It’s not that I find Rex Harrison particularly swoony. Fun fact: I’m not especially attracted to the vast majority of the subjects I write about for MCMs or WCWs. Instead, I like to use these posts to feature actors whose work is somehow relevant to frock flicks over the course of time, both the big names and the lesser known. Sir Reginald Carey “Rex” Harrison (March 5, 1908 – June 2, 1990) is famous for his roles in a couple of the biggest and most popular historical films ever made, yet he was, according to most reports, a total asshole of a person and, IMO, fairly limited as an actor. His fourth wife Rachel Roberts told Harrison: “You’ve no idea how the people hate you!”, and director Patrick Garland talked of the actor’s selfishness, arrogance, and unreasonableness, according to the Telegraph. In historical costume movies, he plays the same sort of charming, scornful, caddish know-it-all whether he’s wearing a Victorian suit or a Roman toga. But I’ve grown accustomed to, well, not his face, but more the talking on pitch, speaking-to-the-music style of so-called singing he does in My Fair Lady and Doctor Dolittle. I aspire to that, as a born non-singer like Harrison. And his ashes have long since been buried, so he doesn’t need much praise anyway.
King Mongkut in Anna and the King of Siam (1946)
Captain Daniel Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Stephen Fox in The Foxes of Harrow (1947)
Emir Hderim Sultan Saladin in King Richard and the Crusaders (1954)
Julius Caesar in Cleopatra (1963)
Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964)
Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Dr. John Dolittle in Doctor Dolittle (1967)
Don Quixote in BBC Play of the Month, “The Adventures of Don Quixote” (1973)
The Duke of Norfolk in Crossed Swords (1977)
Colbert in The Fifth Musketeer (1979)
Grand Duke Cyril Romanov in Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986)
What do you remember of Rex Harrison?
Not a fan of him as a human being, but “The Ghost and Mrs Muir” is delightful
I love ‘The Ghost and Mrs Muir.’ Harrison and Gene Tierney are wonderful in it.
…and I know I shame myself, but looks damned good in that movie. The beard suits him.
Perhaps not set early enough to be historical, but my favourite is ‘Night Train to Munich’. (His inability to sing is part of his character there.) His caddish but charming character is already established, but he’s still quite young (32), and is dashing and insouciant. It also has the delightful Charters and Caldicott characters, carried over from ‘The Lady Vanishes’ – apparently bumbling Englishmen who rise to the occasion when things get dangerous.
Oh, and by the way, please stop telling us that you are shocked – shocked! – by white actors playing characters of other races. Personally I take make-up as I take costume, and your labouring of this point is becoming tedious.
We will always call out yellowface & similar bec. it is not merely “costume,” it is fucking racist BS. Always has been, always will be. If you need that explained to you, google it, I don’t have time to explain it to you. Also, disagreement on this point will deleted & banned (just a warning bec. I’m in an airport & don’t want to deal with that nonesense).
I clicked on the link to your original review, and noted that you quoted Darryl Zanuck as saying that he wanted to adapt the recent best-selling source book because it was the funniest thing he’d read in a while, and there was a lot of opportunity for comedy.
IOW, Harrison’s character was perceived as a heavily-accented, backward-thinking “buffoon” by the studio head who green-lighted the project.
Yup, that’s not ‘just a costume’ — that’s shitty Asian caricature from the start!
Not to mention that there’s a really horrifying moment where the “barbaric” king punishes an unfaithful concubine, and Tuptim (Linda Darnell in yellowface) and her lover are burned at the stake– with her even getting a screaming close-up as she goes up in flames.
Yeah, that’s a real knee-slapper, Darryl.
(And it’s particularly upsetting to watch now, given that Linda Darnell died horribly about 20 years later from 3rd-degree burns over 80 percent of her body from a house fire.)
BTW, there’s a really good 2006 documentary, THE SLANTED SCREEN, that deals with the topic of yellowface and depictions of Asian characters, as well as the limited opportunities for Asian actors in the film industry.
