George Arliss – One for the Teenagers by Clive Beautyman

George Arliss – One for the Teenagers

In his one-man show at the Royal Festival Hall in 1966 Tony Hancock performs a stand-up routine which has changed little since the 1950s. In one section he does some impressions: Robert Newton as Long John Silver (from the 1950 film), Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). “Now then – here’s a cracker – one for the teenagers – George Arliss” says Hancock. He purses his lips and forms a monocle with thumb and forefinger. The audience laugh but Hancock looks puzzled, “What do you mean never heard of him ? He’s only been dead forty years !”


Asked to name British actors who had won an Oscar George Arliss (1868-1946) would feature in few replies and yet he was the very first British Oscar winner as well as the earliest-born actor ever to win the award. Already a star of the Broadway stage in the 1910s he became one of the few actors to successfully transition from silent films in the 1920s to talkies in the 1930s. This year marks the centenary of his first film “The Devil” (1921). As a Hollywood producer at Warner Brothers he is credited with discovering and promoting such talent as Bette Davis, James Cagney, Randolph Scott and Dick Powell. He deserves to be remembered.


Augustus George Andrews was born in London the third son of a printer and publisher. Fascinated by stories of the theatrical life by 18 he was playing small parts in melodramas at the Elephant and Castle Theatre. After a decade of provincial touring he returned to London and joined Mrs Patrick Campbell’s company. She took the troupe to America in 1901 and Arliss was an immediate hit on Broadway playing opposite her in Pinero’s “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray”. Despite planning only a six month stay in America he was largely based there for the rest of his working life whilst also maintaining homes in England.


At the height of his Broadway fame in 1911 Louis Parker wrote a play on the life of Disraeli specifically for him. It proved a gold mine – he played it for five years on stage, made a silent film of it in 1921 and a sound film in 1929. It was this latter film which brought him his Best Actor Oscar. Playing opposite him was his wife Florence who he had married in 1899.


In 1912 Arliss spent six months in Boston with “Disraeli” where he was befriended by the local socialite and arts patron Isabella Stewart Gardner (then 72). In his autobiography he later gave his light-hearted views in praise of Bostonian older women: “When you are there should you be seeking companionship – female companionship – don’t go to the dance halls amongst the flappers, but pick out some lady, – almost any lady, over seventy, and if she takes to you, you will have the time of your life. But don’t be put off by some immature substitute in the fifties or sixties; be sure that she has reached the allotted span of life. At seventy the Boston lady says to herself, ‘I have done my duty as a wife and mother … now I am going to have a good time.’ But before you attach yourself to the lady, you must be sure that you are in good physical condition; you will need all your strength”.


In 1917 he appeared as the American founding father Alexander Hamilton in the self-penned play “Hamilton”, a somewhat different piece to the recent hit musical of the same name, with the aim of conveying that the founding fathers were, “real people, and not merely a procession of nice grey-headed old gentlemen”. The Hamilton tour closed prematurely in Boston in 1918 due to the unrest of World War I and venue closures caused by the Spanish flu pandemic.


Ever keen to recycle good material Arliss filmed “Hamilton” in 1931 as an early sound film. His experience as a stage actor meant that, in his 60s, Arliss was perfectly placed to exploit this new medium of “talking pictures”. A contract from Warner Brothers gave him a large amount of artistic control and led to string of successes, often remakes of his previous stage or silent film hits such as “The Green Goddess” and “The Man Who Played God”. The latter gave Bette Davis her first leading role.

The production team Arliss assembled made ten films before Warners’ production chief Darryl F. Zanuck resigned and Arliss followed him to his new 20th Century Pictures company. The hits continued and in 1934 he was voted British film-goers favourite male star and gushing newspaper adverts at the time referred to him (pace Tony Hancock) as “The inimitable George Arliss” who “holds his audiences spellbound for reel after reel”.


As an actor his distinguished patrician style made him perfect for portraying powerful historical figures. “An actor from whose Atheneum manner I sometimes derive a rather humble pleasure” Graham Greene noted. Among his greatest successes in addition to Disraeli were Wellington, Rothschild, and Richelieu. Surprisingly he only once played in Shakespeare, as Shylock. After retirement he said the only character he regretted never having been able to play on screen was the Vicar of Wakefield.

Having previously said he would only retire “when they cut my salary. A sure indication that an actor’s sun is setting.” In 1937 he retired from the screen because his wife “my beloved Flo” was going blind. “She needs a companion, and I have applied for the post” he explained.


They again revived “Disraeli”, this time as a radio production for Cecil B. DeMille. They returned to their London house in Maida Hill in 1939 and despite a film offer from Darryl F. Zanuck they saw out the war in England and never returned to America. Their London property survived the Blitz but a holiday home they owned in St. Margaret’s Bay in Kent was destroyed in 1942 by a shell from the German battleship Gneisenau when she was dashing up the English Channel with the Scharnhorst. A favourite location, Arliss had spent many summers there between theatrical seasons and had seen Blériot land on the nearby cliffs in 1909 and Zeppelins attacked by British fighter planes during World War I.


Modest and self-effacing, Arliss (“Uncle Gus” to his relatives) had survived the excesses and monstrous egos of early Hollywood unscathed. Unhurried and leisure loving – though walking four miles each day – he was as dignified and poised as many of the characters he played. He was a campaigning anti-vivisectionist and a strict vegan saying “I eat nothing I can pat.”


This Grand Old Man of the screen died of pneumonia at home in 1946 at the age of 77 having been seen out for the last time two weeks before walking near Marble Arch “monocled, gloved and spatted, looking frail and tired, but still the picture of a perfect gentleman”. As a measure of his success he left an estate valued at around £6 million in today’s money. A substantial portion of that went eventually, via his wife Florence who died four years later, to the Council of Justice to Animals and the RSPCA. George Arliss has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles and a gravestone in All Saints’ Churchyard, Harrow Weald.

Reprinted by the courtesy of Best of Britain magazine, May 2021.

