Oscar Actors: Donat, Robert–Background, Career, Awards

October 23, 2020
Robert Donat Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance:

Nationality: UK

Social Class: upper middle; father civil engineer of German origin





Spotting: by Irving Thalberg

Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut: 1921, aged 16

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut:

Breakthrough Role: The Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933, aged 28

Oscar Role: Goodbye Mr. Chips, 1939; aged 33

Other Noms: The Citadel, 1936; aged 30

Gap between First Film and First Nom: 4 years

Other Awards:

Frequent Collaborator:

Screen Image: character actor

Last Film: Inn of the Sixth Happiness, 1958; aged 53

Career Output: 20 films (asthma)

Film Career Span: 1932-1958; 26 years



Death: 53

Friedrich Robert Donat (18 March 1905 – 9 June 1958) was an English film and stage actor, best remembered for his roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), winning for the latter the Best Actor Oscar.

In his book, The Age of the Dream Palace, Jeffrey Richards wrote that Donat was “The British cinema’s one undisputed romantic leading man in the 1930s”.

“The image he projected was that of the romantic idealist, often with a dash of the gentleman adventurer.”

Donat suffered from chronic asthma, which affected his career and limited him to appearing in only 20 films.

Donat was born in Withington, Manchester, the fourth and youngest son of Ernst Emil Donat, a civil engineer of German origin from Prussian Poland, and his wife, Rose Alice Green.

He was of English, Polish, German and French descent and was educated at Manchester’s Central High School for Boys. His older brother was Phillip Donat, the father of actors Richard and Peter Donat.

He took elocution lessons with James Bernard, a leading teacher of ‘dramatic interpretation.’ He left school at 15, working as Bernard’s secretary to fund his continued lessons. Donat also took part in dramatic recitals at various venues across the North West of England.

Donat made his first stage appearance in 1921 at the age of 16 with Henry Baynton’s company at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham, playing Lucius in Julius Caesar. His break came in 1924 when he joined the company of Shakespearean actor Sir Frank Benson, where he stayed for four years. He also worked in provincial repertory theatre.

In 1928 he began a year at the Liverpool Playhouse, starring in plays by Galsworthy, Shaw and Brighouse, among others. In 1929, he played at the Festival Theatre in Cambridge under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie. He appeared in a number of plays, some with Flora Robson, and also directed.

Donat married Ella Annesley Voysey (1903–1994) in 1929; the couple had three children together, but divorced in 1946.

In 1930 Donat moved to London, where he eventually made his debut in Knave and Quean at the Ambassadors Theatre.[8] He received acclaim for a performance in a revival of Saint Joan.

In 1931 he achieved notice as Gideon Sarn in an adaptation of Precious Bane. He played roles at the 1931 Malvern Festival.

Around 1930 and 1931, he was known as “screen test Donat” in the industry because of his many unsuccessful auditions for film producers. MGM’s producer Irving Thalberg spotted him on the London stage in Precious Bane, and Donat was offered a part in the American studio’s Smilin’ Through (1932), however he rejected this offer.

Donat made his film debut in a quota quickie Men of Tomorrow (1932) for Alexander Korda’s London Films. An abysmal screen test for Korda had ended with Donat’s laughter. Korda reacted by exclaiming: “That’s the most natural laugh I have ever heard in my life. What acting! Put him under contract immediately.”

Korda cast Donat in the lead in That Night in London (1932), directed by Rowland V. Lee. He had a key role in Cash (1933), directed by Zoltan Korda, co-starring Edmund Gwenn.

Donat’s first great screen success came in his fourth film. This was as Thomas Culpeper in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) for the same producer.[14] The film, starring Charles Laughton in the title role, was an enormous success around the world, including Hollywood. Donat started receiving Hollywood offers.

At the 1933 Malvern Festival, Donat received good reviews for his performance in A Sleeping Clergyman, which transferred to the West End. He was also in Saint Joan.[15]

Korda loaned Donat to Edward Small for the only film Donat made in Hollywood, The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). (In exchange, Leslie Howard was sent to Korda to make The Scarlet Pimpernel.)

