January 20, 2009
Colin Clive was born January 20, 1900, in St-Malo, France. A direct descendant of the colonial hero Clive of India, young Colin’s aspirations for a military career of his own were shattered when, thrown from a horse, he broke his leg. The sensitive Clive turned to theater and unlikely stardom in 1929 when he was chosen by director James Whale to replace Laurence Olivier, no less, in the difficult part of Stanhope, the tragic hero of Journey’s End.
Rehearsals did not go well, the agitated Clive struggling hopelessly until playwright R.C.Sherriff suggested that a shot of whiskey, administered before he climbed onstage, might calm his nerves. It worked. On opening day, despite having been knocked down by a bus on The Strand (too much whiskey?), the actor showed up at the Savoy Theater unharmed to deliver a brilliant, career-making performance. The success of Journey’s End carried Clive, Whale and Sherriff to Hollywood where they committed the play to film in 1930. A year later, Whale would call on Clive to star in Frankenstein.
The plum part of the scientist, the title role, had been coveted by Bela Lugosi, fresh off his hit Dracula. The studio later suggested Leslie Howard for the part, but Whale insisted on using Clive. “It is a grand part and I think it will fit you as well as Stanhope” Whale wrote his friend. “I see Frankenstein as an intensely sane person, at times rather fanatical and in one or two scenes a little hysterical… Frankenstein’s nerves are all to pieces… I know you are absolutely right for it.”
Whale’s description fits Clive’s performance perfectly. Clive’s Frankenstein is an edgy, hand-wringing wreck on an emotional roller coaster, given flights of delirious exultation and bouts of paralyzing doubt and despair. A moment’s triumph, when the thing he assembled comes to life, quickly turns into a tragedy that Clive’s Frankenstein is unable to deal with. The Monster’s fate is left to his mentor, Dr. Waldman, while Frankenstein blithely attends to his wedding plans as if nothing had happened. When confronting his Monster on a dreary mountainside, Frankenstein is easily bested and carried away on the giant’s back like a sack of potatoes. Ultimately, The Monster’s prisoner in an old windmill, Frankenstein musters a desperate escape attempt, only to be captured, mauled and thrown off a balcony to his apparent death as flames consume the mill and The Monster.
As soon as the film wrapped, in early October of 1931, Clive headed cross country and on back to England, stopping for an interview with The New York Times, saying, “I think Frankenstein has an intense dramatic quality that continues throughout the play and culminates when I, in the title role, am killed by the Monster that I have created. This is a rather unusual ending for a talking picture, as the producers generally prefer that the play end happily with the hero and heroine clasped in each other’s arms.”
As it happened, the producers did prevail after all. A new ending was shot with the elderly Baron toasting his miraculously surviving son, seen in the distance through a doorway, recuperating in bed, ministered by his faithful Elizabeth. Unidentified actors stood in for Clive and Mae Clarke. By the time Frankenstein opened, Clive was back in England. In fact, on the very day Frankenstein went into wide release, December 6, the apparently accident-prone Clive fell off a horse, breaking his hip.
Clive, director Whale and writer Sherriff would assemble again in 1934 to shoot One More River in which Clive, as a villain, first appears in a series of staccato close-ups, like Karloff’s Monster introduction in Frankenstein. A year earlier, when he was preparing to shoot The Invisible Man, Whale had called on Clive for a favor. Originally cast in the title role, Boris Karloff was no longer available, but Universal was unreceptive to Whale’s choice of the unknown Claude Rains. Whale submitted Clive’s name for the part, which was fine with the studio, but Clive — conspiring with Whale — refused the part, clearing the way for Rains.
In 1935, James Whale called Clive back to Universal for the long-gestated sequel to Frankenstein.
Bride of Frankenstein picks up where the original ended, the ailing Frankenstein carried from the smoking ruins of the windmill to his castle home and the care of his doting Elizabeth, now played by Valerie Hobson. Again, Clive's Frankenstein is an enervated, sickly, distracted man, forced to create a mate for The Monster, mercilessly exploited by the nefarious Dr. Pretorius (the excellent Ernest Thesiger) and even bossed around by The Monster. In the end, against all hope, he is saved by The Monster, allowed to escape the exploding laboratory with his loved one.
Also in 1935, Clive played the haunted Stephen Orlac, a man possessed with the grafted hands of a murderer, in Karl Freund’s Mad Love.
Clive enjoyed working in Hollywood. He would play opposite Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong, Virginia Bruce in Jane Eyre, and he appeared in Clive of India, though the part of his ancestor went to Ronald Coleman. His fellow actors remembered him as a kind and clever man, but also taciturn and melancholy. “He was the handsomest man I ever saw” Mae Clarke recalled, “and also the saddest.”
David Manners, who appeared with Clive in Journey’s End said, “His face was a tragic mask… He was a fantastically sensitive actor, and, as with many great actors, this sensitivity bred addiction to drugs and alcohol in order to cope with the very insensitive world around them.”
By the mid thirties, Clive was deeply addicted to alcohol. Just as he had relied on the fortitude of whiskey to overcome stage fright, he came to use alcohol to combat his inner demons. In 1937, Clive contracted pneumonia. His condition complicated by alcoholism, he suffered a rapid and alarming loss of weight and he died on June 25. He was only 37 years old.
His acting career covered a bare eight years from his first triumph on the London stage to his untimely death. Except for the two Frankenstein pictures, Colin Clive’s films are rarely if ever shown anymore and he might have been forgotten today, as so many of his contemporaries are.
But Colin Clive survives, his troubled Frankenstein providing a glimpse, perhaps, into the tragic life of the man who played him. Today, Colin Clive is forever busying about in his lab coat, harnessing thunder and striking dangerous animation into The Monster he has created, and uttering one of the most famous lines in cinema history…