Icon Of The Month: Colin Clive

That’s right, this month the fantastic Colin Clive, is my icon of the month.

Colin Glenn Clive-Greig was born on 20th January 1900 in Saint-Malo, France, to an English colonel Colin Philip Greig and his wife, Caroline Margaret Lugard Clive. Clive might have been expected to follow an army career, his ancestor was Baron Robert Clive, founder of the British Indian Empire but he became interested in theatre instead.

He attended Stonyhurst College and subsequently Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where an injured knee disqualified him from military service and contributed to his becoming a stage actor. He was a member of the Hull Repertory Theatre Company for three years. Clive created the role of ‘Steve Baker’, the white husband of racially mixed ‘Julie LaVerne’, in the first London production of “Show Boat”; the production featured Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson.

His acting talents progressed through the 1920’s to sufficient degree to replace Laurence Olivier who was starring in the R. C Sherriff play “Journey’s End” in London. The director was up-and-coming James Whale, who had also been working his way up in London stage and film work as a budding scene designer and director.

Among his stage and entertainment acquaintances in London was Elsa Lanchester – the future ‘Bride Of Frankenstein’. When Olivier moved on to other stage work, the play moved to the Savoy Theatre in London with Clive in the lead in 1928.

Whale was waiting for the opportunity to move onto Broadway and Hollywood films. The success of “Journey’s End” gave Whale his break. Broadway called for the play with him as both director and scene designer. It opened in March of 1929 but with Colin Keith-Johnston in the lead. Nevertheless, Clive came to New York as well to await developments. Halfway through 1930, the play had ended, and Whale was contracted by Paramount as a dialog director. Things continued to unfold quickly.

Whale was very soon called on to direct what would be the first British/American co-produced sound film, a movie version of the popular “Journey’s End” (1930). Whale got Clive back as the lead-the laconic, alcoholic Capt. Stanhope, a character that (much like Clive’s other roles) mirrored his personal life. Clive showed on screen what came out in his stage performances – a measured intensity to his character, bolstered by his unique cracked baritone voice – seemingly always on the edge of irritation. 

Clive’s first picture then led to opportunities in both British and American films, but he got his first play on Broadway “Overture” in late 1930 which ended in January of 1931. Then it was back to London where he was prophetically cast with Lanchester in “The Stronger Sex” (1931).

Whale was contracted by Universal where Dracula (1931) had just been a huge hit and the studio was looking for a quick follow up. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was optioned as the next horror movie with Whale directing. 

Whale wanted Clive as ‘Dr. Henry Frankenstein’, and it all came together. Clive played the tortured legitimate doctor driven to macabre surgery and near insanity with over-the-top theatrics that would type him for the remainder of his short career.

The next few years he played both B leading and A supporting roles. Two apt examples were playing brooding but romantic ‘Edward Rochester’ in an early “Jane Eyre” (1934) and playing a British officer in “Clive Of India” (1935) in which Ronald Colman – not he – played his illustrious ancestor. Clive returned to Broadway for two plays in 1933 and 1934 and one more in the 1935-36 season.

Then it was back to Universal for the sequel of “Bride Of Frankenstein” (1935) in which his ‘Dr. Henry’ was somewhat more subdued. This was mostly to do with a broken leg suffered from a horseback riding accident. 

He is seen doing a lot of sitting or lying down because of it. Dour and sour seemed to be his trademark, bolstered that much more with the remainder of his films in which he was usually disturbed supporting characters.

His final two films were in early 1937 with the better known “History Is Made At Night” (1937) awkward type-casting him as the world’s most sour grapes ex-husband, ‘Bruce Vail’, who engineers a sure collision of his new steamship with any available iceberg in foggy weather to hopefully drown his ex-wife ‘Jean Arthur’ and her romantic true love ‘Charles Boyer’. But the sinking ship is stabilized and the lovers are saved to live happily ever after. Ironically, but befitting such a deed in Hollywood ethics, ‘Vail’ shoots himself.

In “The Firebird,” his first film under his new Warner contract in 1934, Clive suffered an alcoholic breakdown and had to be replaced by Lionel Atwill. Colin Clive suffered from severe chronic alcoholism and died from complications of tuberculosis, heart problems, and pneumonia in 1937 at age young age of 37. 

Clive’s alcoholism was very much apparent to his co-stars, as he was often seen napping on set and sometimes was so intoxicated that he had to be held upright for over-the-shoulder shots. Clive was also tormented by the medical threat of amputating his long-damaged leg. Forrest J Ackerman recalls visiting Clive’s body in the funeral parlour. “As I recall, he had a dressing gown on and he was calmly lying there. And he looked very much like that scene in “Bride”. Over 300 mourners turned out. Peter Lorre and Alan Mowbray were pallbearers at Clive’s funeral.

Neither friend James Whale nor wife Jeanne de Casalis attended, although she sent roses. She died in 1966 after writing her memoir “Things I Don’t Remember.” In it she makes no mention of her husband. His cenotaph is located at Chapel of the Pines Crematory, but his ashes were scattered at sea in 1978 after they spent over 40 years unclaimed in the basement of the funeral parlour where his body was brought after his death.

Clive was an in-demand leading man for a number of major film actresses of the era, including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Corinne Griffith and Jean Arthur.  From 1922 – 1929 he was married to Evelyn Taylor, from June 1929 until his death, Clive was married to actress Jeanne de Casalis. She did not accompany her husband to Hollywood. 

There has been speculation that de Casalis was a lesbian and Clive was either gay or bisexual, meaning that they were in a lavender marriage. David Lewis, the longtime companion of Clive’s frequent director James Whale, flatly states that Clive was not gay. 

“Colin Clive was the dearest, kindest (in the real meaning of the word ‘kind’) man, who gave you importance. He was so wonderful, so clever. When he started acting in a scene, I wanted to stop and just watch… I’d think, “Here I am, playing scenes with this marvellous actor!” Mr. Whale would say, “Colin’s voice is like a pipe organ… I just pull out the stops, and he produces the music.” Colin was electric. I was mesmerized by him – so much so that I hoped it didn’t show! When he looked at me, I’d flush. He had a wife back in England, and I had my young man (of the “Waterloo Bridge” premiere.) In fact, I was glad my fiancé was at the premiere that night – to be my good anchor against my stormy waves of fancy for Colin. He was the handsomest man I ever saw – and also the saddest. Colin’s sadness was elusive; the sadness you see if you contemplate many of the master painters’ and sculptors’ conceptions of the face of Christ – the ultimate source in my view of all sadness.” – “Frankennstein” co-star Mae Clarke

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