Ronald was born in Richmond, Surrey on this day in 1891, the son of a silk merchant. He was one of seven siblings, one of whom, Eric Colman, became chief announcer at the radio station 2GB in Sydney. Eric recounted to the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1940,
“Ronald is slightly younger than I am…but we both went to the same school together. In those days he was always reading, and the family intended that his career should be the Church. But he had even then a passion for acting, and fortunately our school at Littlehampton encouraged amateur theatricals, particularly performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. We both took part, and I can remember Ronald giving a fine baritone performance of the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance.”
So an affluent family in an affluent town who could afford a good education for their children. Ronald was planning to study engineering at Cambridge, but then his father, Charles Colman, died. This meant that Ronald’s education was curtailed and he went to work as a shipping clerk in London while continuing amateur dramatics in his spare time.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Ronald Colman signed on for the London Scottish regiment –
I’m not going to outline his war service in detail here, instead I recommend you read this exceptionally moving post by Sister Celluloid. Suffice to say from that post I am borrowing this quote:
“The war suddenly swooped down on us like a martial bird and bore us off. There was no time for goodbyes, either to family or sweethearts, movies and fiction to the contrary. We embarked from Folkestone. I remember sitting in that train with my battalion on a siding, waiting to go. I could see from my car window the familiar streets I had walked so many times, houses of people I knew. I felt as a dead man might feel, revisiting, himself unseen, old haunts he had known well but which knew him no longer. I knew that I would come back but not as I was then. Because I didn’t come back. I won’t go into the war and all that it did to all of us. We went out. Strangers came back. It was the war that made an actor out of me. When I came back that was all I was good for: acting. I wasn’t my own man anymore.”
After the Armistice both Colman brothers started appearing in stage productions in London. And in the meantime they visited a producer of motion pictures in Wardour Street, at the time London’s cinema alley. The producer sent the brothers away saying somewhat apologetically that the Colmans ‘weren’t the screen type’. Eventually in 1919 and 1920 Ronald did make three pictures for Cecil Hepworth’s company, but with little success. The Hepworth company was ailing considerably at this point, along with most of the British film industry, under the onslaught from Hollywood (this would lead to the Cinematograph Films Act 1927, placing a duty on British cinemas to show a quota of British made films, the cult ‘quota quickies’).
By 1920 Eric and Ronald, not getting anywhere fast, decided to see what the world had to offer, Eric going to Australia and Ronald accepting opportunities to tour in stage productions in New York. Ronald arrived in America on his arse, but after much perseverance was appearing and touring in successful theatre productions. In 1923 this led to his casting in the movie ‘The White Sister’ opposite Lillian Gish, and the success of this picture was to change his life, leading to a contract with Samuel Goldwyn in 1924, which lasted a decade and produced 18 films, although their relationship was fractious.
Romola, the 1924 film that Ronald also made with Lillian Gish, was the production that truly gave William Powell major recognition in Hollywood. It also led to an enduring friendship. On a personal level, both men had similar personalities, very quiet, shy and with a tendency towards melancholia. Allied to this they both had complex personal circumstances – the post ‘Bill and Carole: Post Divorce BFFs‘, describes Bill and Ronnie’s reputation as notorious bachelors in Hollywood but their situations were complicated. Bill and his first wife, Eileen Wilson, had separated amicably, but as William Powell Jr noted, Bill and Eileen met coincidentally in Venice during the filming of Romola, the result of this meeting being William Powell Jr! However, Bill and Eileen separated again not long after their son’s birth.
For Ronald Colman, his situation was far more distressing, as in 1920, a month before he left the UK for America, he had married the actress Thelma Raye in haste, a union Colman quickly and bitterly regretted. Thelma became furiously jealous of her husband’s success and initiated a campaign of stalking and emotional intimidation that lasted throughout the 1920s. The already quiet and diffident man became withdrawn to the point of reclusiveness and would guard his privacy strictly for the rest of his life. Liaisons with girls were left for Bill Powell to arrange with the utmost discretion, and there certainly weren’t going to be any further emotional entanglements as far as Ronnie was concerned.
During the silent era Colman was able to avoid typecasting, playing roles in pictures as diverse as westerns, romantic comedies, melodramas and adventures, as obviously the cinema going public hadn’t heard that famous velvet voice yet. Ronald had more than enough good looks and charisma to ensure his popularity as a Hollywood film star remained constant throughout the 1920s.
Ronald further consolidated his position as a major movie actor through his teaming with the new Hungarian sensation Vilma Banky. They were paired for five pictures in total, starting with The Winning of Barbara Worth in 1926 and these films exploited their natural and assured chemistry. Ronald Colman was now set up for his greatest triumph – the dawn of the talking picture.
“Ronald on the screen always annoys me,” laughed Eric Colman in 1933, “because I always realise that he is just going on before the public as he always went on at home. He is perfectly natural. It makes me sick to think that he has ten times more in his bank account than I have for the simple reason that he is himself at all times.”
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant