Happy Birthday, Mr. A – 153rd Anniversary and the Story of Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner and “Master Billy Arliss”

April 10, 1868 was a long time ago but through the magic of films we in the 21st century can watch a man who lived in the 19th century give performances in 20th century motion pictures. This year I managed to uncover some long unseen photos of George Arliss with his dog. For years I had a beautiful image of Mr. A alighting from a car carrying a little fluffy white pooch. I never knew the dog’s name until now. And thereby hangs a tail, I mean tale (no pun intended).

A recent online search in the Billy Rose Theater Collection at the New York Public Library revealed some “snapshots” of Mr. A with a small floppy-eared dog. This discovery led me to search for more info on the pooch. The photos are undated but I am guessing the time is the early 1910s. I searched further on the ‘net with the simple term “Arliss and dog” and found many references – to Old Yeller.

Images courtesy of the Billy Rose Collection, New York Public Library

Further digging revealed a newspaper story from the Sacramento Union of January 10, 1921. The story is titled, “DEAD ANIMALS NOT FORGOTTEN – Wreaths Placed on Graves of Cats and Dogs in Cemetery.” The burial ground, Pine Ridge Cemetery in Dedham, Massachusetts, is described as a “dog and cat cemetery” and among other graves notes the following: “A plain granite cube over one grave is marked; ‘In Memory of Master Billy Arliss.’ This is the last resting place of the fluffy white terrier of George Arliss, the actor. Billy died last winter while Mr. Arliss was playing In Boston, and his owner bought a lot and erected the memorial.”

Thus matching the name to a description I realized that for many years the Arliss Archives held a beautiful photo of Billy and his master. Here are two versions:

Also, the doggy in the snapshots does not appear to be the same dog in our portrait with the car. Further research led me to find a wonderful site – the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum was built by its namesake who lived from 1840 to 1924. She was a devoted patron of the arts who amassed a huge collection of art from around the world, then established her museum so everybody could enjoy its treasures. Mrs. Gardner was somewhat unconventional in the very conventional city of Boston. In 1912 she made news by attending a concert of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra wearing a white headband stating, “Go Red Socks.” This sort of thing simply wasn’t done.

She also befriended George Arliss and the website offers two portraits of Mr. A, one of them with Billy, and also four letters he wrote to Mrs. Gardner dated 1913 through her final year in 1924. According to the information, Mrs. Gardner liked the Billy portrait so much that she hung it in her private study that she called the Vatichino Room where she kept her personal treasures. It’s unclear whether Mr. A’s 1913 letter is referring to the Billy photo or to a separate portrait of himself:

Here are both portraits that Mr. A sent to Mrs. Gardner:

Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here are the four letters from Mr. A. His 1920 letter refers to a stroke that she suffered in 1919. His February 27, 1924 letter was written some five months before her death on July 17. He would not return to the USA until September of that year.

Given George Arliss’s love of dogs we should note that for many years he was president of the National Anti-Vivisection Society. It was an activist group that opposed the live dissection of animals, purportly for “medical research.” Mr. A was convinced that claims citing the “necessity” of such procedures were unsubstantiated.

Finally, here is an unusual item I have never seen before – Mr. A’s calling card to Mrs. Gardner with his annotation:

Happy 153th Birthday Mr A!

Published in: on April 10, 2021 at 1:17 PM  Comments (1)  

Arliss Alert! VOLTAIRE on TCM Thursday, March 11 at 6AM EST

Our favorite among all the Arliss “biopics,” VOLTAIRE is an intriguing and clever film dealing with an episode in the life of the famous philosopher, author and wit, and lady’s man.

Mr. A with Doris Kenyon who plays Madame de Pompadour

Warner Bros. regarded the project as “Arliss’s film” because he had advocated the story since at least 1919 when he asked George Bernard Shaw to write a play for him. Instead two Boston newspapermen sent Mr. A their own Voltaire play and he liked it. Revising the script himself, but refusing a co-author credit, the play remained unproduced until 1933 when Darryl Zanuck at Warners “green-lighted” the production.

Alan Mowbray as the villain De Sarnac is confronted by Voltaire

The Warners publicity department didn’t know how to advertise the film because costume films were considered box office “poison” so VOLTAIRE posters suggested some sort of modern dress romantic comedy. The studio shouldn’t have worried because the film made a healthy profit of 65% once it made back its production costs. George Arliss’s final film for Warner Bros. also proved to be one of his most successful.

A souvenir coin to promote the film

Don’t miss this one!

Published in: on March 5, 2021 at 2:08 PM  Comments (6)  
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Celebrate the Centennial Premiere of THE DEVIL (1921), the first George Arliss Film.

