Charles Laughton did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Charles Staggers in Sidewalks of London.
The film is about two Londoners in specific one being a Liberty "Libby" (Vivien Leigh) a pickpocket, later performer, and Charles Staggers a London street performer. Charles Laughton's performance style, particularly for his era, was remarkable given his approach. Laughton was an earlier instance of an actor attempting a more chameleon style approach, though certainly distinctly Laughton as well. Laughton though was clearly never pigeonholed by a role playing an affable timid butler, a forceful yet emotional Javert, and a tyrannical Captain Blight all in the same year after all. This idea is again further explored here where he is playing a man of no great historical note, rather is just playing a man. A cockney busker who appears on the street with a grand, yet low class, recitation for a random crowd. Now aside his cockney accent, which is hardly Laughton's greatest affectation though it is easy enough to get use to as the film progresses, however he makes up for it with his physicality in his performance which delivers the man's background and really personal style so effectively.
Laughton's approach on the whole finds the whole of the street style just in the openness of his physical movement. Whether this is just the way he bends his head, or even rubbing his nose is naturally not of a lord. It goes further than that though to realize the style of the man who mostly eases his way through life, at least that is what appears on the surface. This is further emphasized by Laughton when as a busker he compares himself to none other than John Gielgud in his recitation ability. The actual moment of performance is a bit of brilliance by Laughton as it is a bit of atypical charisma as he makes Charles more than sufficiently entertaining in the moment however in a rather specific way. There is something so wonderfully unassuming about the performance as Laughton delivers with such gusto the monologue as a man who just finds just a joy in the performance itself. Within that unassuming quality though Laughton also very realizes the somewhat haphazard, even if frequently recited, act very much fitting to a man of his ilk, as the energy Laughton brings is not only endearing but also somewhat wild natural to a man essentially improvising, not so much the words, rather the action itself.
The film shifts towards its intent when the street smart Charles spots the pickpocket Libby prying her trade rather literally, and confronts her over the matter. It is as Libby pleads her case, mostly over the pains of existence, where Laughton grants a different side to Charles that is rather well put. Charles does not try to hide any facts yet bluntly returns the difficulty of life, and Laughton in his delivery of this is strictly without sentiment. Laughton in the moment doesn't reveal that the performance as the busker is wholly an act, but very much the surface to the much more earthly man within. Laughton is brilliant in this moment by shedding any false bravado in his blunt approach to the words, and in his face so effectively revealing a man who has had a difficult life. There is an inspiration though in this through the calm that Laughton exudes showing that while Charles is aware of life burdens he is prepared to face them. After this Libby and Charles live together ostensibly as co-dependents in their pursuits towards the theater. Laughton carefully though alludes to the truth, while allowing the miscommunication in a sense by delivering so well again that charisma though with a certain timidness within it. For example when mentioning his age there is such a cheerfulness in creating the conversation, however a definite vulnerability Laughton brings when reinforcing that Charles is 39, not forty.
There is a potential problem in the film that arises as Leigh and Laughton really don't have chemistry, evidently having a poor relationship while making the film, however in a way this doesn't wholly matter as Laughton portrays his side effectively as a difficult state of unrequited love. He portrays the interactions well with that friendly glee as Laughton presents Charles certainly trying to win her over, however without a clear revelation of affection for her beyond just friendship. This in turn naturally delivers the moment in which Charles does reveal his real love for her which Laughton presents so well as a moment of a particularly quiet and modest Charles. Laughton reveals the man just barely airing out the message being very much against his nature to do so, but so earnest in his delivery of that truth. She rejects him bluntly, and the film essentially fumbles around a bit as it follows her rise to stardom and Charles's fall into despair and jealousy. Now Laughton is again on point performance wise however the film never quite finds the right approach in terms of its focus within these scenes to illicit the power possible from at least the concept of the material. This in turn leaves Charles's switch, from a wreck to letting Libby go, rather rushed. Laughton at the very least delivers in each of these moments in first having the man almost wholly losing that joy, having just the faintest twinkle in his spirit, such as his slight performance while being arranged, that makes it all the more terrible of state. These moments are moving in parts due to Laughton, however never build to something wholly remarkable. When the moment comes of his choice Laughton again delivers in bringing back the old sprightly Charles, however it doesn't quite deliver the impact it should due to the shortcomings of the film. Even with that though this is another strong performance by Charles Laughton who amplifies the strengths of the film, and avoids the majority of its shortcomings with yet another unique characterization.