The Arliss Women, Part Deux

As promised, here is the second installment in our review of some of the gifted actresses who appeared in the Arliss films.

Loretta Young, like Mr. A, followed producer Darryl Zanuck when he left Warner Bros. for 20th Century-Fox. Young would make some of her best films there beginning with THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (1934) where she played the role of Nathan Rothschild’s (Arliss) daughter Julie:

With Robert Young. For whatever reason, the original still reversed the image but your blogmeister corrected it.

A frame capture from the Technicolor finale of ROTHSCHILD:

Doris Kenyon was a silent screen star who was married to another silent screen star, Milton Sills. They made several films together during the 1920s and Kenyon also appeared in the Arliss silent, THE RULING PASSION (1922). When Sills died suddenly in late 1930, Kenyon planned to retire but Mr. A persuaded her otherwise.

Doris Kenyon as Betsy Hamilton in ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931)

Kenyon joins Mr. A in his mandatory afternoon tea break on the HAMILTON set:

A detail from a HAMILTON lobby card with Dudley Digges:

Another HAMILTON lobby card with Lionel Belmore as Old Gen. Schuyler – in fact Belmore was only a year older than Mr. A!

Two year later Arliss and Kenyon played very different roles in VOLTAIRE (1933), she as Mme. Pompadour…

…mistress to King Louis XV, played by Reginald Owen:

Mary Astor was leading lady to John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks in the 1920s, and a memorable femme fatale to Humphrey Bogart in the 1940s. In between, Astor was married to Mr. A – onscreen of course – in A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932):

In his memoirs, Arliss thanked Gladys Cooper (later Dame Gladys Cooper, DBE [Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire]) for playing the relatively small role of Duchess d’Angoulême, the vengeful daughter of Marie Antoinette, in his first British film, THE IRON DUKE (1934):

It is rather obvious who is the brains here.

THE IRON DUKE casts Mr. A as the Duke of Wellington, but his real adversary is not Napoleon but a woman, Mme. d’Angoulême, who nearly succeeds in restoring the Bourbon monarchy to France. This film was Cooper’s first talkie. Here is the denouement where the Duke tells the Duchess: “I fight for peace – you fight for vengeance. That is why you have to go.”

We haven’t overlooked Joan Bennett, Alice Joyce, Evalyn Knapp, Doris Lloyd and others so that’s why there will be a Part Trois coming up soon.
If you missed Part One, click on the “People” category.

Published in: on March 26, 2011 at 10:28 PM  Comments (1)  
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The Lost Secret of Portrait Photography

Ever wonder why movie stills from the 1920s and 30s look so drop-dead stunning? And why professional studio photos from the 1950s onward look so, well, chintzy? It’s not your imagination or cheap modern printing processes. There actually are long-forgotten techniques used by the still photographers in early Hollywood. Fortunately, George Arliss was our man on the scene during that Golden Age so let’s take a look at some superb original 8×10 and 11×14 inch portraits by these Rembrandts of film to uncover some of their methods.

Admittedly a self-consciously artsy photo, this Bert Longworth portrait of Mr. A suggests a 3-D quality:


Here’s a refreshing outdoor composition by Irving Lippman. You can almost feel the warmth of the sunshine:


Photographers understood the inherent drama of black & white as this stark study suggests:


This is one of several portraits that Warners commissioned when Mr. A signed to make talking pictures in 1928. The unknown photographer has subtly softened the focus on the facial features without calling attention to it:

The portrait above is 4×5 and here is the 4×5 work negative it was made from (cropped due to my scanner):

And here is a painting that Gaumont-British studios made from the same photo a few years later:

I have not enhanced the colors – they are as vibrant now as they were 75 years ago.

