385. Robert Donat: Knight Without Armor & Peterson Pipeman (+ Last Call for IPSD Event!)

If you want to participate in the Pete Geek 2024 IPSD Event
and earn your CPG certificate or add the Merit Badge,
I need your photos and text by Monday, no later that 2:30pm CST.


The Pete Geek mugs are being shipped! Gigi & I have worked all week packaging and invoicing. If you’ve already paid—many thanks! If you haven’t, please take a moment to do so. Gigi says she’ll hold your mugs until this Wednesday, February 21st at 12 noon CST. At that time, she’ll release them to those who responded on the Second Chance form. While you’re waiting for your mugs, you ought to take a look at the artisanry that goes into Deneen, which is every bit as much a family craft business at Kapp & Peterson was from 1865-1972. Two of my favorite videos are this short one and this longer one (warning: metal heads, you’ll be wanting the mug you see in this video).

If you didn’t receive an invoice and ordered a mug or mugs,
please let me know at petegeek1896@gmail.com.


Robert Donat in a portrait promoting Knight Without Armor

As International Peterson {er, Pipe} Smoking Day is just two days away, I thought this morning it would be fun to stop and take a look at a famous international Peterson pipeman, the English actor and Classic Age film star Robert Donat (1905-58).

Our story begins in September of 2011 when Angela Fortune—“the voice of Peterson” as I used to call her—began helping myself and Gary Malmberg on the big Peterson book. Angela (now retired) was K&P’s Girl Friday when Tom Palmer was CEO and director of the company, doing everything from designing print catalogs to booking airfare and answering questions about Peterson pipes.  She took it upon herself to become our ally, delving into the Peterson Museum on her own initiative to send us scans of potentially useful items. Among them was a letter and a glossy 8 x 10 photo from Robert Donat. While these didn’t make it into the book, they’re certainly important for fans of Peterson and tell a delightful story. If you have a System 308, now’s the time to think about loading it up, because you’ll be wanting it shortly.

There are subtle but delightfully telling differences between the Eire-era 308 / 14 (pictured above)
and the Patent as well as Mark Twain iterations

The 308 (shape 14) Donat smokes had only recently changed its shape into the one Pete Geeks have sought for years. It differs from the Patent shape used for the POY 2022 (see Post # 297) the almost straight lines seen from mid-bowl up to the crown as well as the greater length of the back bowl to the shank than on the original Patent and its POY 2022 reproduction.

Donat was born Friedrich Robert Donat on March 18, 1905 in Withington, a suburb of Manchester in England. By age 16, he’d found his calling as an actor, working at first as a Shakespearian and then in repertory. Moving to London, he was noticed by MGM’s Irving Thalberg in a production of Precious Bane. He declined Thalberg’s offer, but was seen by director Alexander Korda of London Films (part of United Artists) and began his career in British movies.  One critic wrote that he had “an easy confident humour that has always been regarded as the perquisite of the American male star. For the first time on our screen we have the British equivalent of a Clark Gable or a Ronald Colman, playing in a purely national idiom,” as can readily be seen in one of his two outstanding films, Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935). Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is, of course, the other mandatory-viewing Donat film, for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor.

He disliked America, which in hindsight seriously limited his film career (making only 19 films). His other handicap was a paralyzing fear that sometimes catalyzed a psychosomatic attack of asthma. In fact, when Marlene Dietrich arrived in London to star in Knight Without Armor (1937)—with Donat her “co-star” (actually, it’s his film from start to finish)—her star celebrity in Britain so overwhelmed Donat that it landed him in a nursing home, threatening to scrap the production. Donat would later say, with penetrating self-awareness, “I never had any real security in my life until I found the false security of stardom.” The hugely entertaining, lavish and suspenseful Knight Without Armor was finally made after Donat’s two-month hospitalization, and that’s where Harry Kapp, CEO of Kapp & Peterson, steps into the story.