Published in: on September 26, 2022 at 9:43 PM  Comments (1)  
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A Novelization of THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD printed in October 1934 in the Isling Holloway Press

Back in the day many new film releases had tie-in novels to publicize the movie. But book sales suffered during the Great Depression, so instead the studios used film fan magazines and newspapers to build interest in the plot. This weekly British newspaper, The Isling-Holloway Press, had been published since 1872 and was keeping up with the times by printing this concise story of THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD with dialogue taken directly from the script. The story appeared in two parts in the October 13 and 20, 1934 editions, respectively. One photo from the film accompanied the first part (see below) and I have added a few more to give a sense of the action.

Frame grab from the ROTHSCHILD Technicolor finale

Happy Birthday, Mr. A – April 10, 2022, marks his 154th Birthday!

Actor, author, playwright, and filmmaker George Arliss was born in the Bloomsbury section of London on Good Friday, April 10, 1868. He made his professional stage debut in 1887, a time when theaters were lit by gaslight. Crossing the Atlantic in 1901 as a member of the Mrs. Patrick Campbell Company, George and his wife Florence eventually established themselves in the U.S. theater world. What was planned as six months stay turned into 20 years. Turning 60 in 1928, retirement seemed to be calling Mr. A, but so were talking pictures. Thus, he suddenly embarked on ten years in the studios (a phrase he used for the title of his second volume of memoirs) winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in the process. Today, at least seven of his films can be viewed on DVD and streaming video.

Published in: on April 9, 2022 at 8:10 PM  Comments (3)  
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On the Set with George Arliss

Photos on movie sets give us some impression of what it was like to actually be there. Many of these stills were posed of course, but some were taken in the midst of discussions or show cast members merely sitting by waiting to be called to the set. Throughout the history of filmmaking, actors’ most vivid memories of the process are the long waits to be called to enact a few minutes of a scene. Some spent the time answering fan mail, reading a book, or even knitting. Will Rogers would write his newspaper column between shots.

Here are a variety of images showing Mr. A and his colleagues “on the set” that span the years 1919 to 1943. His second volume of memoirs was called MY TEN YEARS IN THE STUDIOS (US title) but his presence on film sets spanned from 1916 to at least 1943. Most importantly, he enjoyed making films and sought to understand every aspect of them. He viewed them all and made uncredited contributions to the scripts. He had a producer’s understanding of budgets and deadlines, never losing sight of the fact that movies cost a lot of money to make and must make a profit.

Circa 1919-1920, George and Florence visit the legendary director D.W. Griffith on the set of one of his films:

Given the assumed date, this location may have been the Griffith studio at Mamaroneck, NY, just north of New York City in Westchester County. (Please pardon the fuzzy quality)

In the summer of 1923, Mr. A filmed his current hit play, THE GREEN GODDESS, as a silent film. He was preparing to take it to London where it would run at the West End’s St. James Theater for a solid year. As these two production stills suggest, the filming of the mythical Himalayan kingdom of Rukh took place in the middle of a residential neighborhood:

Sidney Olcott directs Alice Joyce and David Powell as Mr. A’s Rajah watches them in a final scene. The nearby house was no doubt kept out of camera range.

Another shot from the beginning of the story where the British flyers have the good luck to survive a crash landing but have the bad luck to land in the Rajah’s small kingdom of Rukh:

That’s perennial Arliss cast member Ivan Simpson in the derby playing the Rajah’s valet, Watkins. Alice Joyce and Harry T. Morey play an unhappily married couple whose lives are about to get much worse with their arrival.

Outdoors on the set of ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931). Mr. A in costume seems to be amusing assistant Maude T. Howell and director John Adolfi:

This film was based on a 1917 play that Mr. A co-wrote with Mary Hamlin. He arranged to have her hired for the film and she later wrote a detailed and often humorous account of the mass confusion that was called “filmmaking.”

No matter what, Mr. A always paused for a 4 PM tea break during filming. Hollywood publicists used it to promote the films, but British producer Michael Balcon later found it annoying:

Doris Kenyon was a silent film star who made a smooth transition to talkies and who appeared with Mr. A in both silent and sound films. She played his daughter in THE RULING PASSION (1922) and his wife in HAMILTON. She also played Madame de Pompadour in his VOLTAIRE (1933):

Not a movie set, Mr. A visits Doris Kenyon backstage during one of her operatic recitals circa 1932.

Mr. A made his first British feature in 1934 titled THE IRON DUKE. The screenplay adroitly cobbled together various episodes in the Duke of Wellington’s life and made a coherent story out of the pastiche:

Mr. A in makeup and costume for THE IRON DUKE (1934) and the film’s director Victor Saville to his left join director Eugene Forde (on the right) and the cast of FOREVER ENGLAND for a lunch break.

Mr. A spent January-February 1935 filming CARDINAL RICHELIEU in Hollywood. It turned out to be his last American film although he would decline a number of offers right through World War II:

Director Rowland V. Lee and Maude T. Howell listen as Mr. A seems to be discussing the ring he is wearing. Maude Howell was literally the first woman stage manager in American theater history. Arliss was so impressed with her during the run of THE GREEN GODDESS that he later hired her to work on all of his films in several capacities as a screenwriter, associate producer and associate director. In fact, she was one of the few woman film executives anywhere at that time.

Maureen O’Sullivan and Mr. A in a touching scene from CARDINAL RICHELIEU. Watching the film itself, they seem to be in an ornate palace room, but this production shot shows a very sparse suggestion of a palace designed entirely for the little the camera would catch:

Maureen O’Sullivan was borrowed from MGM for this Twentieth Century (later -Fox) film. She must have enjoyed the break from the Tarzan films. Decades later she would appear in Woody Allen movies. From Arliss to Allen, now that’s a long career!

It can get cold in Hollywood in January as this still from some location work on CARDINAL RICHELIEU suggests:

Maude Howell is bundled up awaiting the crew to finish setting up the equipment. To her right is Mr. A and Douglas Dumbrille as Baradas, the villain. Edward Arnold has his back to the camera as Louis XIII.

A group pose of the principals and crew for a scene that presumably involved only Mr. A and Maureen O’Sullivan:

Seated from bottom right to left: Maude T. Howell, Maureen O’Sullivan, Mr. A, and director Rowland V. Lee. The young lady standing just above Lee seems to be auditioning for something!

