Relatively Speaking

George Arliss had one of the longest commutes to work in history. He routinely traveled from his home in London, crossed the Atlantic by ocean liner to New York, then trained across the American continent to Los Angeles. The entire trip in those pre-jet travel days took close to two weeks. Not surprisingly, such journeys themselves became social rituals and people wore their best clothes for travel, not including formal attire for events shipboard. Here Mr. A is on the S.S. Majestic leaving New York on May 29, 1931, bound for Southampton, England. He has just completed filming ALEXANDER HAMILTON at Warner Bros. in Hollywood:

Mr. A’s best known relative was his wife, actress Florence Arliss. She accompanied him on his theatrical tours, then on his trips to make films in Hollywood. They wintered in America and returned to Britain in the spring each year. Aboard the S.S. Mauretania in September 1922, Mr. and Mrs. A arrive in New York for the start of the new theatrical season:

Mr. A’s journeys were considered newsworthy and his progress was duly reported. The caption to this news photo states, “Arliss Passes Through Chicago,” and is dated June 18, 1930:

Celebrating the end of Prohibition with British actor Leslie Banks, the Arlisses visit the Vendome Cafe in Hollywood on November 7, 1933. The photo caption states, “Mr. Arliss is seldom photographed in the night spots of the film capital but Repeal brought him out.” Mrs. A appears less willing to be photographed:

Believe it or not, George Arliss had an OLDER brother, Charlie. Here Mr. A serves as best man at his brother’s wedding to Miss Violet Moutrie on July 11, 1938. They are standing outside the Hammersmith Register Office where the marriage took place. The photo caption states that Mr. A is 70, and the former Miss Moutrie is 50, but declines to reveal Charlie’s age:

Warner Bros. colleagues of Mr. A made news with their relatives too. Here Al Jolson and his movie star wife Ruby Keeler attend a testimonial dinner for Eddie Cantor at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on October 28, 1937. The kibitzer in the middle is Joe E. Brown:
A radio broadcast of the evening’s speakers exist but neither Keeler, Jolson nor Brown performed that night.

Here are Al Jolson’s parents, the Cantor and Mrs. Jolson, in an undated photo, circa the 1920s. Al was born in Lithuania but the family emigrated to Washington, D.C. where he grew up. Cantor Jolson lived to be 95 and was active almost to the end of his life. His son frequently told humorous stories about his father on radio during the 1930s. Once the Cantor declined to attend one of Jolson’s shows because he would miss an Amos ‘n’ Andy broadcast:

Another Warners colleague, Edward G. Robinson, celebrates his son Manny turning 6 years old on March 18, 1939, with a gala cowboy party with the children of many Hollywood notables as guests. Mrs. Robinson is the cowgirl:

Relatives of Mr. Robinson attend the New York premiere of one of his films on September 19,1933. Left to right, Mr. R’s mother, Mrs. Sarah Goldberg, his brother, Oscar Goldberg, and EGR’s wife. Eddie himself was in Hollywood working on another film:

It seems that every Warners star had a relative nearby. Here Rin-Tin-Tin, Warners “bread and butter” star of the 1920s, poses with his mate, Nanette. They co-starred in several films together and Rinty sometimes had to choose between rescuing the film’s heroine or Nanette. He tended to choose the heroine but Nanette did fine fending for herself:

A Successful Calamity (1932)

One of the more obscure films in the Arliss Canon, A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY is happily back in circulation from Warner Home Video as part of a three-disc dvd set, the George Arliss Signature Collection. Think of Mr. A in “Father Knows Best” and you’ll know what to expect. The film is based on a 1917 play written by Clare Kummer who specialized in feather-weight domestic comedies. The play gave a needed change of pace to William Gillette who had been playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage since 1899. Warner Bros. may have figured that if this play was good enough for “Sherlock Holmes,” it was good enough for “Disraeli.”

