BFI Posts a “New” George Arliss Film! IMPRESSIONS OF DISRAELI (1931) Speeches

The British Film Institute has posted this one-reel sound film of George Arliss delivering speeches by Benjamin Disraeli. This film, his first made in Britain, has likely not been seen since 1931 and is comprised of original material that Mr. A never performed before or since. He is introduced by Tory leader Stanley Baldwin, who himself served as Britain’s prime minister on three occasions between 1923 and 1937.

 

Maude T. Howell – Mr. A’s Shadow

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Women executives were rare at American film studios during the 1930s. One exception was Maude T. Howell who worked as a screen writer, associate director and associate producer at Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Pictures from 1929 to 1935. She then crossed the Atlantic to work at Gaumont-British Pictures in London through 1937. Maude’s assigned motion picture productions had one thing in common: they were all George Arliss films. A graduate of Stanford University (Class of 1911), Maude worked in high school and community dramatics in Los Angeles. She became an assistant stage manager for a Detroit stock company and later was hired in a similar position for the New York production of THE GREEN GODDESS in 1921, which starred Mr. A. When the stage manager suddenly became ill, Maude took his place and thereby became the first woman stage manager in New York theater history. Mr. A in his memoirs recalled her skill and efficiency in this very demanding job. Photographs of Ms. Howell are as scarce as the proverbial hen’s teeth so following are among the rarest images in the Arliss Archives.
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This backstage photo dates from March 1923 and is likely during the run of THE GREEN GODDESS.

When Mr. A went into making “talkies” he brought Maude Howell along to be his eyes and ears in the myriad details of film-making.
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Taking a break from filming OLD ENGLISH in 1930, Maude Howell joins Mr. A and theater legends Otis Skinner (standing behind Mr. A), and Wilton Lackaye, seated next to him. The man standing on the right is Winthrop Ames who produced Mr. A’s plays from 1920 through 1928. Standing on the left is film director Alfred E. Green.

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Maude Howell also contributed to the scripts of the Arliss films, often uncredited. So did Mr. A. Here they are on the set of ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931) with director John Adolfi.

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The production crew of CARDINAL RICHELIEU (1935) with Maude Howell seated at extreme right. To her left is Maureen O’Sullivan while Mr. A looks on approvingly at the film’s director, Rowland V. Lee.

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The main credits of RICHELIEU prominently disclose who provided the script.

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On the set of the British film, HIS LORDSHIP (1937), a comedy of foreign intrigue where Mr. A plays twin brothers. Here he is costumed as the pompous one. Director Herbert Mason is on the left.

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Queen Mary attended the London premiere of DR. SYN (1937), which turned out to be Mr. A’s final film. However, he would consider offers to play Disraeli in SUEZ (1938) and to star in THE PIED PIPER (1942), among other proposals. Alan Whittaker is dressed identically to Mr. A because he is his stand-in.

Maude Howell evidently returned to America following the completion of DR. SYN. Presumably, she resumed her career in theater production. Little more seems to be known about her except that she died in 1964 in New Orleans at the age of 77. Please contact me if you have any info about this special lady.

Arliss Alert! DISRAELI is Back!!! TCM on Sunday Feb 16 @ 4:00 AM ET

It’s the start of Academy Award Season so naturally Mr. A’s 1929 Oscar winner is one of the first films honored by Turner Classic Movies (TCM). DISRAELI is not yet available on DVD so be sure to set your tivo, vcr, or whatever you use for time-shifting so you don’t miss it. See George Arliss and the famous Arliss Stock Company including 19th century players such as Florence Arliss, Ivan Simpson, David Torrence, and Charles Evans. Youngsters include a 19 year old Joan Bennett.
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Actor-sculptor Ivan Simpson puts the finishing touches on his bust of Mr. A as Disraeli. Mr. Simpson plays the financier Hugh Myers in the movie:
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George Arliss in 3D

The current interest in 3D movies has a long history dating back to the 19th century use of stereograms whereby two seemingly identical photos were placed side-by-side. When seen through a viewer, called a Stereoscope, these 2D images sprang to life by blending into one three-dimensional image that was more vivid than life itself. The secret to creating this 3D illusion was to take one of the two “identical” photos from a slightly different perspective than the other, about equal to the distance between our eyes.

