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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Russia"

DUCK TALES

by James L. Choron

Ronald Charles Colman

James L. Choron
If you have ever seen the Black and White version of "A Tale of Two Cities" you are familiar with the actor who played "Sidney Carton", the main character. His name was Ronald Colman. In any case, Colman had one of the most beautiful, resonant voices ever to grace stage or screen. If you have ever seen this motion picture, you know what I mean. His final lines are as unforgettable, now, as they were when he spoke them, over seventy years ago.

Ronald Charles Colman was born at Richmond, Surrey, England on February 9, 1891. Height 5 feet 11 inches; dark brown hair and eyes; weight 158 pounds.

He was, to put it mildly, one of the great stars of the Golden Age of motion pictures. He was raised in Ealing, the son of a successful silk merchant, and attended boarding school in Sussex, where he first discovered amateur theatre. He intended to attend Cambridge and become an engineer, but his father's death cost him the financial support necessary. He joined the London Scottish Regionals and at the outbreak of World War I was sent to France. Seriously wounded at the battle of Messines, he was invalided out of service scarcely two months after shipping out for France.

Upon his recovery, tried to enter the consular service, but a chance encounter got him a small role in a London play. He dropped other plans and concentrated on the theatre and was rewarded with a succession of increasingly prominent parts. His early success in the film led to a contract with Samuel Goldwyn and career as a Hollywood leading man was underway. He became a vastly popular star of silent films, in romances as well as adventure films. With the coming of sound, his extraordinarily beautiful speaking voice made him even more important to the film industry.

Colman was a longtime friend of Walt Disney. In the mid-fifties, he developed Parkinson's Disease. It eventually killed him. For the last several years of his life he was unable to work, due to the "palsy" that accompanies Parkinson's Disease. He had exhausted all the money he had in treatment, and was literally dying broke, with no way to pay his medical bills. Disney offered to pay all of it as a "loan", but Coleman refused the charity, knowing that he was dying, and could never repay it.

Disney then made a counter offer. He offered him a job. The man still had his beautiful, resonant voice...

Disney made a cartoon especially for him. You may have seen it. It's a Donald Duck cartoon, in which Donald, finds a box of pills on the street, which change his usual incomprehensible voice in to a beautiful, resonant baritone... It's the voice of Ronald Colman...

That was his last job...

Colman made just enough, and calculatedly so, to pay off the staggering medical bills that he had accumulated, and to pay for his funeral.

Ronald Colman will live in the history of stage and screen. His face will remain an icon to those who study and appreciate classic film. But... to countless and endless generations of children he will be the faceless but unforgettable voice...albiet a temporary one... of a beloved duck...
* * * * *

Ronald Colman Trivia:

  • Daughter Juliet Benita Colman (b. 1944)
  • He made his film debut in an unreleased two-reel short made in 1919. Its title is unknown, and references to it as 'Live Wire, The (1917)' apparently erroneously connect it to a play of that title in which Colman appeared around the same time.
  • His recording of "A Christmas Carol", originally released in a Decca 78-RPM set in 1941, was the first recorded version to win wide acclaim.
  • Portrayed Dr. William Hall on NBC Radio's "The Halls of Ivy" (1950-1952) with his wife Benita Hume.
  • Fought with the British Army in World War I, and was wounded in a poison gas attack during the Battle of Ypres.
  • In his early film career he was panned by many critics for his overtheatrics (used in the stage work he was doing at the time) and his pronounced limp (from a bad war injury). He credited working with greats such as George Arliss for overcoming those obstacles.
  • When he made his mark in Hollywood as a handsome young silent actor, there were some who doubted he would translate well to "talkies." His subsequent success in radio (he made a multi-volume recording of the Shakespeare sonnets, as well) proves them wrong with a vengeance.
  • James L. Choron
    "Letters from Russia" February 17, 2006 Column



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