The Kings of Warners

The Arliss Archives include holdings indirectly related to George Arliss. In this post, we’ll take a look at some material highlighting Mr. A’s colleagues. When Warner Bros. signed George Arliss in the summer of 1928 to make three “talking pictures,” he joined the ranks of two other super stars of that studio – Al Jolson and John Barrymore.

No, this photo is not Mr. A arriving at Warners. I can’t place the occasion but it looks like a movie still. It was taken some time in the early to mid 1920s (judging by the automobile) but the original photo annotation suggests a candid shot. Florence Arliss was fond of little dogs, Mr. A apparently less so:

Al Jolson was the musical comedy sensation of Broadway and Warners had to pay dearly to acquire his talents. Jolson thought the Brothers were on to something with Vitaphone but they didn’t have much ready cash. Al agreed to take partial payment in studio shares of stock and became wealthy as a result:

Everybody knows that THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) was the first commercially successful sound film. Less well known is that the follow up, THE SINGING FOOL (1928), was an even bigger moneymaker:

John Barrymore had made four epic silent films for Warners in the mid 20s following his theater triumph in HAMLET, so the Brothers were eager to get him back when sound came in. In those days, it seems that no expense was spared in making a Barrymore film.

The composition of this photo from his first talkie, GENERAL CRACK (1930), seems inspired by late 18th century portraits:

Fans could even read the novel of GENERAL CRACK in movie magazines of the day, complete with an elaborately painted cover portrait of the Great Profile:

Kings usually help each other and the protocol was no different at Warners. Here Barrymore and Jolson lend their support to Mr. A’s first talkie:

Warners also acquired an upcoming dramatic star of the theater who had actually corresponded with George Arliss some 20 years earlier, then appeared in support of Mr. A on the stage in 1920. Here is an uncharacteristically dapper Edward G. Robinson:

This next photo might be called, “Kings in Exile.” Mr. A is in costume for OLD ENGLISH (1930) and the film’s director Alfred Green stands to his left. The other three gentlemen are all legendary stars of the theater: standing behind Mr. A is Otis Skinner; seated next to him is Wilton Lackaye; and the gentleman standing on the right is Winthrop Ames who produced all of the Arliss theatrical hits of the 1920s. The lady is the equally legendary Maude Howell, who was Mr. A’s stage manager, then associate director, associate producer, and contributing writer on the Arliss films:

Eventually, the Kings of Warners followed in Mr. A’s footsteps in making biopics (historical biographical films). Here Edward G. Robinson discovers the cure for syphilis in DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET (1940) with Otto Kruger:

John Barrymore resumed wearing a powdered wig to portray King Louis XV in MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938):

Darryl Zanuck even persuaded Al Jolson to play 19th century minstrel E.P. Christy in the Technicolor SWANEE RIVER (1939) with Don Ameche and Andrea Leeds as Stephen Foster and his long-suffering wife. This is a b/w photo rendered into faux Technicolor:

And now for something completely different – these two gents could be the maternal and paternal grandfathers of the Marx Brothers (in an artistic sense, they were), but they’re actually the Broadway producer/comedy team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields. These fellows invented the dramatic parody in the 1890s that’s been a staple of American comedy ever since, right up to today’s skits on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, making them theater kings in their own right:

Beginning their act in 1877, here they are in 1940 still going strong. Arliss was a relative latecomer only beginning his career in 1887!

Out of costume, Joe and Lew looked more respectable when they moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s. There they spent many delightful evenings reminiscing about the old days with their friend, Mr. A (and it would be great to find a photo of the three of them together!):

Next week’s post will be very special in celebration of Mr. A’s birthday on April 10th. We’ll take a look at his masterwork – DISRAELI – the play, the silent film, the talkie, and the radio broadcast. With the exception of Shakespeare, I doubt there has been another dramatic work that has been adapted into so many different media as DISRAELI, and which starred the same actor.

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