Today, January 16, we are holding anĀ online re-premiere for the CentennialĀ of THE DEVIL, the first film starring George Arliss. The original premiere took place on January 16, 1921 in New York City at the Mark Strand Theater. We have been working on this project for well over a year. Thanks are due to Larry Smith of the Library of Congress and to Lewis Schoenbrun who volunteered his professional services to restore the images. We also gave the video a 4K scan and added the music. It can be viewed in HD at https://youtu.be/okiNSuhLB38

Welcome the New Year with the Official George Arliss Wall Calendar for 2021

If you’d like a copy, that’s easy to do. Simply click on the calendar and then Print.

This year of 2021 marks the Centennial of Mr. A’s very first film. Look for the “re-premiere” of THE DEVIL (1921) in the next few weeks. We have arranged a 4K scan of the material plus other upgrades.

Published in: on December 31, 2020 at 6:18 PM  Comments (2)  

Seasons Greetings to One and All!

Published in: on December 21, 2020 at 9:37 PM  Comments (3)  

Arliss Alert! Friday, November 20, 2020 TCM is showing A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932) at 3:15 PM Eastern Time

Tomorrow afternoon, Friday, Nov. 20, TCM is showing A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932) at 3:15 PM (ET). This delightful “Father Knows Best” type of family comedy stars George Arliss and Mary Astor, and a pre-star Randolph Scott. Long before Mary teamed up with Humphrey Bogart, she was “married” to Mr. A in this film. Their May-December marriage may surprise you.

Published in: on November 19, 2020 at 1:39 PM  Comments (2)  

A 152nd Birthday Greeting to George Arliss!

Today, April 10, is Good Friday. It was also Good Friday back in 1868 on that day when Mr. A was born in London. He came from a family of publishers going back to the 18th century and founded by his grandfather, John Arliss. His family lived and worked in the Bloomsbury district, which, of course, has long been celebrated as the literary center of the city.

As we all know too well, no matter where you live today this is a tense time in our lives with conditions not seen since the Second World War. Celebrities have been stepping up to boost our morale so I think it’s fitting on this particular Arliss birthday observance to recall his own efforts in speaking to the British people during WWII while he and Florence remained in London throughout the long war.

Mr. A talks to the crowd at Market House in 1942:

We know in letters that Mr. A wrote to friends during the war that he spoke to the public on several occasions. It was typical of him to question his effectiveness and he hoped he was not too boring. But even in his 70s, he apparently answered the call every time he was asked to give a morale-boosting talk.

Mr. A seems to attract some attention at Waterloo Station:

We are fortunate to have preserved an address he gave over the BBC at some point between the fall 1939 and the spring 1940. I believe his words are just as meaningful in dealing with today’s crisis as they were back then. His message is simple and direct: do something. Everybody can contribute in some way or other to the gigantic effort that is required of all of us to get through this crisis, whether a war or a pandemic. Here he is:

Happy Birthday, Mr. A. Your words continue to inspire!

Published in: on April 10, 2020 at 2:05 PM  Leave a Comment  

Arliss Alert! Double Feature Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 Beginning at 12:30 PM EDT

Turner Classic Movies US (TCM) is showing TWO George Arliss films this Thursday, Sept. 19, beginning at 12:30 PM eastern daylight time with A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932). This is the second time TCM is running this film in less than a month!

Then also on Thursday at 3:15 PM is my vote for the best of the Arliss comedies – and the best film to recommend to a first-time Arliss viewer. The film is THE WORKING MAN (1933) that also co-stars a very young Bette Davis.

Published in: on September 17, 2019 at 6:20 PM  Comments (2)  

Arliss Alert! A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY (1932) is being aired in the US on Monday, August 26, 2019, at 12:30 PM EDT on TCM (Turner Classic Movies)

Mr. A’s family comedy, I call it a proto-type of “Father Knows Best,” is being broadcast tomorrow as part of TCM’s salute to Mary Astor. Long before Mary co-starred with Humphrey Bogart or Walter Huston, she played Mr. A’s wife in this May-September relationship. The age difference was not glossed over and, indeed, becomes an important story point as the plot develops.

Mr. A wondered in his autobiography, MY TEN YEARS IN THE STUDIOS, whether A SUCCESSFUL CALAMITY made any money for Warner Bros. but he needn’t have worried. Studio records show that this little film made a tidy profit during the depths of the Great Depression. Get your DVRs ready for this one although your blogmeister is happy to report that Warner Archive has offered this film on DVD for several years now!

Published in: on August 25, 2019 at 11:41 AM  Comments (2)  
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Happy 151st Birthday, Mr. A!

Last year on April 10 was the 150th anniversary of George Arliss’s Birth. I created a video to mark the occasion so in case you missed it, here it is!

Published in: on April 9, 2019 at 10:31 PM  Comments (2)  
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