Charles Laughton: Marilyn’s ‘Full House’ Co-Star

Born in England in 1899, Charles Laughton is considered one of the greatest stage and screen actors of the twentieth century. In a new book, Charles Laughton: A Filmography, 1928-1962, David A. Redfern examines his movie career in detail – including his work with Marilyn in ‘The Cop and the Anthem,’ the opening segment of the 1952 anthology film, O. Henry’s Full House.

“There is in the film the historical bonus of two acting generations caught together briefly. Laughton has a 90-second encounter with the legendary and tragic Marilyn Monroe. Laughton’s Soapy sees a girl on the street and extends her every courtesy in the hope this will enable him to be put in jail for propositioning. In a twist typical of the author O. Henry, he soon finds out she is a streetwalker. At this stage of her career, Monroe was on the cusp of her meteoric film stardom which lends a poignancy to the scene.

The film did good business, earning a respectable $1,000,000 (Variety, January 7, 1953). Writing in the New York Times (October 26, 1952), Bosley Crowther was dubious of several episodes in the film compendium, but he singled out the first episode and Laughton for praise … Motion Picture Daily (August 18, 1952) wrote of Laughton, ‘His is an effective, if somewhat flamboyant, portrayal …'”

The New York Post review noted that ‘Marilyn Monroe, again as sleek as she was in The Asphalt Jungle, is a streetwalker of stunning proportions.’  She had first met Laughton a few years prior, when she tagged along to an acting class at his home with her pal Shelley Winters, as noted in her 1980 memoir, Shelley: Also Known as Shirley.

“I took Marilyn with me a couple of times to Laughton’s group, which I was attending religiously. Her whispery voice would become completely inaudible, and she seemed to shrivel up. After the second time I realised it was such agony for her that I resolved not to invite her again unless she asked me and I really felt she could handle it.”

Shelley also mentioned that Marilyn felt intimidated by some of Laughton’s famous students, including Paulette Goddard. And although Laughton was neither young nor handsome, Marilyn allegedly told Shelley that she considered him “the sexiest man alive.”

Marilyn with guests at Charles Laughton’s homeIn later years, she would speak fondly of him to journalist W.J. Weatherby, author of Conversations With Marilyn. Laughton passed away in December 1962, aged 63 – just four months after Marilyn died at only half his age.

“She sat back, gloomy with memories. I mentioned hurriedly that Charles Laughton had a house next door to [Christopher] Isherwood’s, knowing that she and Laughton had appeared together in the movie, O. Henry’s Full House. Her mood changed immediately and her whole face brightened.

She leaned forward confidingly, full of fun. ‘He played a gentleman bum and I was a lady streetwalker.’ She giggled. ‘I was overawed at first, but he was very nice to me. I enjoyed working with him. He was like a character out of Charles Dickens … At first I felt like I was acting with a king or somebody great – like a god!’

I recalled that when I’d interviewed Laughton a couple of years before, he’d told me: ‘People have seen every aspect of me by now and they know what to expect – old Laughton cooked up.’ She smiled … ‘He didn’t really believe that, but I can understand him feeling that way. I sometimes feel like that and I’m much younger than he is …’

I recalled that his wife Elsa Lanchester, a rather plain woman but a good character actress, had come in while we were talking, and Laughton, like a smouldering volcano, had said to me in a gruff, challenging voice: ‘Don’t you think my wife’s pretty?’

Marilyn liked that. She laughed so loudly that some people at the bar peeked back at us. ‘He was being a good husband … I wish I could achieve a settled relationship like that,’ she said wistfully … ‘It always seems to go well for a time, and then something happens. Maybe it’s me.’

She meant it to sound joking, but she looked so sad about it, as though she’d touched a sore spot, that I hurried on with a Laughton postscript. It was four o’clock in the afternoon when I met him, but he was still in his bathrobe, his hair awry, sleep in his eyes. When I described him that way in the article I wrote about him, he phoned me, very indignant. Readers would think actors were lazy, he said. He’d been up ‘for hours.’

Marilyn chuckled, no longer sad. ‘He was only being defensive. I understand him. People have such strange ideas about actors. They seldom respect you …'”