The last film line spoken by Robert Donat before his death was “We shall not see each other again. I think. Farewell.”
Robert Donat was a mellow sounding English actor. Donat was born in 1905 and was in his first Shakespeare production by the age of 16. He began traveling with his theater group and acted all over Britain. Alexander Korda noticed Donat’s acting chops and gave him a 3-year film contract. During this time Donat’s was cast as Thomas Culpepper, in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Donat’s went to Hollywood to work on The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Based on the strength of his performance he was offered the role of Captain Blood (1935). I can maybe see that casting. Donat’s didn’t like life in Hollywood and continued to avoid roles that forced him outside of Briton.
Hollywood usually had to shoot in England if it wanted him badly enough. And that was not a problem, after the box office reception given The 39 Steps (1935), the big hit for Alfred Hitchcock. There was a hint of whimsy in Donat’s face that worked especially well with the sophisticated comedic elements that crept into several of his dramatic roles. His portrayal of individualist Canadian Richard Hannay–which registered with North Americans both above and below the 49th parallel–in “Steps” was the first of such popular characters. Some of Hitch’s famous on-the-set practical jokes ensued on the first day of shooting “Steps.” The first scene was the escape on the moors from the master spy’s henchmen by Donat and Madeleine Carroll handcuffed together. Donat and Carroll had not met before this, and Hitchcock handcuffed them together hours before filming so that they could get very well acquainted. He insisted he had misplaced the key when in fact he had slipped it to a studio security officer for safekeeping.
Hitchcock attempted to land Donat for three other roles, Sabotage and Secret Agent in 1936 and Rebecca in 1940, but illness, commitments, and more illness, respectively, supposedly kept Donat from accepting each. Hollywood would be treated in kind, for Donat was more dedicated to his stage work. Hollywood did get him for The Citadel (1938), for which he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. He won the Oscar the next year for perhaps his best-known role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) (MGM’s with Greer Garson). Since 1939 was one of the most competitive film years in Hollywood history, Donat’s reward for his mild Mr. Chipping was something of a stunner. This was the year of Gone with the Wind (1939), and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler seemed a shoo-in for best actor. But there is something of a myth that since both pictures were from MGM and “Wind” had so many nominations (including best actor, actress, and picture), MGM head and strongman Louis B. Mayer used his weight to spread the wealth toward “Chips”.
Unlike other British actors who came to work in America during World War II, Donat stayed in Britain. He did mostly theater but also some British films–only four–with one for Korda and one for Carol Reed. Only six more films were allotted Donat after the war and into the 1950s, all but one British production. He starred, directed and co-wrote The Cure for Love (1949) and starred in The Magic Box (1951), a well-crafted and delightful (if a bit fictionalized) salute to the history of the British film industry. By 1955, all of Donat’s acting efforts required a bottle of oxygen kept off stage and at the ready as his health continued to turn worse. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), a Twentieth Century Fox production shot in the UK, was Donat’s final film. His fragility was poignantly obvious on-screen, and he died shortly after the film was finished. He received a posthumous Special Citation from the USA National Board of Review and was nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe. It was a career for Robert Donat that should have gone on, yet it was filled with many notable screen memories just the same.
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