

4.6 out of 5 stars (381 customer reviews)

13 used & new available from $33.93

The Unsuspected

Price: $14.99

(0 customer reviews)

20 used & new available from $12.89

White Tower, The

Price: $17.99

3.8 out of 5 stars (19 customer reviews)

14 used & new available from $17.96

The Lost World (1960/1925)

Price: $13.99

3.8 out of 5 stars (312 customer reviews)

35 used & new available from $8.97

Battle of The Worlds

Price: $9.99

(0 customer reviews)

2 used & new available from $4.98

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  1. From one Claude Rains fan to another, you put together a great list. It hurt a little not to see his role as Senator Joe Paine in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” get any mention, that is a top 10 movie of all time…or maybe I just have a thing for Jean Arthur.

  2. Fabulous! Essential reading for any Rainiacs and newcomers to Rains’ special talents. Bravo!!!