Mr. A plays international financier Henry Wilton who has just returned from a year abroad in the service of the President of the United States. Eager to return to his family, he arrives home a day ahead of schedule and finds only his butler, Connors, there to greet him. Wilton decides to visit his family members at their various appointments. His son Eddie (William Janney) is playing in a polo match:

Eddie is sidelined by his coach, Larry Rivers, played by Randolph Scott. The man in the derby is Grant Mitchell playing Connors:

Wilton’s daughter Peggy (Evalyn Knapp) is in love with Larry Rivers but engaged to a nerdish young man:

Emmie (Mary Astor) is Wilton’s wife by a second marriage. Earlier he observes that he was criticized by some for marrying a woman much younger than himself. He learns from Emmie that they are “patrons” of a handsome young pianist, Pietro, who is much closer in age to Emmie.

Wilton despairs of having a quiet evening at home with his family given their busy social lives. He wonders if the poor have the same problem, but Connors tells him no, because “the poor don’t get to go very often.” This gives Wilton an idea:

Wilton breaks the “news” to Emmie that they are “ruined” and must sell everything. She cancels her evening’s plans to stay home with him:

Wilton also informs Peggy and Eddie of their ruin and they likewise cancel their plans and find themselves enjoying a simple dinner with their dad and step-mother to plan their future:

Before Wilton can tell Emmie the next day that he is not ruined after all, he learns that she has packed up all her jewelry and left in a taxi with her protege Pietro. Fearing the worst, Wilton tells Larry, Peggy and Eddie that Emmie left because she was afraid to be poor:

But Emmie has not left him, she only sold her jewelry to raise money and Pietro came along because he knows a good pawnbroker. Wilton’s family reflects on their brush with poverty by wondering why they were happier spending time at home. Wilton explains they were happy because “the poor don’t get to go very often.” The End.

Warners granted Mr. A a rare concession that was not even mentioned in his contract – the studio paid the cast (but not Mr. A) an extra two weeks salary so they could rehearse prior to any filming. The script for A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY was then performed as play from beginning to end before an audience of studio workers including the director. The script was revised based on audience reaction and only when the script was finalized would filming begin.

Yet refinements to the script continued even during filming. The story is simple enough but was filled with dangerous shoals for its characters. For example, Peggy and Eddie could easily have been played as spoiled brats but instead come across as likeable (but spoiled) youth. The same can be said of Emmie although Mary Astor brings an inherent intelligence to her character. Wilton’s claim of being ruined seems like a nasty trick and in the script he admits to his family that it was a cruel joke:

In the film Wilton never tells them it was a hoax and indeed it seems that they are better off not knowing. The hoax serves as a reality check making Eddie and Peggy realize that they have to support themselves instead of living off Dad. The viewer is left with the impression that they are better people thanks to the “cruel joke.” Thus, the ending dialogue was changed from the final script and the story is more effective as a result:

A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY satirizes modern “futuristic” music and art deco design but is most surprising in its focus on the travails of the wealthy during the height of the Great Depression in 1932. Perhaps the public enjoyed being voyeurs among the rich while forgetting their more basic problems. In any event, the film was profitable for Warner Bros., as were all of the Arliss films, with gross revenue of $642,000 and netting a profit of $127,000, or 25 percent over costs. Not bad for a story as light as pixie dust.

The Doctor is In – Dr. Syn!

George Arliss as action hero? Not likely but Mr. A comes close with DR. SYN (1937), a corking good pirate yarn based on a popular novel by Russell Thorndyke. The novel is a thematic blend of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sigmund Freud that was so successful Thorndyke wrote several sequels. The novels still have quite a following in the UK. The story is set in Dymchurch, a seaside village in Kent, England, in the year 1800.

Mr. A plays the saintly vicar, Dr. Syn, who looks kindly on the blossoming romance between the orphan Imogene, played by Margaret Lockwood, and Denis Crabtree, son of the village squire, played by John Loder:

Dymchurch is plagued by nighttime apparitions of ghost riders on the nearby Romney Marsh but the main business of the villagers is a little fuzzy. Turns out the leading occupation is smuggling to avoid the exorbitant excise taxes imposed by the King. The ringleader is known only as “The Scarecrow.”