After RICHELIEU, Mr. A could walk to the studio from his London home for the next two years because he worked for Gaumont-British at Sheperd’s Bush. His memoirs tactfully suggest that he missed the amenities of California and unfortunately his working relationship with Michael Balcon was not as cordial as it was with Darryl Zanuck. But the G-B films were enjoyable, did well at the box-office, and the studio kept offering him new contracts:

Mr. A seems to be rehearsing his lines with Maude Howell on the set of EAST MEETS WEST (1936)

Another production still from EAST MEETS WEST makes Mr. A seem almost lost among the massive equipment:

Director Herbert Mason on the left and Godfrey Tearle on the right. Maude Howell keeps an eye on things in the foreground.

Later in 1936, Mr. A filmed the comedy-mystery HIS LORDSHIP where he plays twin brothers. One is a stuffy old member of the diplomatic corps and the other one is quite urbane. Towards the end of filming, Mr. A came down with the flu. Production halted until he felt better and could return to complete filming. The incident apparently made studio heads aware that their star was approaching 70 in those days before antibiotics:

Director Herbert Mason, Mr. A, and Maude Howell. Here he is playing the fussbudget brother or perhaps, depending on where they are in the plot, he is playing the Americanized brother who is taking his brother’s place to stop an international calamity from taking place. HIS LORDSHIP (US title A MAN OF AFFAIRS) is a good film that deserves a proper restoration to be appreciated.

Gaumont-British went out of business at the end of 1936 and Mr. A’s one remaining film under the contract was transferred to Gainsborough Pictures where Edward Black was in charge of production. It turned out to be a harmonious development and the film, DR. SYN (1937), is arguably the best of the British Five in Mr. A’s filmography.

The multi-talented Allan Whittaker served as Mr. A’s stand-in for DR. SYN while Maude Howell completed her oversight position on the Arliss films. She apparently returned to the theater although I have never found any information about her post-Arliss years. She lived until 1964 in New Orleans and is buried in California.

George and Flo chose to remain in London during the Second World War. They built their own bomb shelter and occasionally stayed out of town when the bombing raids grew intense. His letters from the war years relate how the windows of his house rattled as the bombs fell. Their cottage at St. Margaret’s Bay near Dover was destroyed by a direct hit from a German shell in September 1942. Fortunately, the cottage was not occupied at the time.

Despite the war, Mr. A found time to visit London film studios that were still very much in operation. Here he visits his cousin, director Leslie Arliss (not his son as is often claimed), in 1943 on the set of THE MAN IN GREY with Phyllis Calvert:

Mr. A with his cousin director Leslie Arliss and Phyllis Calvert in 1943 on the set of THE MAN IN GREY.

I hope you enjoyed our little tour with George Arliss on the set.

My homemade coffee cup

Published in: on February 27, 2022 at 2:45 PM  Comments (2)  
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Happy New Year and Here’s Your Choice of 2022 George Arliss Calendars and Bookmarks

This year we offer you a choice of TWO souvenir wall calendars with George Arliss adorning them in one form or another. For the literal-minded, we have a rare candid photograph of Mr. A visiting the Universal studios in Hollywood circa 1927 and chatting with comedy star Reginald Denny. Like Mr. A, Denny was a British actor who found success in America. He played in support of Mr. A in the 1921 silent film version of DISRAELI, which is now apparently lost.

I should mention that the term “Silent Films Today” at the top of the calendar refers to my Facebook group by that name. Lots of things to see there including more vintage calendars like this one. That group is private, but you can simply ask to join to be admitted.

Our second official 2022 George Arliss Calendar is more figurative in that it offers two engraved images of Mr. A in the character of Voltaire. At the top is a cameo that was made by a doctor as one of his hobbies. He sent this cameo to Mr. A and I’d say the Arliss Archives is lucky to have acquired it. Below the cameo is a souvenir coin issued by Warner Bros. to promote Mr. A’s 1933 film, VOLTAIRE. Similar to the cameo, the coin provides a beautifully detailed rendering of Mr. A.

Since we’re on the subject of the cameo, here is Mr. A’s Thank You letter to Dr. Osher for his efforts and expense to create the cameo. The letter was written In January 1935 when Mr. A was filming CARDINAL RICHELIEU at the Twentieth Century Pictures studios in Hollywood. As you can tell, the letter was water-damaged at some point – after all it did go through WWII – and I’ve done my best to make it legible.

The photo referred to by Mr. A was taken while he and Florence were filming THE KING’S VACATION in 1933. The Archives has an excellent original of this portrait that was autographed by both Mr. and Mrs. A. Here is the actual photo that Mr. A sent to Dr. Osher, which is also jointly autographed:

You may wonder how to obtain a copy of either or both of these calendars. I don’t sell them but instead I encourage people to print them out, preferably on glossy photo paper. At full size they make neat looking wall calendars. Printed in smaller sizes they also make stylish (and unique) bookmarks.

Finally, let me share with you two authentic 3-D stereoscopic photographs that I made of the Voltaire cameo and also of the bronze bust from THE GREEN GODDESS that actor Ivan Simpson made for Mr. A:

Again, let me wish you the very best in this New Year of 2022!

The Silent Film Comedies of George Arliss

When we think of memorable silent film comedians our thoughts go to Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon, – and Arliss. Who? Well then, this is still one of the better kept secrets of film history and it’s high time we put a spotlight on it. In recent years, the comedies of Raymond Griffith, Reginald Denny, and Douglas McLean have returned to circulation after 90+ years absence from the screen, and of course they were never part of home video. And these rediscoveries have proven quite enjoyable. We also realized what we were missing all this time. My purpose here is to add George Arliss, actor, author, playwright, and filmmaker, to this growing list of rediscovered film comedians.

Having published six books on Mr. A (as I call him) since 2004, I am more or less regarded as his official biographer. Not that this effort was a chore. It was and still is a delightful journey of discovery. He was known as one of the great dramatic actors of his era and racked up popular and critical successes in all the media of his time from the stage, silent films, sound films, even radio. Mr. A was also known as an authentic gentleman and a most kind one at that. I tried to dig up “dirt” on the man but I couldn’t even find unsubstantiated rumors.

An early experience in mass media occurred with his broadcasting in 1922(!) and was not what we would expect of a fellow who spent 32 years of his life in the Victorian Era of the 19th century. Arliss devoted that first broadcast to denouncing censorship in films. This was before Will H. Hays was hired by the studios to be their moral watchdog.

