I doubt that there is another dramatic work, excepting Shakespeare’s plays, that has been translated into so many different mediums in the performing arts as DISRAELI. First debuting as a play in 1911, it was turned into that most peculiar relative of the spoken stage – a silent film, in 1921. At the end of that decade this vehicle was reinvented as an Academy Award-winning “talking picture.” Nearly a decade later, the play-cum-silent film-cum-talkie was turned into an hour-long radio broadcast heard around the world via the CBS network and shortwave in 1938. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of DISRAELI is that ALL of its various incarnations starred the same actor – George Arliss.
The play was written specifically for Mr. A by the then-famous playwright Louis N. (for Napoleon) Parker. There was one problem – Parker had never seen Arliss perform on the stage. Then Parker quit saying that a play about Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister of the 1870s, couldn’t be written. Mr. A convinced Parker it could be written and explained how. Parker completed his play due largely to its star’s role as midwife.
The final scene where Disraeli receives a telegram he fears will tell him of his wife’s death: Mr. A with Marguerite St. John, the first actress to play Lady Beaconsfield (Mrs. Disraeli) on the stage.
Mr. A starred in DISRAELI for five consecutive years, from 1911 to 1915, then revived it thereafter. Here is the cast for a 1917 revival – note that Florence Arliss plays Lady Beaconsfield. Also, note that the ingenue role of Lady Clarissa is played by the talented, ill-fated Jeanne Eagels:
A rare glass slide advertising the silent film in theaters:
Margaret Dale plays the spy, Mrs. Travers. Dale had played the role continuously since 1911 and never missed a performance, not even in this film version.
Back to the movie:
Joan Bennett at the beginning of her very successful career. When I showed DISRAELI in college in 1970, I had the idea to write a thesis and wrote to Ms. Bennett to ask what Mr. A was like to work with. Here is her reply:
Now about that bad check for the Suez Canal: Congress didn’t invent “stop gap spending.” Here the Prime Minister threatens to ruin the Bank of England if its president, stuffy Lord Probert (David Torrence), doesn’t cover the check:
Probert signs to save the Bank but is dismayed that Disraeli has such power.
On January 17, 1938, George Arliss made his dramatic radio debut on the CBS network with DISRAELI. This live broadcast on the Lux Radio Theater was heard all over the world and brought to the microphone much of the cast of the 1929 film version including Florence Arliss, Ivan Simpson, Doris Lloyd, and David Torrence. Mr. A was nearly 70 years old and noted that more people heard this one broadcast than all the audiences combined from his years performing in the play, the silent film, and the talkie:
Here’s the photo’s original press caption:
Want to hear this broadcast? It’s terrific and available from a number of online “old time radio” vendors on CD and mp3. You might even find a site that streams it.