The Age of Stereograms spanned the 1880s through the 1920s and offered mainly the sights of far-away places. Celebrity 3D photos were limited to political leaders and important military officers. For whatever reason, neither Broadway nor Hollywood celebrities seemed to have posed for these pictures. However, 21st century computer software can help us render a “simulated 3D” image that suggests what our favorites of yesteryear might have looked like in the third dimension. If you have access to an old Stereoscope or perhaps to a modern version made of cardboard found in books about old stereo cards, then you’re all set to enjoy seeing Mr. A as Shylock as he appeared on the stage in 1928 in Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE:
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Don’t despair if you lack access to a viewer because you really don’t need one. With a bit of patience you can easily train your eyes in the knack of “free viewing,” where you can see the 3D effect without a viewer. If your Blogmeister can learn it, so can you. It helps at first if you hold your hand or a piece of cardboard in front of your face on edge so your right eye cannot see the picture on the left side and your left eye can’t see the picture on the right. Stare straight ahead as if you are are looking “through” the photos and soon you’ll notice the two photos move towards each other to become one. Try it with this image of Ivan Simpson and Mr. A from DISRAELI (1929):
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I find that smaller size photos work better than larger ones. Also, experiment with moving the images closer or further away from your eyes. A distance between 10 and 12 inches or so usually works but you’ll just have to use trial and error. Once you’ve experienced the 3D effect you will know what to look for and subsequent free viewing will be easy. Here is Ivan Simpson again without his makeup for DISRAELI, but practicing his skill as a sculptor by immortalizing Mr. A as Mr. Disraeli:
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You can enjoy the 3D effect right on your computer screen so there’s no need to print out the images. I’ve even managed to see the 3D effect with these photos on my iphone but I won’t recommend it for beginners. Not every photo is a candidate for 3D. This photo of Mr. A and June Collyer from ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931) works well because it has a clearly defined foreground and background:
Arliss_Collier in HAMILTON 3D

If you’ve gotten this far with seeing the above photos in 3D, then you’re ready for the post-graduate course. Try this exquisite portrait of Mr. A, Loretta Young, and Robert Young from THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (1934). Not only is the foreground/background clearly distinguished, but the lighting effects seem to suggest a 3D effect as well:
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This photo is from the closing scene of THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD that was originally photographed in color so I took my coloring cues directly from the film itself. I slightly altered the color of the carpet between the two images so you may notice a vivid quality as the colors combine. Florence Arliss, Mr. A, and Reginald Owen:
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Finally, here is a genuine 3D photo that your Blogmeister just made using an ordinary digital camera. The bust was sculpted by Ivan Simpson around 1923 and captures Mr. A as the Rajah of Rukh in THE GREEN GODDESS, a hit play that he made both as a silent film and later in sound in 1929 (release in 1930). Mr. A refers to this bust in the first volume of his memoirs:
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ARLISS ALERT! Mr. A’s Academy Award Winner DISRAELI on TCM on Friday, Feb. 1st at 7:30 AM Eastern Time

George Arliss received the Best Actor Academy Award for his 1929 film, DISRAELI, where he portrayed the legendary British prime minister of the 1870s. An early talkie, this story is surprisingly topical in that it focuses on Disraeli’s quest to purchase the Suez Canal for Britain. Opposed by other politicians and sabotaged by spies from Russia, the wily prime minister contrives to buy the Canal only to discover he lacks the money to pay for it! How’s George Arliss going to get out of this one? Tune in and see!

Disraeli (1929)“is playing on TCM on Fri, February 01, 2013 07:30 AM est.

Doris Lloyd plays the charming socialite Mrs. Travers, who is actually a Russian spy:
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Ivan Simpson plays financier Hugh Myers who promises to provide funding for the Canal purchase, but then goes bankrupt:
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Ivan Simpson was also a sculptor as he proves between filming scenes:
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The cover of the souvenir program from 1929:
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A 19 year-old Joan Bennett with Mr. A:
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Joan Bennett graciously provided your blogmeister with a few reminiscences of making DISRAELI:
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Florence Arliss, wife of Mr. A, played the wife of Disraeli, known as Lady Beaconsfield:
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A 1929 flyer containing memorable scenes:
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The Arliss Stock Company – Part One

One of the wonders of the old studio system was its roster of veteran actors and actresses who were under long-term contract and appeared together in numerous films over several years. While George Arliss had no formal stock company, by his own admission he would have cast the same players in every film he made if there were nobody to “control” him, as he put it. Just the same, several actors turned up frequently in the Arliss films but almost always playing vastly different characters than in previous films and having significantly different relationships with Mr. A’s character. This post will focus on the contrasting characters played by some supporting cast members.