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The Arliss Comedy Plays

Arliss began his career primarily in drama and in his early career he played in support of two pillars of theatre: Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Mrs. Minnie Maddern Fiske. But there was always a second string to the Arliss bow: his comedy plays and later his films. George Arliss’s roots in comedy were long and deep even before he made films. His first brush with comedy was not as an actor, but as a playwright. He wrote a three-act farce called THE WILD RABBIT in 1898. I thought the title was takeoff on Ibsen’s THE WILD DUCK but apparently there was no tie in. The plot involves a case of mistaken identity between a nobleman and his hairdresser. The latter is lavishly treated like, well, a nobleman by the ladies, while the former is bashed about as the tradesman he isn’t.

Following an out-of-town tryout in Wolverhampton (UK) in January 1899, THE WILD RABBITT opened at the Criterion Theatre in London in July. One critic was not amused but admitted that “the simple minded playgoer roared with laughter.” Mr. A’s first effort at comedy closed after three weeks but not because of a lack of public support. It was a very hot summer and air-conditioning hadn’t been invented yet. With temperatures in the 80s the last place the public wanted to spend two hours was in a stifling theatre.

In 1903 Mr. A wrote another comedy, THERE AND BACK, the plot of which sounds a lot like the Laurel and Hardy film, SONS OF THE DESERT, made thirty years later in 1934. The Arliss story was a variation of a staple of French farce. Two wives want to get away for a holiday without their husbands so they make up a story about going to visit a sick friend. The husbands are a bit suspicious but accept the explanation. While the wives are away the husbands run into their “sick” friend who is fine and has not seen the wives lately. Like Ricky Ricardo would say, the wives have a lot of “s’plainin” to do.

Arliss Play Prog

Mr. A did not appear in THERE AND BACK but his wife Florence did. The play was a hit on Broadway and Charles Evans, who played the lead as one of the husbands, would tour in it for many years. Arliss regarded Evans as his “good luck charm” and found parts for him later in his Hollywood films. But the theatre world was not finished with THERE AND BACK. It was adapted into a musical called I LOVED A LASSIE and went on to even greater popularity in the UK.

As an actor, Arliss managed to work his way up from playing in the provinces (i.e., the sticks) and arrived at the West End (the London equivalent of Broadway) by 1900. In 1901 he accepted an offer from Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s troupe to play a season in America although he was limited to supporting roles. The tour was a success and when the Campbell troupe returned to Britain, Mr. A decided to stay on for a bit in the states. His stay lasted for over 20 years. Ambitious for a starring role, he would eventually find his vehicle in a new play by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar called THE DEVIL. This was a dramatic comedy that had been a smash hit in Budapest. Perhaps because the title suggested a warm climate, the play had its American debut on the sultry evening of August 18, 1908, at the Belasco Theatre. This opening night was jumping ahead of the traditional Broadway season by three weeks but there was a reason for this.

Arl The Devil 1_edited-3 copy_edited-1

There was no reciprocal copyright law between the U.S. and Hungary at that time so anybody who could get their hands on a copy of the Molnar play could publicly produce it. And they did. Moving the opening night from September to August 18 seemed like a smart move until another DEVIL production followed. Playgoers were treated to two competing DEVILs that night and Broadway had never seen anything like it. The publicity helped both shows but the critics judged the Arliss version the better of the two. A New York Times reviewer proclaimed, “George Arliss at his best” and “Mr. Arliss’s performance is developed in the vein of brilliant comedy….” among other praises.

The Dramatic Comedy Films

THE DEVIL

Fast forward 12 years from 1908 and THE DEVIL is pressed into service again to become Mr. A’s very first film in 1921. Although he had evolved into a fine dramatic actor, it seemed that no role of his could completely escape the one-liner or the sarcastic deadpan reply. According to information in the AFI Catalogue, the film version of THE DEVIL was photographed at studios in Ft. Lee, NJ during the day while Arliss returned to the city to star in his latest hit play, THE GREEN GODDESS by William Archer, in the evening. The October 30, 1920 issue of Moving Picture World confirmed that filming had been underway for a month. The conclusion of filming was announced in the November 11, 1920 Wid’s Daily and the November 13, 1920 Moving Picture World. The sets included “a magnificent old-world ballroom” and “a reproduction of the Paris Art Salon.” Sculptor Frederick E. Triebel, a member of the Royal Academy, provided his artwork for free, according to Moving Picture World.

Arliss in devil

Editing and titling was finished by December 1920.  George Arliss sat in on the assembling of the picture, as stated in a November 20, 1920 Motion Picture News brief. Mr. A had reportedly bonded with director James Young, the ex-husband of Clara Kimble Young, and they shared a ride to the studio each morning. Arliss also earned praise from cinematographer Harry A. Fischbeck, who was quoted in a February 5, 1921 Motion Picture News item, stating that the first-time film star “realized fully the importance of good photography and acted upon every suggestion. He made a camera-man feel like a most important personage.” Fischbeck also noted the difficulty of the shoot, specifically the constraints of shooting many interior scenes on “a four-walls-and-ceiling set.”

The Devil003 copy_edited-Final

There were of course newspaper and magazine interviews regarding his film debut. Mr. A was well aware of the snobbery by actors from “the legitimate stage” who condescended to appear in movies. They liked the money but often took the opportunity of saying they had not seen their films and never would. Helen Hayes enjoyed a successful film career in the early 1930s, even winning an Academy Award. But she later admitted not having seen her films until they turned up on late night television decades later. This attitude was rather typical. An interviewer confronted Arliss with this mindset in the runup to the THE DEVIL’s premiere in January 1921. Asked “Do you take the screen seriously?” The actor deadpanned, “I do now that I’m on it.” The interviewer admitted to bursting out laughing at this reply.

Devil 2

THE DEVIL premiered at the Mark Strand Theatre on January 16, 1921, in New York City. The AFI Catalogue states that the film was a critical and commercial success, according to items in the February 5, 1921, February 12, 1921, and the February 16, 1921 Motion Picture News. The film set a record for Pathé, the distributor, for the “highest bookings in advance of release.” After successful pre-release runs at the Strand theaters in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Albany, NY; Shea’s Hippodrome in Buffalo, NY; and the Rialto Theatre in Lawrence, MA, the Mastbaum circuit of Pennsylvania and Gordon circuit of New England signed on to release the film. By that point the only question that filmmakers had for Mr. A was when could he be available to make his next film.