The film was successful and Donat was offered the lead role in a number of films for Warners, including Anthony Adverse (1935) and another swashbuckler, Captain Blood (1935). However, Donat did not like America and returned to Britain.[18][19]

In 1934, he played on stage in the West End in Mary Read opposite Flora Robson.[20]

In England, Donat had the star role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) opposite Madeleine Carroll.[18] His performance was well-received: “Mr. Donat, who has never been very well served in the cinema until now, suddenly blossoms out into a romantic comedian of no mean order”, wrote the film critic C. A. Lejeune in The Observer at the time of the film’s release. Lejeune observed that he possessed “an easy confident humour that has always been regarded as the perquisite of the American male star. For the first time on our screen we have the British equivalent of a Clark Gable or a Ronald Colman, playing in a purely national idiom. Mr. Donat, himself, I fancy, is hardly conscious of it, which is all to the good.”[21]

Hitchcock wanted Donat for the role of Edgar Brodie in Secret Agent (1936) and Detective Ted Spencer in Sabotage (1936), but this time Korda refused to release him. John Gielgud replaced him in Secret Agent, while John Loder took the role in Sabotage.[22] MGM wanted him for Romeo and Juliet but he turned them down. Sam Goldwyn made several offers which were turned down, as was an offer from David O. Selznick to appear in The Garden of Allah and from Small to make The Son of Monte Cristo.

Donat’s next film was for Korda, The Ghost Goes West (1935), a comedy directed by René Clair.

In 1936 Donat took on the management of the Queen’s Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, where he produced Red Night by J. L. Hodson.[5][7][24]

Korda wanted Donat to make Hamlet.[25] Instead the actor appeared in Korda’s Knight Without Armour (1937). Korda became committed to the latter project because of Donat’s indecision. Madeleine Carroll had read the James Hilton novel while shooting The 39 Steps, and had persuaded Donat that it could be a good second film for them to star in together. Donat acquired the rights and passed them on to Korda, although by now Carroll was unavailable.[26] His eventual co-star, Marlene Dietrich, was the source of much attention when she arrived in Britain. Donat was caught up in the furor, and the stress was so great that he suffered a nervous collapse a few days into the shooting; Donat entered a nursing home.[26] The production delay caused by Donat’s asthma led to talk of replacing him. Dietrich, whose contract with Korda was for $450,000, threatened to leave the project if that happened, and production was halted for two months, until Donat was able to return to work.[27]

He was going to return to the U.S. in 1937 to make Clementine for Small at RKO but changed his mind, fearing legal reprisals from Warners.

In 1938, Donat signed a contract with MGM British for £150,000 with a commitment to making six films.

In The Citadel (1938), he played Andrew Manson, a newly qualified Scottish doctor, a role for which he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

He played in Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple (1938) on stage at the Piccadilly Theatre in London and the Old Vic.

Donat is best remembered for his role as the school master in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Australian film critic Brian McFarlane writes: “Class-ridden and sentimental perhaps, it remains extraordinarily touching in his Oscar-winning performance, and it ushers in the Donat of the postwar years.”

His rivals for the Best Actor Award were Clark Gable for Gone with the Wind, Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, James Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mickey Rooney for Babes in Arms.

MGM wanted Donat to star in a movie about Beau Brummell and a new version of Pride and Prejudice but the war delayed this.

In the early days of World War II, Donat focused on the stage. He played three roles at the 1939 Buxton Festival, including a part in The Good-Natur’d Man.

He had the title role in the film The Young Mr. Pitt (1942) for 20th Century Fox and played Captain Shotover in a new staging of Heartbreak House at the Cambridge Theatre in London from 1942–43. For MGM British he starred in the film The Adventures of Tartu (1943), with Valerie Hobson. Donat wanted to play the Chorus in Olivier’s Henry V, but the role went to Leslie Banks.

In 1943 he took over the lease of the Westminster Theatre, staging a number of plays there until 1945, including An Ideal Husband (1943–44), The Glass Slipper (1944) and The Cure for Love (1945) by Walter Greenwood. With the latter, which he directed, he began his professional association with Renée Asherson, later his second wife.[33][34]

Donat was reunited with Korda for the film Perfect Strangers (1945), known in the United States as Vacation from Marriage, with Deborah Kerr. This was the last film he did for MGM British.

In 1946, Donat and Asherson appeared at the Aldwych Theatre in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Donat. He also directed The Man Behind the Statue by Peter Ustinov. Both lost money.

Donat had a cameo as Charles Parnell in Captain Boycott (1947) with Stewart Granger. He appeared on stage in a revival of A Sleeping Clergyman in 1947.

He longed desperately to be cast against type as Bill Sikes in David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948), but Lean thought him wrong for the part and cast Robert Newton instead. Donat played the male lead in The Winslow Boy (1948), a popular adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play.

