Handsome. English. Talented. Mysterious. Tormented?
Robert Donat was an actor best known for his starring roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). He won an Oscar for Best Actor for the latter film– beating out Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Laurence Olivier, and Mickey Rooney in what is considered by many to be the greatest year in film history. But just how did he get into the business and why isn’t he widely recognized today? Let’s take a look.
Donat was born in Withington, a suburb in the city of Manchester, England in 1905. As a young boy, Robert struggled with a stammer when he spoke, so he began speech lessons by the time he was eleven or twelve. The lessons obviously helped greatly: it was discovered at this time that he had a beautiful speaking voice, and he managed to drop both the stammer and his naturally thick Manchester accent. This eventually led him into stage acting, where he began to perform Shakespeare and other fine roles. His stage debut was achieved in 1921 at the age of 16; the play was Julius Caesar. By 1924, he joined Sir Frank Benson’s repertory company and later joined the Liverpool Repertory Theater. He married his first wife, Ella Annesley Voysey, in 1929 and eventually had three children together before divorcing in 1946. [Note: He later married second wife Renee Asherson and they were married from 1953-1958]
Mr. Donat was discovered in the early 1930s and he was offered a role in an American film called Smilin’ Through (1932) but he rejected the offer. That same year, he made his film debut. I’ve searched on several websites to pin down his debut film. According to IMDb’s trivia pages for That Night in London (1932) and Men of Tomorrow (1932), both films were said to be his screen debut. TCM’s website says That Night in London (1932) was his first film, so I will settle for that answer. Interestingly enough, in 1930/’31, before he began his career film, he was known as “screen test Donat” throughout the industry because of his many unsuccessful screen tests. Anyway, he became a star after appearing in his fourth film, The Private Life of Henry VIII. Donat soon went on to work on the only American film he’d be in, which was The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Because of health problems that would plague him for a good portion of his life and a general dislike of Hollywood life, this would be his only journey to Hollywood.
Donat turned down the lead role in Captain Blood (1935)–which gave Errol Flynn his big break–and opted to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller The 39 Steps (1935) opposite Madeleine Carroll. This was made, of course, before Hitchcock had made his move to Hollywood.
I decided that, instead of attempting to explain the plot in a quick way in my own words, I would go to IMDb to give a brief summary: “A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.”
Stylistically, the film has both similar and different elements in it than Hitchcock’s later films. It’s definitely recommended for fans of old fashioned black and white mysteries and thrillers. It’s clever and even a bit sexy. Watch out for the twist at the end.
For brevity’s sake, I’m going to skip to 1939 to highlight Robert Donat’s performance in the classic British drama/romance film Goodbye, Mr. Chips. I was lucky enough to catch this on TCM’s movies-on-demand app “Watch TCM” last weekend. I had never seen it or the other film adaptations before. It tells the story of an elderly boarding-school teacher named Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) who, one night, is feeling under-the-weather and falls asleep. This takes the audience into a series of dreams which are flashbacks highlighting major events in his life. We get to see the beginning of his career as a young Latin teacher in 1870, his falling in love/courtship/marriage with a spirited suffragette named Kathy Ellis (Greer Garson), personal tragedy, and trying times well into World War I, and so much more in between. It should be noted that Donat was thirty four years old during the production of this film and he managed to play a character who was shown from the age of 20 to 83. With the excellent use of makeup and acting skill, he pulled it off well.
A really important element in the film is Chipping’s relationship with Kathy. “Chips”, as Kathy affectionately calls him, is taken by her spunky nature during their first accidental meeting and falls hard for her. She falls for him, as well. The beginning of their relationship is very cute, as is the rest of it. Kathy teaches Chips the importance of being a great teacher and she tells him that he can achieve anything he puts his mind and heart into. Through this, Chips becomes a little less shy and a little more easy-going. He even starts telling jokes to his class. Tip: Consider bringing a few tissues with you before you watch this.
Robert Donat was loved by audiences around the world. He was considered to be up in the ranks with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, and Ronald Colman. However, his unfortunate battle with chronic asthma held him back from a lot of potential work. His career only included twenty films, ranging from 1932 to 1958. It has been suggested that because of Donat’s self-esteem issues, these bouts with asthma may have been psychosomatic. Author David Shipman once said, “His tragedy was that the promise of his early years was never fulfilled and that he was haunted by agonies of doubt and disappointment”. In 1980, while being interviewed for the BBC series The British Greats, his first wife said she believed it was caused by the birth of their daughter, as he developed asthma around the time she was born. She also said he was, “full of fear” because of the success he had achieved. Others that had worked with him said that Donat sometimes acted strangely behind the scenes. Like many movie stars, he didn’t seem to live a very happy personal life–but I hope that in saying that, I’m incorrect. Perhaps he was happier than it seemed. It saddened me to find out that he died in 1958 at the age of 53. According to his page on IMDb, he died as a result of a chronic asthma attack. While working on his last film, he was in such poor health that he had to keep an oxygen tank while filming.
In an almost prophetic manner of occurrences, the last line Robert Donat ever spoke in a film was in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). His last line was: “We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell…Jen-Ai.” He passed away shortly after the production of this film.
Although he may not be well-remembered by mainstream audiences, Robert Donat will never be forgotten by those who enjoy his films. I hope people will continue to watch them in the future. I believe everyone should watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips at least once in their lifetime. No matter how many generations pass, it’s a timeless story. I must admit, I developed a pretty big crush on Mr. Donat while watching the film. I had not realized he was the same man who starred in The 39 Steps, which was the first film of his that I watched not too long ago. I went back and I could not stop searching for photos of him. That handsome face, that charming voice…I love you, Robert Donat. Rest in peace.
Note: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is available to watch on the “Watch TCM” app until Jan.4
I used several sources to find information about Robert Donat’s life, which include tcm.com, imdb.com, youtube.com, theguarian.com, and wikipedia.com
Edit: According to the admins of robert-donat.com, Robert actually died of a brain tumor– not asthma, as his IMDb bio reports. Thank you for this correction!