The comedy in the film, as in the play before it, generated from the fact that the audience knows that the kind philanthropist Dr. Muller is the Devil incarnate while the other characters are in ignorance. Viewers find themselves being pulled into the plot as a sort of “partner” with the devil as he lays his traps for the unsuspecting young lovers. In the play, Arliss spoke directly to the audience about his next steps to ensnare the innocents into eternal damnation. On the screen, Arliss communicates his schemes by writing in a gigantic diary that the viewer reads.

Arliss The Devil New Photo Color 4 Poster 2

There are many sly touches throughout. For example, at a reception a group of important businessmen are only too eager to meet Dr. Muller. He plants seeds of jealousy in the characters’ minds by “assuring” them that their beloved could never be unfaithful – a thought that never occurred to the person until Muller brought it up! He manipulates them ever so subtly to arouse their jealousy, their anger, and perhaps violence.

Muller hosts a masquerade party at his mansion that shows every sign of turning into an orgy before the evening is over. There are indications of a censor’s scissors being used during some shots as scantily clad dancers seem to be enjoying themselves. It has been said that an unknown Frederic March is one of the partygoers but I found that impossible to determine.

Arliss DEVIL coffee mug

The supporting cast performs well with future star Edmund Lowe as the artist/lover who can’t decide between his model or his best friend’s fiancé. Two up and coming actresses, Sylvia Breamer and Lucy Cotton, play these roles, respectively. Lucy’s aunt is played by Florence Arliss, George’s wife of 22 years then, who is billed simply as “Mrs. Arliss.” The opening credits do not acknowledge the Molnar play and the plot elements could be regarded as common story elements. The story is credited to Edmund Goulding who would become a major director within the next few years.

The fact that THE DEVIL exists at all today is a story in itself. A sole surviving 35mm print was found in the wilds of Saskatchewan, Canada, a number of years ago by Larry Smith, who is a Nitrate Film Specialist with the Library of Congress. Larry acquired this print and generously donated it to the LOC and then posted a video of it on Youtube. Eventually, I downloaded it and arranged to give it a 4k scan. Then a retired professional film editor, Lewis Schoenbrun, volunteered to further enhance the image quality. On January 16 of this year, we held an online “re-premiere” of THE DEVIL on the anniversary of its Centennial. Responses from friends have all been positive as Mr. A proves to be the master of droll humor in his very first film. I would very much like to screen this film before an audience someday.

DISRAELI

Now that the actor-playwright was “movie box office” he found himself with several offers for a second film. He preferred dealing with individuals rather than a big corporation, an experience he learned the hard way. In 1916, Arliss signed an agreement with director-producer Herbert Brenon to make what would have been his first film. But Brenon became seriously ill and the executives of Brenon’s company stepped in and cancelled the Arliss contract. Mr. A felt, not unreasonably, that he had been badly treated and sued the Brenon company in New York State court for breach of contract. He won his lawsuit at trial but lost on appeal. Brenon returned to good health but Arliss realized that the man did not have full authority to make contracts and chalked up the bad episode to a learning experience.

Disraeli 2 copy_edited-1

Selecting a second film after THE DEVIL’s success must have seemed like a no-brainer. By 1921, Mr. Arliss had long since established his stardom with one play that managed to run five years. The success of DISRAELI – called “the play with the funny name” – made the names of Benjamin Disraeli and George Arliss almost synonymous. The play was commissioned especially for Mr. A and was written by a well-known British playwright of the day, circa 1910, Louis Napoleon Parker. DISRAELI became Arliss’s most resounding hit up to that time and was all the more remarkable because of the esoteric story it told. The plot involved the great British prime minister’s effort to purchase the Suez Canal for Britain in 1874. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Well, not really. But by the sheer power of the Arliss wit, deadpan expressions, and his unique way with words, he starred in this play for five consecutive seasons, from 1911 to 1915, first on Broadway, then by traveling to every town and hamlet in the U.S. even if it was only for one performance. Arliss returned to Broadway with it for a 1917 revival.

Now in 1921, the play was everybody’s choice for the second Arliss film. This apparent “epilogue” for the play turned out to be more of a prologue. Mr. A would later film it for the talking screen in 1929 where he was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actor. The competition were no pushovers with Ronald Colman, Maurice Chevalier, Wallace Beery, and opera singer Lawrence Tibbett also nominated.  Mr. A even faced competition from an unlikely source – himself. In a quirk of the Academy rules at that time, Mr. A was nominated for two films but won for only one, DISRAELI. Nobody ever repeated that sleight of hand again. He was also the first British actor to win the Best Actor Award.

Ad Philly Dec 31 21_edited-1

I’ve held screenings of the ‘29 DISRAELI with college audiences and I can tell you that Arliss held them in the palm of his hand. When he was being dramatic, they were impressed. When he was being funny, they laughed. Perhaps it should not be surprising that when Arliss performed a one-hour radio broadcast of DISRAELI in 1938, over 50 million people worldwide listened in. After a successful theater career for over 40 years (he made his debut in 1887), the 1929 DISRAELI spearheaded a series of Arliss “biopics” on the screen with ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931), VOLTAIRE (1933), THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (1934), THE IRON DUKE (1934), and CARDINAL RICHELIEU (1935). And he gave Bette Davis her first big break in films by casting her in his drama, THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD (1932). She continued to publicly thank him right up to the end of her life.

Returning to 1921, early reports that DISRAELI would be Mr. A’s next film were confirmed in the May 2, 1921 issue of Wid’s Daily, and that Henry Kolker, a well known actor himself, would be directing. Once again, the cinematographer was Harry A. Fischbeck. The May 6, 1921 Variety and May 7, 1921 Moving Picture World noted that Arliss would henceforth release his films through United Artists. The deal was brokered between the studio and Arliss’s producers, Distinctive Productions, Inc., a company that was specifically founded to produce Arliss films. Clearly, Mr. A was avoiding corporate bigwigs in the studios that had marred his dealings with Herbert Brenon.