Dr. Syn becomes alarmed for his parishioners when a contingent of the King’s revenue patrol arrives at Dymchurch to investigate smuggling activities. Captain Collyer suspects that the nightly ghost riders are a cover for the smugglers and that Dr. Syn knows a lot more than he cares to tell:

Collyer learns that a number of the villagers were the crew of the notorious pirate, Captain Clegg, who was hanged twenty years earlier and lies buried in the churchyard cemetery – or does he? Dr. Syn alerts the sexton to spread the alarm:

Dymchurch schoolmaster Mr. Rash has designs on Imogene and tries to blackmail her with threats to reveal that she is the daughter of Captain Clegg:

As Capt. Collyer begins to close in, Dr. Syn realizes that he must take action to protect the village. Of course, not only is he “The Scarecrow,” he is Captain Clegg….

…and Imogene is his daughter. Mr. Rash must be silenced:

The discovery of Mr. Rash’s corpse results in the convening of an inquest where Capt. Collyer cross-examines Dr. Syn and forces him to admit his true identity. Before he can be arrested, the villagers intervene to foil Collyer’s men:

With Collyer’s men in hot pursuit, Dr. Syn stops by the church long enough to marry Denis and Imogene, then rejoins his old crew on their old ship, which was kept ready and hidden in a nearby cove, where they sail away for further adventures.

DR. SYN is technically George Arliss’ final film, but we at the Arliss Archives prefer to regard it as Mr. A’s most recent film. On the set, Alan Whittaker is Mr. A’s stand-in, Maude Howell serves as associate director, and Mr. A is in his 70th year:

Queen Mary attended the film’s London premiere, and the New York Times gave DR. SYN an enthusiastic review stating that it was better than MGM’s TREASURE ISLAND (1934). The film is widely considered the best of Mr. A’s five British films and is available on home video in an acceptable (but not restored) dvd edition through various outlets including Amazon.

Broadcasting to Millions

By the mid-1920s, the rising popularity of radio was cutting into movie theater attendance. While some film producers could only complain about it, the Warner Brothers acquired their own radio station, KFWB Los Angeles, and erected twin broadcasting towers to give it a powerful signal. Among other things, Warner film stars were expected to appear to build up public interest in their films. Young stars with limited stage experience were terrified to be performing “live” with millions of people listening. But veterans of the stage such as George Arliss who had performed “live” their entire careers were not intimidated by broadcasting.

Mr. A broadcasts his opposition to movie censorship in Medford, Massachusetts on April 3, 1922. Newspapers stated that this broadcast was heard “as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as the Carolinas.” That’s Maude Howell listening in on the headphones:
Arliss said, “The influences of the films were better for the young than the average methods of learning; that the conscience of boy or girl is a far better judge of right or wrong in the movies than the application of the censorship rod.”

George Arliss was President of the Episcopal Actors Guild of America from 1921 to 1938. Here he broadcasts a fundraising appeal on behalf of the unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine, over station WJZ in New York:

Station KWK in St. Louis, MO, was part of a national syndicated network on June 23, 1931, to broadcast another defense of Hollywood by Mr. A. The subject this time was the bad behavior of certain actors and actresses – some things never change:

Fellow Warners star John Barrymore said he “didn’t think much of this radio thing” when he first participated in a broadcast in 1928 over station KFI in Los Angeles:

By 1941, the Great Profile derived most of his income from radio, here with his brother Lionel on the right:

Warner colleague Al Jolson’s ebullient personality transmitted well and he starred in his own weekly show from 1932 on. Here he is rehearsing for an April 1935 Shell Chateau broadcast where his guests were Amelia Earhart and Babe Ruth:

Radio permitted another of Mr. A’s Warners colleagues, Edward G. Robinson, to tackle something he couldn’t do in movies – Shakespeare. Here he rehearses his role of Petruchio for an August 2, 1937 broadcast of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW:
Mr. Robinson was such a hit that by the Fall 1937 he began starring in his own weekly series, a newspaper drama, THE BIG TOWN, for the next six years.

At the age of 70, Mr. A made his dramatic broadcast debut on the Lux Radio Theater, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, on January 17, 1938 in DISRAELI. He returned on March 21, 1938, in THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD, and again on January 23, 1939, in CARDINAL RICHELIEU:
It was conservatively estimated that 30 million people heard each of Mr. A’s Lux broadcasts.

Greta Garbo was the only major film star never to perform on radio. Even Rin-Tin-Tin had his own weekly show in 1931:

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