Big reveal for me was that Sessue Hayakawa, who is best-known for his late-career comeback roles– like the Best Supporting Actor-nominated THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI– was once an extremely handsome leading man in silent movies, and a major sex symbol.
Unfortunately, he was almost always cast as the exotic foreign “fatal man”– sort of a male version of Theda Bara’s “vamp”– or as a sympathetic character caught up in a tragic “forbidden love.”
When he got sick of the type-casting and left Hollywood to work in theater, he was promptly replaced with Rudolph Valentino, who achieved a more lasting fame cemented by dying unexpectedly at the height of his popularity, like James Dean.
Even worse, when Hayakawa decided to return around 1930, he found himself even further shut out by the newly enacted Code, which forbid depictions of “miscegenation” and would now limit him to only work with actual Asian leading ladies– even if the character was supposed to be Asian, a white actress could not be cast, even in yellowface.
(This is allegedly why Anna May Wong was shut out from playing O-Lan in THE GOOD EARTH– Paul Muni was already cast as her husband, and they had to have a white actress in yellowface to match him.)
A few of Sessue Hayakawa’s silent films have survived and are linked on Wikipedia, if you’re curious.
The Slanted Screen is excellent & revelatory! Ooo, now I want to watch it again, thanks.
I appreciate you and the FF team calling out bigoted garbage, and doubling down when others deem you unreasonable. It’s bad enough seeing this nonsense, and exhausting to have people calling me bad for disliking bigotry,
I do find him attractive, but he was supposedly an absolute shit to Julie Andrews in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady, due to his insecurities about being in a musical.
I think I must have seen much of his true personality in MFL, where in all my viewings I’ve been unable to see a likable personality, even during his softer (??) moments w/ Eliza which seemed artificial and not soft enough. And with the inherent racism of black/yellow/redface? Please do labor away on it. There’s never enough calling out.
I have mixed feelings about him in Cleopatra. I feel like he had zero chemistry with Elizabeth Taylor; however, the scene where the two of them are hurling insults at each other is a hoot. :)
I felt he had more chemistry with Elizabeth Taylor than Richard Burton did, and she was sleeping with Burton in real life! Maybe that’s due to Harrison’s talent as an actor. But yes, he was an asshole in real life. Pajiba.com some time ago wrote an article, and linked to an even better one, about the making of Doctor Dolittle. There was a lot of trouble on the set, with a great deal of it due to Harrison’s less than civil behavior.
To be fair, it would be impossible to generate any electricity with Liz when your alternate lead is Richard Burton. Liz and Dick are generating sooooooooooooo much heat in that movie.
I loved him in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as a kid – one of my mom’s favorite films. I also think he plays a convincing Julius Caesar and a really, really good Pope Julius II. As far as the most iconic role here, I personally can’t stand Henry Higgins, but Harrison’s portrayal always has struck me as him playing himself in a lot of ways.
That would be because Julius was an overbearing, obnoxious personality from all accounts as well. A rather good match, I think ;)
Had the great good fortune to see him and Lilli Palmer onstage in “Bell, Book, and Candle.” For film roles, I think I like him as the ghost. There was a very good TV series way back when with Edward Mulhare playing the ghost.
I credit Edward Mulhare’s Captain Gregg as the start of my life long predilection for mature men with English accents.
I heard that. :)
I know, brown face but Harrison was totally hot as Saladin and the only memorable character in the film.
I bought old VCR tapes of Cleopatra for the costumes and Harrison’s Caesar. And I’ve always been find of his Doctor Dolittle.
I loved him in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
I have to admit that I think he’s attractive, in a weird old man professor sort of way. In Dr. Doolittle there’s this scene where he’s singing to a sea lion that brought me to tears once. Kinda sucks to find that he was a selfish, arrogant a–hole. And, yeah, the yellow face and brown face is disgusting.
Saw him onstage in My Fair Lady (Boston, 1981) and in the elevator after…he was nice to me! I was a stagestruck kid. I did love him best the The Ghost and Mrs. Muir…that beard really suited him.
Like 90% of the other commenters, I gotta go with The Ghost and Mrs Muir. I love that movie, and he was absolutely perfect in that role!!!