The May 13, 1921 Wid’s Daily noted that the picture would be shot at the Whitman Bennett studio in Yonkers, NY, and that outdoor location filming was done at the sumptuous 1,000-acre estate of George D. Pratt in Glen Cove, Long Island, NY, according to the June 11, 1921 Wid’s Daily and June 18, 1921 Moving Picture World. It was also noted that through the efforts of George Arliss, Pratt allowed his residence to be filmed in association with the Society for the Relief of Devastated France, which secured famous homes for movie productions to raise funds.

Dis 1921 slide 1

The silent version of DISRAELI used some key members of the 1911 Broadway cast including Florence Arliss as Lady Beaconsfield, Disraeli’s wife, and Margaret Dale as Mrs. Travers, the spy working for Russia. The film premiered at the Mark Strand Theatre in New York City (as did THE DEVIL some nine months earlier) on August 28, 1921, according to the August 27, 1921 Motion Picture News. A general release date of September 3, 1921 was cited in the December 10, 1921 Exhibitors Trade Review. Critical reception was positive, with George Arliss receiving consistent praise for his performance, as noted in the September 3, 1921 Exhibitors Trade Review. Ticket sales reportedly broke a box-office record at the Mark Strand Theatre in Albany, NY, where only $40 was spent on promotions, including simple window displays and “a specially prepared letter” sent to 5,000 Albany residents.

The historical Benjamin Disraeli was also a successful novelist whose writings were brimming with wit. Many of his bon mots were used in the play and film versions while others were invented but were in his distinctive style. Arliss himself was noted for his unique style of delivery and made excellent use of his early experiences as a fledgling playwright. Back in 1910 the first out-of-town tryouts of DISRAELI were dogged by the lack of a powerful climax. Dozens of writers had been called in to create more punch for the finale but nothing worked. Finally, “somebody” – Arliss always denied that the person was himself – came up with a line for DISRAELI that brought the curtain down to thunderous applause. Of course, the line was pure comedy and was repeated in every incarnation of the play thereafter.

1921 Disraeli LC 3

Judging the silent DISRAELI today is not possible. It is apparently a “lost” film although the Library of Congress states that a print is held in the Russian state film archive, Gosfilmofond. This writer contacted the archive with an inquiry and was promptly told that it held no material on DISRAELI. There is word that the Belgian Cinémathèque royale de Belgique film archive holds the first four reels of the film (out of seven) but reportedly the material is too fragile to be copied. The George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY, once held a complete print that it screened at the institution’s 25th anniversary in 1947. Today it reports that only a few fragments remain totaling about one reel.

However, by reading the play script, watching the 1929 film, and listening to the 1938 radio broadcast, we can get a good idea of the silent film’s impact. Among the cast, an unknown Reginald Denny played the nominal hero, Lord Deeford. Within a few years Denny would be starring in a successful series of comedies for Universal, the most memorable of which is SKINNER’S DRESS SUIT (1926). The popular screen actress Louise Huff played the ingenue role of Lady Clarissa, and shortly after retired from the screen. A few years ago, this writer published a photo reconstruction of the 1921 DISRAELI using stills that I had collected over many years. The photos followed the play script fairly well so I was pleased with the way the book turned out. More recently, I returned to the silent DISRAELI in the form of a graphic novel that I also felt turned out reasonably well. Members of Kindle Unlimited can read both books digitally for free.

The Comedies

THE RULING PASSION (1922)

The first outright comedy film made by Mr. A was THE RULING PASSION in 1922. The director was Harmon Weight, who must have worked well with Arliss because they made two more silent films together, the drama THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD (1922) and his final silent, the comedy $20 A WEEK (1924). The cinematographer once again was Harry A. Fischbeck. The plot was based on a short story, “Idle Hands,” recently published in the Saturday Evening Post by Earl Derr Biggers, a well-known author of the time. Biggers would become more famous over the next few years when he began his series of “Charlie Chan” novels that were later made into a successful and long-running film series.

THE RULING PASSION marked Mr. A’s third film but was the first he had not previously performed on the stage. Arliss plays John Alden, a wealthy automobile manufacturer in this modern dress comedy, who is forced into retirement by his doctor. Bored with being retired, he decides to invest in a gas station using an assumed name and partners with a young man named Bill Merrick. The two are swindled by the seller of the gas station and they strike back by engaging in a price war with the crook who runs a competing gas station. Alden’s wife and daughter know nothing of his secret life until his daughter, Angie, pulls into her father’s gas station. She also meets Bill Merrick and a romance blossoms. Angie agrees to keep her father’s secret under the circumstances.

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Alden’s ruse is eventually discovered by his wife but all ends well when the crooked seller begs to buy back his old gas station at a much higher price than what Alden and Merrick paid for it. Merrick goes to see Angie’s father having no idea that he is his partner. Alden feels invigorated by the little adventure and his doctor agrees that he can return to his work.

George Arliss recalled in his memoirs that some location filming was done where an unplanned comedy scene took place. A “make believe” gas station was built there and during a lunch break a driver pulled in thinking the set was a real gas station. He ordered several gallons from the property man who happened to be standing by and he went through the motions of filling up the gas tank. The property man refused payment telling the driver that since it was John D. Rockefeller’s “birthday” all gasoline was free that day. The man drove off oblivious to the prank.

Arliss Ruling Passion 1922

THE RULING PASSION premiered in New York City on January 22, 1922. Among the cast, the role of Angie Alden was played by Doris Kenyon, a popular screen actress who was married to film star Milton Sills. Almost a decade later, Kenyon would play Arliss’s wife, Betsy Hamilton, in the film, ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931) and Madame de Pompadour in his VOLTAIRE (1933). The reviews of PASSION were uniformly positive and many critics said they enjoyed Mr. A’s refreshing change of pace in a situation comedy.

Rul Passion Ad

Unfortunately, THE RULING PASSION is another “lost” film although unsubstantiated claims have been made of its existence. The film did so well that Arliss later decided to remake it in sound in 1931 as THE MILLIONAIRE where it again was well-received. Similar to his silent films, the talkie version became his third film of the sound era and his first comedy of that time.

