Childhood & Early Life
Robert Donat was born on 18 March 1905 to Ernst Emil Donat, who was a civil engineer and Rose Alice (née Green) at Withington, Manchester. He was the youngest child of his parent’s four children.
Donat was educated at the Central High School for Boys, now known as Manchester Academy. During this time, he developed serious speech impairment and to cure it he was put under reputed elocutionist James Bernard at the age of eleven.
While providing speech therapy Bernard was quick to recognize his latent acting talent and took him in his hand. He not only cured his stammering, but also helped him get rid of his Lancashire accents.
After leaving school at fifteen Donat began to work as Bernard’s secretary. This enabled him to continue his training. At the same time, he also began to take part in several dramatic recitals.
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In 1921, sixteen year old Donat joined Henry Baynton’s company and began his acting career with the role of Lucius in ‘Julius Caesar’. Later he played the role of Fleance in ‘Macbeth’; Balthasar in ‘Romeo and Juliet’; Robin in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ and Black Page in ‘The School for Scandal’.
In 1924, he shifted to Sir Frank Benson’s Shakespearean company with the role of Lord in ‘As You Like It’. Here he kept on sharpening his skills and slowly started getting major roles. Some time now, he also got associated with Liverpool Repertory Theater and began to work for both.
From early 1930s, along with acting on stage, Donat began to appear for film auditions without much success. In 1932, he got a chance to play Gideon Sarn in‘Precious Bane’. The play brought him long awaited recognition.
He then continued stage shows and received great acclaim, especially in that year’s Malvern Festival.This was also the year, when he was asked to appear for an audition by Alexander Korda, one of the leading film producers and directors of England.
The script required Donat to laugh. Although his performance was not up to the mark Korda could see his acting talent in his laughter. He immediately put Donat under contract for three years. Thus in 1932, Donat made his film debut in Korda’s ‘Men of Tomorrow’.
However, it was his fourth film, ‘The Private Life of Henry VII’, that brought him the actual recognition. In this film he played the character of Thomas Culpeper, who was later beheaded for having intimacy with Henry’s fifth wife Catherine.
In 1934, Donat was loaned to American film producer Edward Small for his adventure film, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. The film, made in Hollywood, was based on Alexander Duma’s novel of the same name and Donat played the lead role of Edmond Dantes, The Count of Monte Cristo.
The film was a huge success. Donat was next approached by Warner Brothers to take the lead role in ‘Captain Blood’. But he preferred to return to England and in 1935, began shooting for Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’. It became so popular that Donat was immediately elevated to stardom.
Hitchcock next tried to get Donat for his next film, ‘Sabotage’; but Korda refused to release him. Instead, he starred in Korda’s romantic comedy cum fantasy film, ‘The Ghost Who Goes West’. The film released in 1936 and became the year’s biggest grossing movie in Great Britain.
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Also in 1936, Donat took over the management of the Queen's Theatre, located in the city of Westminster. Here he produced Red Night, written by war correspondence J. L. Hodson.
Next in 1937, Donat starred in ‘Knight Without Armour’ with the eminent German-American actress Marlene Dietrich. Just before the shooting, Donat had to be hospitalized due an acute attack of asthma and Korda decided to replace him, but changed his mind when Dietrich threatened to leave. Unfortunately, the film did not do well at the box office.
In 1938, Donat signed a contract with MGM British for £150,000. ‘The Citadel’, produced in the same year, was the first of the six film he promised to make with them. In this film, he played Andrew Manson, a newly qualified Scottish Doctor. He received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for this role.
However, he won the Best Actor Oscar Award for his role in his next film, ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’. Released in 1939, thefilm won seven Oscars nomination, ultimately winning only the Best Actor Award.
Very soon, Donat began to have problems with MGM over his stage performances, which was his first love. The company tried to limit his stage attendance, which caused great friction. However, in 1942, they released him to star in ‘The Young Mr. Pitt’ produced by 20th Century Fox.
By the end of the war he managed to secure his release from the contact with MGM. ‘The Adventures of Tartu’ (1943) and ‘Perfect Strangers’ (1945) were the last two films he did under their banner.
As he was a chronic asthma patient, he could appear in only a limited number of movies. His six postwar movies were ‘Captain Boycott’ (1947), The Winslow Boy (1948), The Cure for Love (1950), The Magic Box (1951), 'Lease of Life' (1954) and 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' (1958).
Concurrently, he also appeared on stage in plays like ‘The Glass Slipper’ (1944), ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ (1945), ‘The Man Behind the Statue’ (1945), ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ (1953). In addition, he also made private recordings of poems, which became very popular.
Robert Donat is best remembered for his role in ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’. In this film, he played the part of an old school master, Charles Edward Chipping. The film shows Chipping entering a boys’ boarding school as a master at the age of 25 and now at 83, he is shown recalling his life in flashback.
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During the course of the film, Robert was required to age from 25 to 83 and this he tackled beautifully. According to MGM records, the film earned $1,717,000 in the US and Canada and $1,535,000 elsewhere ensuing a profit of $1,305,000.
Awards & Achievements
In 1940, Donat won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’ against stiff completion from 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’.
His role in ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’ also won the third place in the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
He was posthumously honored with Special Citation from National Board of Review, USA for his role in the 1958 film 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness'.
He had also won a number of nominations for his roles in films like ‘Citadel’ (Academy Awards), 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness' (The Golden Globe Award), ‘Lease of Life’ (BAFTA Awards).
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1929, Donat married Ella Annesley Voysey, a young actress he had met while working at Liverpool Repertory Theater. The couple had two sons, Brian and John and a daughter, Joanna. The couple divorced in 1946.
In 1953, Donat married actress Renée Asherson. The couple did not have any children. Though they remained married till his death in 1958, they lived separately.
Donat suffered from acute asthma, which made him very weak. Later he was also diagnosed with a brain tumour, as big as a duck egg. He died on 9 June, 1958 of cerebral thrombosis. His left his entire estate to his three children.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for motion pictures at 6420 Hollywood Blvd. In England, his place of birth in Withington and his later residence at Hampstead Garden have been commemorated by blue plaques.