In twentv-five years as a film actor, Donat made only nineteen pictures. Illustrious as his record is, the list of parts he had to decline—either because of bis chronic asthma, or because of a more profound tentativeness, itself at the root of his stammer and nervous breathlessness—is even more striking: it includes Peter Ibbetson, Chopin, Lawrence of Arabia, Romeo, Mr. Darcy, the Chorus in Henry V, and the James Stewart part in No Highway. By the end of the war, illness had seriously restricted Donat; but in the late 1930s he might have become a major international star, more masculine than Leslie Howard, more restrained than Olivier. He acted then with a sense of contained riches that is rare in English stage-trained actors. Donat had a great quality: that he could draw us further into himself by his very modesty.
Elocution lessons to conquer his stammer led Donat toward the stage and in his late teens he joined Sir Frank Benson’s company. By the early 1930s he was earning a name in London and in 1932 he made his screen debut for Korda in Men of Tomorrow (Leontine Sagan). Korda gave him a few more parts—That Night in London (32, Rowland V. Lee) and Cash (33, Zoltán Korda)—before he won special attention as Culpeper in The Private Life of Henry VIII (33, A. Korda). At this, Hollywood redoubled earlier efforts to hire him and Donat went to America to play The Count of Monte Cristo (34, Lee). Back in England, he was a very cool Richard Hannay in Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps (35), and in the dual role in The Ghost Goes West (36, Rene Clair). At this stage, there was a special romantic aura about Donat, enhanced by the diffident way he moved from one prestige project to another. He followed with a silly but amusing Russian revolution confrontation with Marlene Dietrich in Knight Without Armour (37, |acques Fevder), a good performance as the young doctor in The Citadel (38, King Vidor), and an Oscar in the prewar weepie, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (39, Sam Wood).
Rather than stay in America during the war, Donat returned to London to work on the stage and in 1942 made The Young Mr. Pitt (Carol Reed). Next year he was in The Adventures of Tartu (Harold S. Bucquet), and in 1945 he was with Deborah Kerr in Perfect Strangers (A. Korda). His career now was invaded by doubts and obstacles, and his asthma was a perpetual handicap. In 1947 he appeared briefly as Parnell in Captain Boycott (Frank Launder), and he fol¬lowed this with his last serious bout of film work: The Winslow Boy (48, Anthony Asquith); The Cure for Love (49, which he directed himself); as Friese-Greene in the Festiv al of Britain project. The Magic Box (51, John Boulting).
He was a harrowed man, his face drawn and the superb voice gruff. When, in 1955, he appeared in the play Murder in the Cathedral, oxygen cylinders were maintained off-stage. Only two more films were to come: Lease of Life (54, Charles Freud) and, in 1958, the mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (Mark Robson). That part is startlingly raw amid so much sentiment: a dying man as he acted, his presence seems to awe the rest of the film into respect.
Married Ella Annesley Voysey. Married second, Renee Asherson, 1952.