$20 DOLLARS A WEEK (1924)

Mr. A’s movie box office appeal continued to grow after PASSION, and he felt it was time to turn to a drama. A story about a concert pianist who goes deaf left little room for humor. But THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD (1922) succeeded as an inspirational story that Arliss remade to equal acclaim ten years later in 1932 for the sound screen. Alas, the silent version is a “lost” film now.

By 1923 Arliss had been appearing in only one play for the previous three seasons, THE GREEN GODDESS. As he prepared to take it to his native London for a run that lasted a full year, he made a film version in the states. He played the wily Rajah of Rukh who toys with his three British visitors who had the bad luck to crash land their plane in his tiny kingdom. Eventually, his guests, two men and a woman, realize the Rajah intends to execute them in revenge for the execution of his three brothers in England. Arliss has many deliciously ironic lines that arouses laughter from audiences but he ultimately shoots one of the male “guests,” tortures the other, and tries to abduct the woman. Therefore, I will resist the temptation to classify THE GREEN GODDESS as a dramatic comedy despite its large comedy content.

20 A Week 1

Before he left for London, Mr. A arranged to film another comedy called $20 A WEEK, sometimes listed as TWENTY DOLLARS A WEEK. This was based on a short story by Edgar Franklin called “The Adopted Father.” Arliss plays another wealthy businessman, John Reeves, who bets his son, Chester, that they should both find jobs paying $20 a week to see which of them could live on that amount and no more. The role of Chester was played by Ronald Colman shortly before he achieved film stardom in his own right. Colman played the High Priest in the original cast of THE GREEN GODDESS when the play opened late in 1920. Years later in 1947 Colman played the Arliss role of the Rajah in a radio version of GODDESS where he reminisced about his part in the original play.

The March 9, 1924 Film Daily and March 22, 1924 Exhibitors Trade Review reported that Henry M. Hobart of Distinctive Pictures had recently signed an agreement with the Selznick Distributing Corporation for a series of features starring Arliss. The first of these was $20 A WEEK scheduled for release in April. We know that Mr. A opened in London in THE GREEN GODDESS in September 1923. This suggests that $20 A WEEK must have been filmed at some point during the summer of 1923. The July 1924 Motion Picture magazine noted that while Arliss began work on the film in the U.S., his final scenes had to be completed in England due to his play commitment.

The film was directed by Harmon Weight and the cinematographer was Harry A. Fischbeck. It premiered in New York at the Mark Strand Theatre during the week of June 9, 1924, according to Film Daily. The reviews were mixed although Mr. A’s facility with comedy was duly noted by the critics. The June 21, 1924 Moving Picture World complained that the plot relied too heavily on coincidence and improbable characters. A positive review in the May 4, 1924 Film Daily noted a close thematic resemblance between $20 A WEEK and THE RULING PASSION.

$20 A Week 1924 Final

Indeed, both stories had the Arliss character hiding his identity and, in WEEK, he disguises himself by wearing glasses and a wig. The Reeves character takes a job as a bookkeeper in a steel plant run by William Hart who, with his sister Muriel, inherited the business from their father. But neither takes an interest in the company and they just live off the income. Reeves learns that the business manager is secretly arranging a takeover of the plant to cut the Harts out of ownership. When Muriel decides to adopt a small boy, her brother William “adopts” Reeves as their “new father.” Chester visits the company and he and Muriel fall in love. Reeves manages to thwart the takeover scheme, save the business, and becomes a partner with the Harts.

Happily, $20 A WEEK survives and has been restored by the Library of Congress and presented at film conferences in recent years. The distribution deal with Selznick quickly came to an end when Lewis J. Selznick, owner of the company, filed for bankruptcy. His son, David O. Selznick, later became a successful film executive and produced many top films such as GONE WITH THE WIND (1939).  Despite its convoluted plot, Arliss liked the premise of $20 A WEEK and would rework the vehicle nine years later with much better results. Retitled THE WORKING MAN (1933), the sound version co-starred Bette Davis as the sister and is considered one of the very best of the Arliss films.

When George Arliss returned from his London engagement in late 1924 he quickly became involved with another new play, OLD ENGLISH by John Galsworthy, that occupied him for the next three seasons. He made no further silent films but Hollywood would soon be transitioning to sound films. In July 1928, Mr. A signed a three-film agreement with Warner Bros. to make talkies. He ultimately made ten films for the studio at a substantial increase in compensation each year during that time.

In recent years, a few Arliss sound films have received official studio releases on DVD and in at least one case, in the streaming format. However, this writer is yearning for a video release of the three surviving Arliss silent films. These are the 35mm prints of THE DEVIL and $20 A WEEK at the Library of Congress, and the restored version of THE GREEN GODDESS at the UCLA Film Archive.  FINIS.

Copyright 2021 by Robert M. Fells

Happy Birthday, Mr. A – 153rd Anniversary and the Story of Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner and “Master Billy Arliss”

April 10, 1868 was a long time ago but through the magic of films we in the 21st century can watch a man who lived in the 19th century give performances in 20th century motion pictures. This year I managed to uncover some long unseen photos of George Arliss with his dog. For years I had a beautiful image of Mr. A alighting from a car carrying a little fluffy white pooch. I never knew the dog’s name until now. And thereby hangs a tail, I mean tale (no pun intended).

A recent online search in the Billy Rose Theater Collection at the New York Public Library revealed some “snapshots” of Mr. A with a small floppy-eared dog. This discovery led me to search for more info on the pooch. The photos are undated but I am guessing the time is the early 1910s. I searched further on the ‘net with the simple term “Arliss and dog” and found many references – to Old Yeller.

Images courtesy of the Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library

Further digging revealed a newspaper story from the Sacramento Union of January 10, 1921. The story is titled, “DEAD ANIMALS NOT FORGOTTEN – Wreaths Placed on Graves of Cats and Dogs in Cemetery.” The burial ground, Pine Ridge Cemetery in Dedham, Massachusetts, is described as a “dog and cat cemetery” and among other graves notes the following: “A plain granite cube over one grave is marked; ‘In Memory of Master Billy Arliss.’ This is the last resting place of the fluffy white terrier of George Arliss, the actor. Billy died last winter while Mr. Arliss was playing In Boston, and his owner bought a lot and erected the memorial.”

