James 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. 

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!
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.

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.
James 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), a 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 that effect."

old Jim plays an idealistic doctor but his idealism is simply a matter of dogged loyalty.
His 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.
No 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).
He 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.
Roney 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