Life Upon the Wicked Stage

By the time George Arliss made his first sound film, he had already spent an entire career on the stage, much of it in the 19th Century. Anybody who can remember when electric lighting replaced gaslight has been around for awhile. Here is a look at his crazy early years as a struggling actor, living from hand to mouth, and dealing with managers who stole the box office money and left the company stranded in some tank town.

Surviving theater programs have a way of connecting us with those days, after all, they were present at the performance. Here’s the earliest playbill in the Archives of an Arliss appearance in 1898:

Arliss met with an early success as the author of a farce, THERE AND BACK, in 1903, performed both in Britain and the U.S. The play’s royalties helped pay the rent when there were no acting jobs. The plot is similar to the later Laurel & Hardy film, SONS OF THE DESERT (1933):

Another part of the program stated that the play was staged by the author.

Arliss did not appear in the play but his wife Florence did, as Miss Florence Montgomery (on the left), her maiden name. No, this was not a costume play – the actors are wearing modern dress. Arliss later credited much of the play’s success to Charles Evans, whom Arliss regarded as his “good luck”charm and cast him in almost all his 1930s films.

The song, “Meet me in St. Louis, meet me at the Fair…” refers to this Fair in St. Louis, MO, in 1904:

Arliss played in support of super star Blanche Bates in the first role that really got him noticed. (I know what you’re thinking, but no, the swastika design had no connection with Nazis until the 1930s when the group appropriated the symbol (as they did with most other things) for themselves.

Disraeli was not Arliss’s first role as a prime minister. Here he is at center stage as Zakkuri, the Minister of War, in DARLING OF THE GODS. Here’s the same photo from the 1904 program that I digitally enhanced:

In 1926, Arliss and Bates reminisced about the early years when she was a star and he wasn’t:

By 1905, Arliss was in Mrs. Fiske famous theater company and playing more important, but still supporting roles:

I haven’t read the play but Raoul Berton, the Arliss character, seems to be a roue, if this photo is in any way suggestive:

Finally, in 1908, Arliss gets his first shot at stardom but just about everything that could go wrong did. He literally has a devil of a time:

Published in: on February 20, 2011 at 11:16 PM  Comments (2)  

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  1. Bob there are so many interesting connections between the stage and early film world — the human interaction, the clash of literary heritage of the stage and the crass cottage industry of the movies. When Mary Pickford’s mother suggested she go down to 14th Street to “Biograph,” her reaction, “Oh, Mother, please! Not that!” You would’ve thought mom was pimping her out by her reaction to it!

    Interesting that Mr. Arliss was working with Blanche Bates in a 1904 Belasco production. Pickford got her interview with Belasco through the intercession of Blanche Bates in 1907, when Miss Bates was starring in another Belasco production. Miss Bates’ “colored Maid” relayed Mary’s request to Blanche, who didn’t want to be bothered but, after much cajoling by her maid, told the maid to tell Mary she could use her as a reference.

    Belasco hired her for Warrens of Virginia, and she was christened “Mary Pickford.” When the show ended in March of 1909 and the money got tight, Mother asked her to seek employment at “that place!” I guess Mother did know best.

    • Gene, one does get the impression that NYC was a small world a century ago. There’s also the literary group – Arliss found himself seated next to Mark Twain at a luncheon around this time. By 1907, Arliss was looking for a starring vehicle and approached Belasco but the producer had nothing for him. When THE DEVIL came along, Belasco offered the use of his theater, which instantly added a measure of prestige to Arliss’s fledgling effort.

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