Getting the flesh tones right marked the true artist, not too light and pasty, not too dark:

THE MILLIONAIRE (1931) by Bert Longworth

The still photographer often worked closely with the cinematographer on lighting. Here notice the “candlelight effect” that was a challenge to achieve due to the relatively low sensitivity of film stock of the time mandating lots of lights – there is minimal frontal lighting, the glow from the fireplace at right is noticeable, and most of the lighting comes from overhead:

VOLTAIRE (1933) with Doris Kenyon and Reginald Owen

A dramatic portrait by Elmer Fryer:


An uncharacteristic pose of Mr. A, note the sharp focus on the face:

We’ve discussed the role of lighting, lenses and focal points, but what was the real secret that makes the work of these vintage photographers unattainable their by counterparts today? Ready? It was the size of the negatives they used. They didn’t use those handy 35mm rolls of film or larger rolls that produced negatives about 2 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches square. No, these da Vincis of da camera used gigantic negatives measuring 8 x 10 inches. In other words, those beloved 8×10 stills that film buffs admire are not enlargements from small negatives like today, they were contact prints!

Here’s an original 8×10 negative – and yes, it required a huge, bulky camera:

Most digital scanners today can’t handle these 8×10 monsters but the depth of field these negatives produced just can’t be duplicated with smaller size negatives. It’s the difference between painting a miniature or working on a large canvas

And here’s this negative turned into a print:

THE LAST GENTLEMAN (1934) with Rafaela Ottiano, Donald Meek, Frank Albertson, Janet Beecher, Charlotte Henry, Edna May Oliver, Ralph Morgan, and Mr. A.

(restored from a scrapbook clipping, circa 1934)

Published in: on March 19, 2011 at 10:46 PM  Comments (4)  
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The Millionaire

Gasoline price wars aren’t new, although gas stations today seem to compete only to charge the highest price, not the lowest. Anyway, imagine a millionaire – in today’s money, a gazillionaire – who buys an interest in a little gas station as a hobby. His partner is a young man of modest means who has no idea that the elder mechanic is the Warren Buffet of his day. When they are swindled by their competitor, a hilarious case of economic warfare breaks out in the best capitalist tradition.

George Arliss plays James Alden, a Henry Ford-type auto tycoon, who is more or less forced into retirement by his doctor. Florence Arliss plays Alden’s wife:

Alden is doted on to such an extent that he’s in danger of becoming an invalid. The ever-reliable Ivan Simpson plays Davis, the butler:

A then-unknown James Cagney is a fast-talking life insurance salesman who drops his sales pitch on learning that Alden is retired – a “bad risk” for insurance purposes. The salesman helpfully suggests that Alden should look for business opportunities to stay active:

Arliss personally cast Cagney in the role, observing that Cagney had the perfect personality that seemed to say, “Here I am, take me or leave me, and hurry up.”

Alden keeps secret his doctor-defying plan to buy a half-interest in a gas station incognito as a simple mechanic he names Charlie Miller. But the owner, Peterson, played by Noah Beery, Sr., is a crook and sells the other half interest to young Bill Merrick, played by David Manners

The ink on the sale is barely dry when Alden and Merrick realize they’ve been swindled – the road going past their gas station is being closed due to the new highway opening up, and Peterson has the only gas station there!

David Manners, Arliss, Noah Berry. Sr., and Tully Marshall

Alden/”Miller” uses his wits, not his money, and persuades Bill Merrick to obtain a loan from a relative to open a new gas station right across the highway from Peterson’s. Romance also blossoms between Merrick and Alden’s daughter Barbara, played by Evalyn Knapp, and Alden takes Barbara into his confidence:

A lobby card from the lost silent film version, THE RULING PASSION (1922). Here, Alden’s daughter is played by Doris Kenyon. A decade later, Arliss and Kenyon would portray Mr. and Mrs. ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931) and still later, as VOLTAIRE (1933) and Mme. De Pompadour, respectively:

“Miller” and Merrick battle Peterson head-on by slashing their price for gasoline – seeing how little gasoline cost in 1931 may bring tears to your eyes:

Peterson admits defeat and ends up buying out Alden & Merrick for three times what they paid him. Alden explains to his wife that the only thing wrong with him was boredom and his secret project was the right cure:

Here’s a nice f/x photo of Alden and his alter ego, Charlie Miller:

Here’s something we don’t see every day – an actual movie ticket to THE MILLIONAIRE from 1931:

Notes: The Millionaire was George Arliss’s fourth talkie but his first modern dress sound film, following three costume films DISRAELI, THE GREEN GODDESS, and OLD ENGLISH, which were based on his stage successes. The story was adopted from one written by Earl Derr Biggers, the creator of “Charlie Chan,” and the naturalistic dialogue was supplied by Booth Tarkington. Cinematographer James Van Trees filmed much of the action outdoors in the breezy sunshine that gave the film an almost lyrical quality at times.

Published in: on March 13, 2011 at 8:40 AM  Leave a Comment  


“Look at this, Babs. Our blogmeister reports that the Arliss Archives has already gotten over 1,700 views!”

“That’s great, Dad. Did you notice that in celebration the blogmeister added the bronze bust that Ivan Simpson made of you from THE GREEN GODDESS?”

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 12:12 AM  Leave a Comment  

The Green Goddess

The seething East, hostages, civil unrest, despotic rulers, hatred of the West, reprisal killings – sounds like today’s news. In fact, these are plot elements from THE GREEN GODDESS, a hit play for George Arliss in 1921, that he made as a silent film in 1923, and again as a sound film in 1929. So how can something so old be so topical in the 21st Century?

The play was a first-time effort by veteran drama critic William Archer, based on a dream he had. Archer earlier published a book that set down rules for playwrights whereby he all but guaranteed that following his rules would assure success. Archer then ignored all his own rules in writing THE GREEN GODDESS.

The temple of the Green Goddess but the play’s title actually refers to another type of green-jealousy. This is the set from the 1923 silent version.

Arliss plays the omnipotent Rajah of Rukh, a small kingdom somewhere in the Himalayas. Western educated, but hateful of the British, the Rajah finds himself unexpectedly the host of three British survivors of a plane crash.

The Rajah impresses his guests with his militia.

Ever the perfect host, the Rajah gradually explains that he is holding the trio as hostages. His brothers have assassinated a British official and are due to be executed – so “an eye for an eye.”

The three “guests” – Major Crespin, his wife Lucilla, and Dr. Traherne – keep their wits, bribe the Rajah’s English valet, and attempt to send a wireless call for help.

Major Crespin is fatally shot by the Rajah and confesses that he failed to send the radio message for help. Arliss, Harry T. Morey, and Alice Joyce in the 1923 silent version.

But the Rajah is willing to spare Lucilla – if she becomes one of his wives. The silent version with Jetta Goudal as a lady in waiting.

To sweeten his offer, the Rajah proposes to kidnap Lucilla’s children and bring them to her in Rukh. Arliss and Alice Joyce again, but from the 1929 talkie version.

The Rajah’s ultimatum-return to the palace as his wife or be dragged back as his slave:

The sacrifice proceeds as planned with the two surviving guests, Lucilla and Dr. Traherne – –

Arliss, Alice Joyce, and Ralph Forbes in the talkie version.

— but the Major lied – his message did get through and the RAF arrives with bombs.

Now a deposed despot, the Rajah consoles himself over losing Lucilla with the classic closing line: “She’d
probably have been a damned nuisance.”

A lucky playgoer of 1924 not only preserved the ticket stub, but got Mr. A to autograph the playbill:

Notice the ad in the lower left of the playbill for the book edition- here’s the cover:

Finally, a rarity – the last page of the silent film script. Notice that Arliss’s exit line is faithfully preserved:

[Click on this image to access “hidden” frame captures from the 1929 film]

Notes: George Arliss was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award both for THE GREEN GODDESS and for DISRAELI. He won for DISRAELI, thereby becoming the only actor in film history to compete against himself for the Oscar. Also, THE GREEN GODDESS was actually filmed prior to DISRAELI during the summer of 1929 but was not released until February 1930, some four months after DISRAELI’s release. Why? That’s another story.

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