Thus matching the name to a description I realized that for many years the Arliss Archives held a beautiful photo of Billy and his master. Here are two versions:

Also, the doggy in the snapshots does not appear to be the same dog in our portrait with the car. Further research led me to find a wonderful site – the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum was built by its namesake who lived from 1840 to 1924. She was a devoted patron of the arts who amassed a huge collection of art from around the world, then established her museum so everybody could enjoy its treasures. Mrs. Gardner was somewhat unconventional in the very conventional city of Boston. In 1912 she made news by attending a concert of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra wearing a white headband stating, “Go Red Socks.” This sort of thing simply wasn’t done.

She also befriended George Arliss and the website offers two portraits of Mr. A, one of them with Billy, and also four letters he wrote to Mrs. Gardner dated 1913 through her final year in 1924. According to the information, Mrs. Gardner liked the Billy portrait so much that she hung it in her private study that she called the Vatichino Room where she kept her personal treasures. It’s unclear whether Mr. A’s 1913 letter is referring to the Billy photo or to a separate portrait of himself:

Here are both portraits that Mr. A sent to Mrs. Gardner:

Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here are the four letters from Mr. A. His 1920 letter refers to a stroke that she suffered in 1919. His February 27, 1924 letter was written some five months before her death on July 17. He would not return to the USA until September of that year.

Given George Arliss’s love of dogs we should note that for many years he was president of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. It was an activist group that opposed the live dissection of animals, purportly for “medical research.” Mr. A was convinced that claims citing the “necessity” of such procedures were unsubstantiated.

Finally, here is an unusual item I have never seen before – Mr. A’s calling card to Mrs. Gardner with his annotation:

Happy 153th Birthday Mr A!

Published in: on April 10, 2021 at 1:17 PM  Comments (1)  

Arliss Alert! VOLTAIRE on TCM Thursday, March 11 at 6AM EST

Our favorite among all the Arliss “biopics,” VOLTAIRE is an intriguing and clever film dealing with an episode in the life of the famous philosopher, author and wit, and lady’s man.

Mr. A with Doris Kenyon who plays Madame de Pompadour

Warner Bros. regarded the project as “Arliss’s film” because he had advocated the story since at least 1919 when he asked George Bernard Shaw to write a play for him. Instead two Boston newspapermen sent Mr. A their own Voltaire play and he liked it. Revising the script himself, but refusing a co-author credit, the play remained unproduced until 1933 when Darryl Zanuck at Warners “green-lighted” the production.

Alan Mowbray as the villain De Sarnac is confronted by Voltaire

The Warners publicity department didn’t know how to advertise the film because costume films were considered box office “poison” so VOLTAIRE posters suggested some sort of modern dress romantic comedy. The studio shouldn’t have worried because the film made a healthy profit of 65% once it made back its production costs. George Arliss’s final film for Warner Bros. also proved to be one of his most successful.

A souvenir coin to promote the film

Don’t miss this one!

Published in: on March 5, 2021 at 2:08 PM  Comments (6)  
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Celebrate the Centennial Premiere of THE DEVIL (1921), the first George Arliss Film.

Today, January 16, we are holding an online re-premiere for the Centennial of THE DEVIL, the first film starring George Arliss. The original premiere took place on January 16, 1921 in New York City at the Mark Strand Theater. We have been working on this project for well over a year. Thanks are due to Larry Smith of the Library of Congress and to Lewis Schoenbrun who volunteered his professional services to restore the images. We also gave the video a 4K scan and added the music. It can be viewed in HD at https://youtu.be/okiNSuhLB38

Welcome the New Year with the Official George Arliss Wall Calendar for 2021

If you’d like a copy, that’s easy to do. Simply click on the calendar and then Print.

This year of 2021 marks the Centennial of Mr. A’s very first film. Look for the “re-premiere” of THE DEVIL (1921) in the next few weeks. We have arranged a 4K scan of the material plus other upgrades.

Published in: on December 31, 2020 at 6:18 PM  Comments (2)  
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Seasons Greetings to One and All!

Published in: on December 21, 2020 at 9:37 PM  Comments (3)  

Arliss Alert! Friday, November 20, 2020 TCM is showing A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932) at 3:15 PM Eastern Time

Tomorrow afternoon, Friday, Nov. 20, TCM is showing A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932) at 3:15 PM (ET). This delightful “Father Knows Best” type of family comedy stars George Arliss and Mary Astor, and a pre-star Randolph Scott. Long before Mary teamed up with Humphrey Bogart, she was “married” to Mr. A in this film. Their May-December marriage may surprise you.

Published in: on November 19, 2020 at 1:39 PM  Comments (2)  

Mr. Arliss Comes to Flip Books!

What will they think of next! (He said in jest). Those ingenious little movie flip books are fondly remembered for their low-tech way of providing a brief movie clip by printing the frames of motion picture film, one frame per page at a time, then “animated” by simply using your thumb to flip the little pages. And voila! – you’ve got yourself a movie. But until now there has never been a George Arliss Flip Book.Arliss Devil Flip book

Since the 100th anniversary of Mr. A’s very first film, THE DEVIL, is coming this January 2021, I thought it was most appropriate to create an Arliss flip book. I decided on using the final moments of this film where Mr. A’s character is consumed by flames and sent back to the netherworld. I’ve never made a flip book in my life – next week I turn 70 – but there’s no time like the present to try. So I taxed my ingenuity to copy almost a hundred frame grabs from the video I have of the film. At 24 frames per second I had my choice of material so I decided to copy one frame per half second or so.

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Next I had to size the frames to measure about 2.5 x 4.5 inches in order to fit on each page of the flip book. The most time consuming part of the project after printing out the frames was to cut out each frame and paste it on a page of the flip book – strictly in chronological order. This was tedious – but worth the effort.

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Finally, the time came to flip the pages and it worked perfectly. Of course, I wanted to share this creation with all Arlissians. So I decided to make a video of the flip book in operation and let it loop so could all enjoy the show. A simple thing but one that has fascinated many generations. Without further ado, here is a unique addition (truly one of a kind) to film history lore: a George Arliss Moving Picture Flip Book. Enjoy!

Published in: on September 19, 2020 at 8:54 PM  Comments (7)  
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