George Arliss – One for the Teenagers by Clive Beautyman

George Arliss – One for the Teenagers

In his one-man show at the Royal Festival Hall in 1966 Tony Hancock performs a stand-up routine which has changed little since the 1950s. In one section he does some impressions: Robert Newton as Long John Silver (from the 1950 film), Charles Laughton in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). “Now then – here’s a cracker – one for the teenagers – George Arliss” says Hancock. He purses his lips and forms a monocle with thumb and forefinger. The audience laugh but Hancock looks puzzled, “What do you mean never heard of him ? He’s only been dead forty years !”

Asked to name British actors who had won an Oscar George Arliss (1868-1946) would feature in few replies and yet he was the very first British Oscar winner as well as the earliest-born actor ever to win the award. Already a star of the Broadway stage in the 1910s he became one of the few actors to successfully transition from silent films in the 1920s to talkies in the 1930s. This year marks the centenary of his first film “The Devil” (1921). As a Hollywood producer at Warner Brothers he is credited with discovering and promoting such talent as Bette Davis, James Cagney, Randolph Scott and Dick Powell. He deserves to be remembered.

Augustus George Andrews was born in London the third son of a printer and publisher. Fascinated by stories of the theatrical life by 18 he was playing small parts in melodramas at the Elephant and Castle Theatre. After a decade of provincial touring he returned to London and joined Mrs Patrick Campbell’s company. She took the troupe to America in 1901 and Arliss was an immediate hit on Broadway playing opposite her in Pinero’s “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray”. Despite planning only a six month stay in America he was largely based there for the rest of his working life whilst also maintaining homes in England.

At the height of his Broadway fame in 1911 Louis Parker wrote a play on the life of Disraeli specifically for him. It proved a gold mine – he played it for five years on stage, made a silent film of it in 1921 and a sound film in 1929. It was this latter film which brought him his Best Actor Oscar. Playing opposite him was his wife Florence who he had married in 1899.

In 1912 Arliss spent six months in Boston with “Disraeli” where he was befriended by the local socialite and arts patron Isabella Stewart Gardner (then 72). In his autobiography he later gave his light-hearted views in praise of Bostonian older women: “When you are there should you be seeking companionship – female companionship – don’t go to the dance halls amongst the flappers, but pick out some lady, – almost any lady, over seventy, and if she takes to you, you will have the time of your life. But don’t be put off by some immature substitute in the fifties or sixties; be sure that she has reached the allotted span of life. At seventy the Boston lady says to herself, ‘I have done my duty as a wife and mother … now I am going to have a good time.’ But before you attach yourself to the lady, you must be sure that you are in good physical condition; you will need all your strength”.

In 1917 he appeared as the American founding father Alexander Hamilton in the self-penned play “Hamilton”, a somewhat different piece to the recent hit musical of the same name, with the aim of conveying that the founding fathers were, “real people, and not merely a procession of nice grey-headed old gentlemen”. The Hamilton tour closed prematurely in Boston in 1918 due to the unrest of World War I and venue closures caused by the Spanish flu pandemic.

Ever keen to recycle good material Arliss filmed “Hamilton” in 1931 as an early sound film. His experience as a stage actor meant that, in his 60s, Arliss was perfectly placed to exploit this new medium of “talking pictures”. A contract from Warner Brothers gave him a large amount of artistic control and led to string of successes, often remakes of his previous stage or silent film hits such as “The Green Goddess” and “The Man Who Played God”. The latter gave Bette Davis her first leading role.

The production team Arliss assembled made ten films before Warners’ production chief Darryl F. Zanuck resigned and Arliss followed him to his new 20th Century Pictures company. The hits continued and in 1934 he was voted British film-goers favourite male star and gushing newspaper adverts at the time referred to him (pace Tony Hancock) as “The inimitable George Arliss” who “holds his audiences spellbound for reel after reel”.

As an actor his distinguished patrician style made him perfect for portraying powerful historical figures. “An actor from whose Atheneum manner I sometimes derive a rather humble pleasure” Graham Greene noted. Among his greatest successes in addition to Disraeli were Wellington, Rothschild, and Richelieu. Surprisingly he only once played in Shakespeare, as Shylock. After retirement he said the only character he regretted never having been able to play on screen was the Vicar of Wakefield.

Having previously said he would only retire “when they cut my salary. A sure indication that an actor’s sun is setting.” In 1937 he retired from the screen because his wife “my beloved Flo” was going blind. “She needs a companion, and I have applied for the post” he explained.

They again revived “Disraeli”, this time as a radio production for Cecil B. DeMille. They returned to their London house in Maida Hill in 1939 and despite a film offer from Darryl F. Zanuck they saw out the war in England and never returned to America. Their London property survived the Blitz but a holiday home they owned in St. Margaret’s Bay in Kent was destroyed in 1942 by a shell from the German battleship Gneisenau when she was dashing up the English Channel with the Scharnhorst. A favourite location, Arliss had spent many summers there between theatrical seasons and had seen Blériot land on the nearby cliffs in 1909 and Zeppelins attacked by British fighter planes during World War I.

Modest and self-effacing, Arliss (“Uncle Gus” to his relatives) had survived the excesses and monstrous egos of early Hollywood unscathed. Unhurried and leisure loving – though walking four miles each day – he was as dignified and poised as many of the characters he played. He was a campaigning anti-vivisectionist and a strict vegan saying “I eat nothing I can pat.”

This Grand Old Man of the screen died of pneumonia at home in 1946 at the age of 77 having been seen out for the last time two weeks before walking near Marble Arch “monocled, gloved and spatted, looking frail and tired, but still the picture of a perfect gentleman”. As a measure of his success he left an estate valued at around £6 million in today’s money. A substantial portion of that went eventually, via his wife Florence who died four years later, to the Council of Justice to Animals and the RSPCA. George Arliss has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles and a gravestone in All Saints’ Churchyard, Harrow Weald.

Reprinted by the courtesy of Best of Britain magazine, May 2021.

Published in: on September 26, 2022 at 9:43 PM  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

One CommentLeave a comment

  1. What an actor and what a personality. How I wish I had met him.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: