The first time I ever saw Claude Rains must have been in his final movie, George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). It's one of my grandmother's all-time favorite movies, and she insisted on watching it every year at Easter. That film has more cameos than The Muppet Movie, but as a child I didn't recognize very many of them. (Exceptions: John Wayne because everyone knows John Wayne, Angela Lansbury and Charlton Heston also thanks to my grandma, and Telly Savalas because of, well, The Muppet Movie.)
I certainly didn't know Claude Rains, but his King Herod left a huge impression on me. He appears at the very beginning of the movie, and his bizarre, fey intensity was like nothing I'd ever seen. In church I'd been taught that King Herod hated Jesus, but Rains seems more like he welcomes the challenge. He plays the role with a constant half-smile plastered on his face, as though he's excited that there's some baby out there will someday stand up to him - after all these years, he has an upstart to destroy, and he can't even wait to do it.
What I didn't realize at the time was that Herod was essentially a reprise of a character Rains had played twenty-seven years earlier in a much better film - Prince John in William Keighley and Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood. Like Herod, John is a petulant little man who craves power. He sees hero as a threat to his power and decides to devote all of his resources to killing that hero. And Rains plays them in a very similar manner.
In all of classic film, Prince John is the closest thing we have to the more recent tradition of Classy Actors Slumming It In Comic Book Movies. I don't mean that as insult; quite the opposite. It's not necessarily Rains's best work - and it sure isn't very subtle - but he seems to be having the time of his life.
And Rains is tremendous fun for the viewer as well. Prince John doesn't actually do very much in the movie. Mostly he just instructs his minions to do things for him. But the way Rains plays him, that never gets old for him. He's on a constant, delighted power trip, and every order is like his first.
Throughout the film, Rains displays Prince John's joy in a number of sublime moments - grinning haughtily at the archery contest, eagerly ordering his men to bring Robin Hood something to eat when Robin invades the throne, gleefully telling the arrested Robin Hood that Sir Guy's treatment of him will be "Something special, I'm sure!"
Perhaps my favorite moment of his occurs about fifteen minutes into the movie, when he explains that he's seized regency power away from his brother's appointed steward, a fellow named Longchamps. "I've kicked Longchamps out!," he exclaims. Rains's voice jumps up about a half-octave on the verb 'kicked' - Prince John's been living in his brother's shadow all of his life, and now that he's finally in power he can barely contain his excitement.
Claude Rains had tremendous range - befuddled father Adam Lemp in Four Daughters couldn't be farther removed from the unsettling Dr. Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man - but many of his best roles were charming, cultured rogues. That's true of Louis Renault in Casablanca, it's true of Alex Sebastian in Notorious, and it's certainly true of Prince John in his own mind. He isn't charming at all, of course, but you can always tell that he so badly wants to be.