Donat and Asherson reprised their stage roles in the film version of The Cure for Love (1949). His only film as director, its production was affected by his ill health.[33][35] The film’s soundtrack had to be re-recorded after shooting was completed because Donat’s asthma had severely affected his voice.  Modestly received by a reviewer in The Monthly Film Bulletin, and described as “pedestrian” by Philip French in 2009, it was a hit in the North. In this film, Donat used his natural Mancunian accent, which his early elocution lessons had attempted to suppress completely.

Donat appeared on radio. In 1949 he did a performance of Justify by John Galsworthy on Theatre Guild on the Air for America.

In 1950 he moved to Cyprus in hopes the climate would help with his asthma.

Donat and Asherson also appeared in The Magic Box (1951), in which Donat played William Friese-Greene. However, his asthma continued to affect his ability to perform.[40]

Donat married Asherson, his second wife, in 1953. The severity of his asthma played a key role in their later separation. They may have been close to a reconciliation when he died. She never remarried.[35][41]

He was cast as Thomas Becket in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in Robert Helpmann’s production at The Old Vic theatre in 1952 but, although his return to stage was well received, his illness forced him to withdraw during the run.[36] For the same reason, he dropped out of the film Hobson’s Choice (1954). Scheduled to play Willy Mossop, he was replaced by John Mills.[42] Author David Shipman speculates that Donat’s asthma may have been psychosomatic: “His tragedy was that the promise of his early years was never fulfilled and that he was haunted by agonies of doubt and disappointment (which probably were the cause of his chronic asthma).”[43] David Thomson also suggested this explanation,[44] and Donat himself thought that his illness had a 90% basis in his psychology.[2] In a 1980 interview with Barry Norman, his first wife, Ella Annesley Voysey (by then known as Ella Hall),[45] said that Donat had an asthma attack as a psychosomatic response to the birth of their daughter. According to her: “Robert was full of fear.”[46]

Lease of Life (1954), made by Ealing Studios, was his penultimate film. In it, Donat plays a vicar who discovers that he has a terminal illness.[36][47]

Donat’s final role was the Mandarin of Yang Cheng in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). His last spoken words in the film, an emotional soliloquy in which the Mandarin confesses his conversion to Christianity, reducing Ingrid Bergman as the missionary Gladys Aylward to tears, were the prophetic, “We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell.” He had collapsed with a stroke during filming but managed to recover enough to complete the film.

Several months after his death, Donat was nominated for his first Golden Globe and received a posthumous National Board of Review Special Citation for his performance in Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

Donat died in London on 9 June 1958 at age 53. His biographer Kenneth Barrow said he had “… a brain tumour the size of a duck egg and cerebral thrombosis was certified as the primary cause of death”.[49] He left an estate worth £25,236.

Donat has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6420 Hollywood Blvd. A blue plaque also commemorates his life at 8 Meadway in Hampstead Garden Suburb.[51] His place of birth at 42 Everett Road in Withington is also commemorated by a similar plaque.[52] Donat’s son, John Donat, (1933–2004), was an architectural photographer,[53] and actors Peter Donat and Richard Donat are his nephews.

Year Title Role Notes
1932 That Night in London Dick Warren
1932 Men of Tomorrow Julian Angell
1933 Cash Paul Martin
1933 The Private Life of Henry VIII Thomas Culpeper
1934 The Count of Monte Cristo Edmond Dantès, the eponymous Count
1935 The 39 Steps Richard Hannay
1936 The Ghost Goes West Murdoch Glourie / Donald Glourie
1937 Knight Without Armour A. J. Fothergill
1938 The Citadel Dr. Andrew Manson Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
1939 Goodbye, Mr. Chips Mr. Chips Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated — New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor (3rd place)
1942 The Young Mr. Pitt William Pitt / The Earl of Chatham
1943 The Adventures of Tartu Captain Terence Stevenson / Jan Tartu released in the United States as Sabotage Agent
1943 The New Lot Actor Short, Uncredited
1945 Perfect Strangers Robert Wilson released in the United States as Vacation From Marriage
1947 Captain Boycott Charles Stewart Parnell
1948 The Winslow Boy Sir Robert Morton
1950 The Cure for Love Sergeant Jack Hardacre
1951 The Magic Box William Friese-Greene, “the forgotten inventor of movies”
1954 Lease of Life Rev. William Thorne Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
1958 The Inn of the Sixth Happiness The Mandarin of Yang Cheng National Board of Review Special Citation
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
(both recognitions were posthumous)
(final film role)
Further reading
Trewin, J. C. (1968). Robert Donat; a biography. Heinemann.
Barrow, Kenneth (1985). Mr Chips : the life of Robert Donat. London, England: Methuen. ISBN 0413580709.