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Music And Theatre

Left: Robert Donat and John Charlesworth in a scene from "The Magic


Right: Donat as he appeared after making

"The Winslow Boy."

Illness 3 ta y Silence JDonai9s

Golden Voice

From Our London Office

ROBERT DONAT, whose golden voice many consider to be the loveliest of British stage and screen, may be compelled to retire from acting because of asthma.

A RECENT attack forced ?**? him to withdraw from the film version of "Hob

son s Choice, which would have been his first reunion with Charles Laughton since "The Private Life of Henry VIH" put ¿hem both on the

road to fame.

Donat, now resting at the fine old Georgian house he bought in the north London suburb of Highgate after his marriage to actress Renee Asherson in May, is said to be weighing up the pros and cons

of retirement.

On the credit side is the fact that this is the1 first time in 20 years of martyrdom to ill health that he has ever been

prevented from playing a role.

He is also still basking in the warmth of the reception they gave him at the Old Vic early this year, when, after six years' absence from the stage, he made a triumphant comeback in "Murder in the Cathedral."

On the debit side must be set the fact that because "Hob son's Choice" does represent Donat's first major capitula- tion to asthma, it is believed to have sapped his confidence in himself and his determina- tion always to resume the fight again.

Too often in his life, through hospitals, oxygen tents, sea voyages, holidays in Switzerland and North Africa and all the other medical re

sources used in fighting his old toe, he has come back pro- nounced as cured, only to have his hopes dashed when least expected.

It happened during his re-

cent season at the Old Vic. '

It has happened again with [

"Hobson's Choice." No won- ' der Donat is wavering.

He has no financial need to | work. Big earnings in the days before taxation decimated stars' salaries and careful in-

vestments have left him com- .

paratively wealthy. '

On the threshold of 50, with ? a new wife, he is known to

be more interested in a quiet: life than bright lights. <

Stage Debut In < "Julius Caesar'" i

In the last eight years, , Donat has done two plays, { "The Sleeping Clergyman" '

and "Murder in the Cathed- ral," and four films, "Captain Boycott," "The Winslow Boy," "The Cure for Love," and "The Magic Box."

As long ago as 1930, Donat

was a familiar figure on the , West End stage, although it

was two of his early films, i "The Count of Monte Cristo"

and "The Thirty-nine Steps," j which suddenly rocketed him ,

into the screen class of Clark Gable and Gary Cooper.

Born in the Whitington dis- , trict of Manchester in 1905,

Donat made his first profes- i sional stage appearance in Birmingham in 1921, as Lucius in "Julius Caesar." He toured with Sir Frank Benson in 1924-28, and acted in repertory at Manchester, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Liv- erpool, and at Malvern and Cambridge festivals.

He first played in London in 1929, and the following year had the critics "in his pocket" with a brilliant inter- pretation of Gideon Sam in "Precious Bane." From that time, his stage reputation was established, and, in his own words, he "played everything from 'East Lynne' to 'Piran- dello'."

Donat's film career began with "Men of To-morrow" in 1932. Subsequently, critics acclaimed him "a film stylist" for his performance as Cul pepper in "Henry the VIII." and undoubtedly it was his impeccable acting in this role that caused Hollywood to give

him the name part in "Thel

Count of Monte Cristo." |

Thereafter, he starred in a series of great roles: "Captain Boycott," "The Citadel," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," 'The Young-Mr. Pitt."

But his appearances were then becoming less and less frequent, for asthma was already beginning to take its toll. Donat tought it off.

Early in life he had learned to sharpen himself against physical obstacles. It was be- cause of a bad stutter and a North Country accent that his parents decided to send him to a teacher of elocution. Not only did the lessons cure the stutter and eliminate the accent, while leaving the rich- ness of his Lancashire voice, but they gave the young Rob- ert a taste for acting. Dietrich Had To Wait

This became a lifelong pas- sion and turned a gawky, self conscious youth into a suave self-possessed man with more ease of manner in private life than almost any of his con- temporaries.

Tall, handsome, deceptively rugged and virile in appear- ance, Donat always has been amazingly popular with the public and fellow artists alike.

When his first serious bout of asthma in 1937 held up the start of "Knight Without Armour," for which Marlene Dietrich was already in Lon- don, thousands of fans from all parts of the world wrote to Korda, the producer, be- seeching him to hold up the filming until Donat recovered and threatening to boycott future pictures by London Films if another actor was given the role.

Korda made Dietrich con- tinue swinging her shapely legs until Donat was fit.

Since 1945, Donat's com- plaint has been steadily tak- ing greater toll of him, reduc- ing his stage appearances to a fraction of what they should have been, sometimes caus- ing him to withdraw in the middle of a successful run, and making each of his per- formances on the stage and screen all the more difficult to accomplish.

Hermit's Life

In The Country

.When medical treatment failed to conquer the enemy, Donat sacrificed everything. He gave up smoking and drinking. He lived like a her- mit in the country.

After "The Sleeping Clergy- man" in 1948, he refused all offers of stage work. "Theatre is too risky," he said. "One bout of coughing could ruin the entire run. In films, it doesn't matter."

So, husbanding his strength, he kept to the studios. But even that was a struggle. In- deed, but for ozone treatment, Donat might never have completed "The Magic Box"

two years ago.

To combat an attack of asthma that developed during the filming, the director fitted up an ozone machine on top of the set, which daily blew a balmy breeze over Donat.

"As a result," said Donat, "we finished the film without a single wheeze getting onto the sound track."

But he missed the West End gala premiere. While am- bassadors applauded, other stars glittered, and politicians had a night out, Donat was in a London hospital waging the fight of his life.

Given an emergency opera- tion, he lay there for weeks. When he left hospital he slipped into the country in the same controlled, unspectacu

lar way he behaves on stage , and in the studio.

For two years little was heard of him until, in March, 1953, he appeared with

Robert Helpmann at a. London theatre for rehearsals \ ol "Murder in the Cathedral" j

which Australia's man of many talents was directing.

His handsome face was no longer drawn and pinched and he was breathing smoothly and steadily. He looked as spry as an athlete.

But his new-found fitness was short-lived. Within a few days of the opening of "Murder in the Cathedral" he was coughing on stage. Once again his health and hopes had been dashed. Another long rest when the play ended drove the asthma away, and he felt well enough to accept a co-starring role with Laughton in "Hobson's Choice."

Then, one morning recently, Donat began to wheeze . . . so john Mills, breaking a Continental holiday, was flown home to take his place.

Now Donat, his melodious

voice racked with coughing, rests, again facing his own tragic "Hobson's Choice."

Robert Donat's beautiful young actress wife,

Renee Asherson. I

Digitisation generously supported by
Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation
Digitisation generously supported by