Donald was the fourth son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister, whose
eloquent sermons and fine delivery made a strong impression on all who
heard them. His mother died when he was 18 months old and his stepmother
became a powerful influence. A sickly childhood in Galashiels was
followed by schooling at Rossall and a brief stint at McGill University,
in Montreal. The asthma that dogged most of his life necessitated his
return to Scotland and a transfer to Edinburgh University.
James Donald thought he wanted to
study English Literature and become a teacher or lecture later on. But
one night he went to see Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Dame Edith Evans in
"The Late Christopher Bean". He was so impressed by their performance
that he decided to become an actor. That was the beginning of lots of
hard work of another kind. Regular attendance at Edinburgh theatres to
study technique and at a school of acting and voice production. He
eagerly accept any walking-on and small parts that came his way. "The
first time I opened my mouth on the stage was to spit," Donald said "I
was a French revolutionary in The Scarlet Pimpernel". He had discovered
his vocation. But times were bad, his employers, apparently, didn`t
think much of his ability and at eighteen, an actor of three months
standing, he lost his job. Undaunted, he came to London, timorously
attacked theatrical agents. Without success. As a last desperate
experiment he obtained an audition at the London Theatre Studio, recited
a little Hamlet- and won a scholarship. For two years he apprenticed
himself to his profession. This over he obtained a small part at the
Phoenix Theatre but the "big chance" eluded him.
War broke out- he was found to be medically unfit- and repertory and E.N.S.A. kept him busy.
The first screen role of the stage actor (he was stage actor before anything else) was the role of the ship`s doctor in In Which We Servce.
He was one of three actors whom Michael Powell tested, and asked David
O. Selznick to choose between, for the role of the minister who marries
Jennifer Jones in Gone to Earth (1950). In Powells view: "It was James`s
intelligence that lost him the part." In the spring of 1943 MGM gave
Jimmy a contract and he was cast as Evan Lloyd for The Way Ahead (1944).The
project is to show army conscripts of varied background and
temperaments shaking down in to an efficient unit. The Way Ahead has a
variety of moaners, played by efficient character actors such as Stanley
Holloway, John Laurie and Raymond Huntley but they are one-dimensional
compared with Donald. Part of the freshness of this character cames from
the fact that Donald`s is, in contrast to Huntley and Company an
unfamiliar face and young.
In 1943 an unknown actor had an
wild success as the playwright Roland Maule in Noel Cowards Present
Laughter. The new face was James Donald. Noel Coward liked the work of
the good-looking and sensitive young scottish actor and he was cast as
Billy Mitchell, the sailor son, in This Happy Breed. The next night on
his first entrance in This Happy Breed, he was applauded which must be a
unique incident in Theatre history!
After "The Way Ahead" the army,
however, now decided that he was fit enough to be called up. He became
an R.A.S.C. typist- "because I could type". He applied to join the
Intelligence Corps, but the end of the war put a stop to that.
Jimmy`s huge success in the role of
Roland Maule, one of the high points of wartime theatre in London, kept
his memory alive during the next three years while he was in the Army.
The energetic and exciting role of the assassin in Jean Cocteau's The
Eagle Has Two Heads, followed in 1947; the performance was memorable for
a backward fall down a flight of steps. The fact that Donald could
perform the fall, night after night, without a bruise was a mark of his
remarkable stage technique.
was a handsome and sufficiently skilled actor for British cinema to
want to go on using him, and it would do so in a variety of ways. He had
his brief period of stardom in Britain in the late 1940s and the early
1950s billed first or second and getting or keeping the girl in several
features. He played the playboy Lord Digby Landon in "Trottie True"
(1949), with it is a Cinderella Plot of a young girl who marries
her Prince Charming, and the co-pilot Bill Haverton in Broken Journey (1948),
Battle of Britain pilot who has a romance with the hostess (Phyllis
Calvert). He brought to the part all that quite sincerity and
thoughtfulness which had been at the heart of all his
performances. These qualities may accounted for his ambitions: to direct
films and write a really good play!
Two other main roles of this period was the part of Bill Harper in Brandy for the Parson
(1952) and Dr. Alan Kearn in Cage of Gold (1950). In Brandy for the
Parson he is a romantic lead who works in the city, messes about
in boats and drifts passively into some mild smuggling. Alfred
Shaughnessy, the producer of the film, wanted Audrey Hepburn for the
Part of Petronilla Brand (Bill`s wife) but she decided to made an other
film. Alfred Shaughnessy said: "When we`d started the picture I had a
postcard from her from Monte Carlo saying how sad she was not to be with
us "especially as I hear you`ve got the lovely James Donald or words to
old Jim plays an idealistic doctor but his idealism is simply a matter of dogged loyalty.
most fullfilling parts was in White Corridors (1951) and The Net
(1953), two almost forgotten films in the early 50s. In White Corridors
he is again a doctor, Neil Marriner; but in addition to hospital duties
he runs a medical research project. White Corridors, directed by
ex-documentarist Pat Jackson, is the last great product of the
celebrated 1940s "marriage" between documentary and ficiton. The
director of White Corridors found James Donald cold. "I had to take him
to 17 takes in the lab scene with Googie Withers. "What`s the matter?"
he kept asking me. "You`re supposed to be in love with the woman. Until
you show a little warmth I`ll shall go on retaking". 17th take showed a
suspicion of affection." In The Net (1953) he is a research Professor,
Michael Heathley, who has developed a supersonic plane.
Is a much more conventional melodram.
actor in British cinema has expressed this visionary quality as
believably, strongly and sanely as James does in these two roles - in
one film quietly in the other more articuletly and combatively.
As the unvisionary 50s wore on,
British cinema ceased to offer such roles, and Donald was taken over by a
set of male stars has characterised the noun chap. James was never a chap. He goes back into the theatre and into secondary film roles. In Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) he played Major Safir, who approached Colonel Marcus (Kirk Douglas) to help the Jews in their desperate struggle and he was the Senior British Officer in The Great Escape (1963), based on a true story.Jim is known for his role in another Lean Film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
gets the last words of the film, spoken in close-up and everyone
remembers them. Kwai and it`s ending along with his self effacting
performance as Theo van Gogh the previous year, the nearest approach
James Donald made to international stardom.
In 1967 cames the only film other "Brandy for the Parson" in which he gets top billing: Quatermass and the Pit.
He does not play Professor Quatermass but a Dr. Roney, who runs a
scientific research institute and is called in when exavations in London
encounter a mysteroius obstacle.
is visionary, bold and transgressive, ready from the start to challenge
the establishement instinct for unimaginative reassurance. It`s a
peculiarly satisfing reprise, translated into the excessive terms of the
horror films, of his major parts in the naturalist dramas of the early
1950s: testing his own serum in "White Corridors", flying his own
experimental plane in "The Net". In his last significant film part,
James Donald, by his intelligence and his boldness, saves the world.
text: British Stars and Stardom, Broken Journey - Book to the film, times