A Successful Calamity (1932)

One of the more obscure films in the Arliss Canon, A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY is happily back in circulation from Warner Home Video as part of a three-disc dvd set, the George Arliss Signature Collection. Think of Mr. A in “Father Knows Best” and you’ll know what to expect. The film is based on a 1917 play written by Clare Kummer who specialized in feather-weight domestic comedies. The play gave a needed change of pace to William Gillette who had been playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage since 1899. Warner Bros. may have figured that if this play was good enough for “Sherlock Holmes,” it was good enough for “Disraeli.”

Mr. A plays international financier Henry Wilton who has just returned from a year abroad in the service of the President of the United States. Eager to return to his family, he arrives home a day ahead of schedule and finds only his butler, Connors, there to greet him. Wilton decides to visit his family members at their various appointments. His son Eddie (William Janney) is playing in a polo match:

Eddie is sidelined by his coach, Larry Rivers, played by Randolph Scott. The man in the derby is Grant Mitchell playing Connors:

Wilton’s daughter Peggy (Evalyn Knapp) is in love with Larry Rivers but engaged to a nerdish young man:

Emmie (Mary Astor) is Wilton’s wife by a second marriage. Earlier he observes that he was criticized by some for marrying a woman much younger than himself. He learns from Emmie that they are “patrons” of a handsome young pianist, Pietro, who is much closer in age to Emmie.

Wilton despairs of having a quiet evening at home with his family given their busy social lives. He wonders if the poor have the same problem, but Connors tells him no, because “the poor don’t get to go very often.” This gives Wilton an idea:

Wilton breaks the “news” to Emmie that they are “ruined” and must sell everything. She cancels her evening’s plans to stay home with him:

Wilton also informs Peggy and Eddie of their ruin and they likewise cancel their plans and find themselves enjoying a simple dinner with their dad and step-mother to plan their future:

Before Wilton can tell Emmie the next day that he is not ruined after all, he learns that she has packed up all her jewelry and left in a taxi with her protege Pietro. Fearing the worst, Wilton tells Larry, Peggy and Eddie that Emmie left because she was afraid to be poor:

But Emmie has not left him, she only sold her jewelry to raise money and Pietro came along because he knows a good pawnbroker. Wilton’s family reflects on their brush with poverty by wondering why they were happier spending time at home. Wilton explains they were happy because “the poor don’t get to go very often.” The End.

Warners granted Mr. A a rare concession that was not even mentioned in his contract – the studio paid the cast (but not Mr. A) an extra two weeks salary so they could rehearse prior to any filming. The script for A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY was then performed as play from beginning to end before an audience of studio workers including the director. The script was revised based on audience reaction and only when the script was finalized would filming begin.

Yet refinements to the script continued even during filming. The story is simple enough but was filled with dangerous shoals for its characters. For example, Peggy and Eddie could easily have been played as spoiled brats but instead come across as likeable (but spoiled) youth. The same can be said of Emmie although Mary Astor brings an inherent intelligence to her character. Wilton’s claim of being ruined seems like a nasty trick and in the script he admits to his family that it was a cruel joke:

In the film Wilton never tells them it was a hoax and indeed it seems that they are better off not knowing. The hoax serves as a reality check making Eddie and Peggy realize that they have to support themselves instead of living off Dad. The viewer is left with the impression that they are better people thanks to the “cruel joke.” Thus, the ending dialogue was changed from the final script and the story is more effective as a result:

A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY satirizes modern “futuristic” music and art deco design but is most surprising in its focus on the travails of the wealthy during the height of the Great Depression in 1932. Perhaps the public enjoyed being voyeurs among the rich while forgetting their more basic problems. In any event, the film was profitable for Warner Bros., as were all of the Arliss films, with gross revenue of $642,000 and netting a profit of $127,000, or 25 percent over costs. Not bad for a story as light as pixie dust.

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