JAMES MASON: The Star with the Velvet Voice

James Mason

New to me, live online talks via webinars. ( I had to look up the meaning of ‘webinar’ – coined in the 1990s , a blend of web and seminar.)

I enjoyed one recently given by Adrian Garvey, a James Mason expert and organised by Nicky Smith of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea library.

James Mason (1909-1984) was the star with impeccable diction who conquered British and Hollywood films.

In the 1930s ,James had two careers -on stage and film. He did repertory at London’s Old Vic theatre, led by Charles Laughton, and appeared in ‘Quota Quickies’ from 1935 ( those films made to get more British films on British screens.)


In 1939, James costarred in the small independent film, I MET A MURDERER . His  costar Pamela Kellino whom he married in 1941. Mason played a farmer who murders his wife.

Interestingly, the film was co-written by Mason, Pamela Kellino and her then husband Roy Kellino who produced and directed it.


During the Second World War, James had deferred status due to essential civilian employment (the film industry). He could have had a lot of trouble in his career if this hadn’t happened , as he registered as a conscientious objector.

Stardom came with THE MAN IN GREY (1943) and FANNY BY GASLIGHT (1944).  He became known as ‘the man they loved to hate!’ in the Gainsborough costume melodramas.

In 1946 he was voted Britain’s  Most Popular Star by the readers of the Daily Mail.


With Margaret Lockwood. THE WICKED LADY.

Audiences loved his ‘ crushed velvet’ voice and found him charismatic and dangerous!

Director Michael Powell described Mason’s voice:

“It was cultured, tender and masculine, and irresistible  to women!”

James was cast for Powell’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING but fell out with Powell. (Roger Livesey took over.)


One of his last films before Hollywood was the highly regarded ODD MAN OUT(1947), with fine direction by Carol Reed and James as a dying Irish fugitive on the run from the police in Belfast.


Walter  Winchell described Mason in THE SEVENTH VEIL(1945)  as ……..”Humphrey Bogart with an Oxonian accent.”

(Mason didn’t go to Oxford, but he did graduate from Cambridge – he had studied architecture but preferred dramatics.)

With The Seventh Veil, Mason became more vulnerable and romantic – though not when he brings his cane down on Ann Todd’s fingers at the piano!

The film was a huge success in both Britain and America.

James commented on his move to Hollywood. He was fed up with his villainess image:

“I see precious little glamour in British films…..I wanted to see what it would be like in the U.S……..I wanted to be an international star because I thought it would give me the power to produce my own films.”

He did not want a long term contract, And in 1947, James signed with producer David Rose but was unable to work in Hollywood for over a year due to a dispute with Rose. (He and his wife Pamela worked on stage in New York for a year.)

His first Hollywood film was CAUGHT (1949)  with Robert Ryan and Barbara Bel Geddes . Although James got top billing, Robert Ryan, as a Howard Hughes type, had the more powerful role,  but it gave James the opportunity to play a more sympathetic part as a doctor.

An IMDB note says James could have played the main role but wanted to change his image.



Robert Ryan, Barbara Bel Geddes, James Mason


James Mason, Max Ophuls, Barbara Bel Geddes

Max Ophuls also directed the next Mason film, THE RECKLESS MOMENT with Joan Bennett.


One of my favourite Mason films, EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, as a man torn between Barbara Stanwyck and Ava Gardner.



Mason did not attempt a German accent when he played Field Marshall Rommel of the Afrika Corps in THE DESERT FOX (1951). The portrayal of Rommel as a military man who was to be admired for his expertise was not well received in some quarters, being so soon after the war.

In 1953, Twentieth Century Fox persuaded Mason to play Rommel again in THE DESERT RATS, but as a cameo and with a plot showing the war in North Africa from the British point of view, and with a less sympathetic view of Rommel.

“The Desert Rats”may have been a counterpoint to “The Desert Fox”, but it wasn’t nearly as good.



James made a fine ‘Brutus’ in the all star JULIUS CAESAR, his voice perfect for Shakepeare’s words.


James reprised Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s role of Rupert of Hentzau in THE PRISONER OF ZENDA. It seemed a strange choice for him, duelling with Stewart Granger, and I preferred the portrayal by Fairbanks in the 1930s version.


FIVE FINGERS (1952) gave him  another memorable role as the valet turned spy, with the wonderful name of ‘Ulysses Diello’.  Set in neutral Turkey during World War ll, he plays a valet to the British Ambassador who sells information to the Germans about the Allied war plans.
A great thriller from Joseph Mankiewicz.


With Judy Garland. A STAR IS BORN.

I could only wish that both Judy and James has won Oscars for “A Star is Born”.
Mason’s ‘Norman Maine’ is so raw,intense and emotionally charged, surely one  of his finest performances .

He was very fond of Judy Garland and spoke the eulogy at her funeral.

A visual sign that Vicki Lester is overtaking  Norman Maine in star ratings.


James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Judy Garland. A STAR IS BORN.




Pat Boone,  Peter Ronson, James Mason, Arlene Dahl.

Another of my favourites, JOURNEY TO THE  THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, with James as an Edinburgh professor who leads an expedition to the earth’s core. With a memorable Bernard Herrmann soundtrack and fantastic visual effects.


Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason. NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

James was a perfect foil for Cary Grant, as the urbane villain, Philip Vandamm in the Hitchcock thriller. Mason said he got on well with Hitchcock and Grant, but felt tightly controlled by the director.

I can still hear his voice when he says to Cary Grant, “With such play acting, you make  this very room a theater.”

In the 1960s, James eased into character roles, with his last starring role in LOLITA ( 1962). His last film was THE SHOOTING PARTY in 1984, shortly before his death.

130 films over 50 years. When  asked in an interview, “Is there anything you would have done differently?”, his reply, after some hesitation, was ,”Not much!”


A 1946 first place for James in a pole for Motion Picture Herald.


James was married to Pamela Kellino from 1941 to 1964 and they had two children,Morgan and Portland.
His second marriage in 1971 was to Clarissa Kaye Mason .



I found  this lovely portrait online by an artist called N. Shaddrion. Possibly from “Odd Man Out”.

How best to describe James Mason – Grace, elegance, charm, with a hint of menace!




11 responses »

  1. Nice overview of Mason’s career. But you really ought to have mentioned Bigger Than Life, one of his best roles and one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in the 1950s.

    • Sorry, I should have mentioned the Nicholas Ray film with Mason as a Jekyll & Hyde character because of drug abuse. It’s a hard one to watch.

      • Yes, it’s remarkably intense, very raw and very passionate. But a helluva movie.

  2. A wonderful tribute to a great actor. A lady called Karen McCreedy used to run James Appreciation Society and produced a regular magazine called Late Extra (The title of an early film he made). The society is sadly no more as Karen moved on to other interests. Another film of his that I love is A Touch Of Larceny with Vera Miles, an untypical lighter role for him.

  3. Interesting and enjoyable post! I just saw him in EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, where his facility with morally bankrupt and/or ambiguous characters was employed to great effect. I hated his character, and he seemed to put no effort at all into it.

  4. The sign of a good actor -no obvious effort! I love the scene where Gale Sondergaard tells him what she really thinks of him!

  5. James Mason was an amazing actor with great screen presence. I love The Seventh Veil. His first scene in that chair and those sarcastic lines he delivers are something else!

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