Harry Kapp with his new bride, Ireland’s famous singer Mabel Thrift (1946)

F. H. “Harry” Kapp was the son of Afred H. “Henry” Kapp and nephew in law of Charles Peterson. Henry Kapp died in 1934 and Harry was made Managing Director in 1937. He was 36 at the time, and like most folks was doubtless a regular movie goer. Imagine Harry’s surprise when he goes to see Knight Without Armor one evening and at about 6 ½ minutes in, Donat whips out a Peterson System 308 in the newsroom!

06.39 min.–Fothergill (Donat) working as a correspondent in Russia

Donat’s character A. J. Fothergill is an Englishman and Russophile in 1914, who is recruited as a British spy to infiltrate the revolutionary movement in Russia.  He succeeds, but only after spending two and a half years in a Siberian prison in the gulag with other Reds. With them, he comes face to face with Dietrich’s character, the Countess Alexandra Vladinov. She’s an aristocrat whose estate has just been seized and is about to be shot—or probably worse.

A production still from Knight Without Armor of Dietrich at her most alluring

Fothergill’s boss tells him to take the Countess to Petrograd for her trial and execution.  The plot, already full of firing squads and double-crossing revolutionary Russian slaughter only gathers speed as the two try desperately to escape against impossible odds.

25:30 min. –buying tobacco as a prisoner on the way to the Gulag

As I said a minute ago, Harry Kapp must’ve watched with amazement to see Donat flourish and smoke his Peterson 308 all throughout the picture. You can see Donat smoking his 308 around 06:30 into the film, followed by 21:30, 25:15, 44:30ff., 46:08 (the magnificent recitation of Browning’s “Fear Death”), and 90:30.

Kapp was so intrigued and delighted to see a Peterson System 308 on the screen that he went home and wrote to Donat, even going to the extent of asking for a photo of the actor.  We don’t’ have Harry’s letter, but Donat’s reply is one of the finest Peterson System testimonials we’ll ever read from an actor and pipe smoker:

The letter bears re-reading as it holds lots of interest for us. First, of course, because it offers a glimpse into the life of Kapp & Peterson at the cusp of the political change in Ireland from the Irish Free State to the country of Éire. Remember this is right at that moment when the English were bearing down on the Irish economy, causing K&P to establish a factory in London right at the time of Donat’s letter. K&P did this, you’ll recall, to avoid the enormous import duties the British government had enacted against Irish goods.

96:08 min.–waiting for the train that never comes

A second charming point is Donat’s boyhood memory of the Thinking Man sign hanging outside the tobacconist’s in his hometown of Manchester. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see that today? I think it also gives an insight into Donat’s personality that it was that memory—and that pipe—that the actor wanted for his role.  Had the Reds in the story been more savvy regarding briar pipes, they would doubtless have recognized the Peterson System and immediately suspected Donat was a British spy!

The film was taken from James Hilton’s 1933 novel, and in one of the finest moments of literary cinema, Donat recites a few lines from Robert Browning’s poem “Prospice.” I haven’t read the novel yet, but what makes the poem work so well is that it outlines the psychological drama of the film to the point that one suspects Hilton read Browning’s poem and was inspired to flesh out his story around it:

By Robert Browning

Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall,
Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes and forbore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute’s at end,
And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest!

92:32 min.–Dietrich and Donat on the train to Petrograd with their captor

If you find time to watch Knight Without Armor, there are two streaming possibilities in the US: YouTube (with commercials and a bit blurry) or in a better but by no means perfect print without commercials at the Criterion Channel. Don’t forget your 308 or another favorite System!


With many thanks to Kapp & Peterson
for permission to reproduce Donat’s letter and photo


Two years after filming Knight Without Armor, Donat was still smoking his 308,
as seen in this studio give away portrait dated 1939.

Continue Reading385. Robert Donat: Knight Without Armor & Peterson Pipeman (+ Last Call for IPSD Event!)