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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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great Reading.

  2. 20th Century-Fox were shareholders in Gaumont-British as they were in Hoyts movie houses in Australia. Explains why actors Michael Rennie and Richard Greene had dual TCF/Gaumont contracts. In 1939 Gracie Fields made her last British film for TCF, Shipyard Sally, at Islington. I met a man in early 1971 in London who was a boy then and lived across the street from the studio and was ill during some of the time of the filming and was able to watch filming when outside the studio from his bedroom window. He had little film interest then but later worked for an auction room business who specialised buying up estate contents. He got 78s and nitrate film from these places for a room he hired attached to the back of a house on Wood Green/Nth London. Frank had Sat night screenings with a group of friends and I was invited one night. If the owners knew of the nitrate they would have been very alarmed. Years before he had a screening of a mid-1930s film, Evensong, which operetta star Evelyn Laye(1900-1996) and invited her. He got back from the rail station with invitees and found her sitting there with friends in the room. She had no recollection of having made the film!!!


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