Ivan Simpson had performed on stage with Mr. A and in two silent films. With the arrival of sound films in the late 1920s, Simpson enjoyed a long and successful film career in character parts. He was immediately tapped by Mr. A when he reported to Warner Bros. in 1929 to film his stage hit, THE GREEN GODDESS (1930). Simpson repeated his stage role as Watkins, the surly cockney valet to Mr. A’s Rajah of Rukh. We learn that Watkins is a deserter from the British Army, among other faults, and the Rajah delights in ridiculing Watkins for his inherent British “superiority” over other people. Mr. S seems to hold the record at nine appearances in the Arliss films, silent and sound:
Photo from the 1923 silent film

Simpson played financier Hugh Meyers, a character modeled after Lionel Rothschild, who privately financed British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s purchase of the Suez Canal in 1875:
Photo from the 1929 film

Ivan Simpson’s next appearance with Mr. A is as an octogenerian crony of Old Heythorp in OLD ENGLISH (1930):

Simpson’s final film appearance with Mr. A (they later performed together on radio) seemed to admit him to the pantheon class. In THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (1934) he and Mr. A are finally brothers, Nathan and Amschel:
Offscreen, Ivan Simpson was an accomplished sculptor. Here he spends his free time productively between filming scenes for DISRAELI during the summer of 1929:

Doris Kenyon became popular in films by 1917 and was a genuine star during the 1920s. After her marriage to fellow star Milton Sills, they appeared together in many films. In 1922, Mr. A and Kenyon played father and daughter in THE RULING PASSION, now a lost film but remade by Mr. A in sound as THE MILLIONAIRE (1931):

Nine years later, Mr. A and Kenyon are husband and wife in ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931). Kenyon’s husband, Milton Sills, died suddenly in September 1930 (ending what appeared to be a successful transition from silent to sound films) and she intended to retire. But Mr. A persuaded her to return to work:

Then Kenyon plays courtesan Madame De Pompadour to Mr. A’s elderly philospher at the Court of Louis XV in VOLTAIRE (1933):

Dudley Digges worked on the production side of the theater and functioned as Mr. A’s stage manager in the 1910s. Digges directed the stage version of ALEXANDER HAMILTON in 1917 and played a role as well. Thus bitten by the acting bug, he became an actor but retained his considerable experience in staging. Here Digges plays the corrupt Senator Roberts, based on the real-life William B. Giles, to Mr. A’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931):

A dignified Dudley Digges is the Lord Chamberlain to Mr. A’s reluctant monarch in THE KING’S VACATION (1933). Digges is best remembered today for two film roles: the police inspector who tracks down THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), and the drunken ship’s doctor in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935):

Alan Mowbray is remembered mainly as a portly and comical character actor in the 1940s and 50s, including a fair amount of television work. But in his earlier (and slimmer years) he appeared in three Arliss films. Here a heavily made-up Mowbray as George Washington towers over Mr. A:

Mowbray is the villainous Count DeSarnac who devotes himself to seeing Voltaire sent to the Bastille. Here he seems to have the upper hand as King Louis XV (Reginald Owen) expresses his anger over Voltaire’s play:

Speaking of Reginald Owen, although he appeared in only two Arliss films, his majestic Louis XV of VOLTAIRE contrasted significantly with his somewhat obsequious role in THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD. Playing Herries, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Owen pleaded with Nathan Rothschild to loan more money to the Allies to battle Napoleon. Another member of the stock company here is Florence Arliss, who had a total of six appearances (she appeared in no other films except Mr. A’s). Unlike the other members of the stock company, Mrs. A unvarying role was to play Mr. A’s screen spouse in five films:

Doris Lloyd can been spotted playing maids or titled dowagers in numerous films from the 30s through THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965). But earlier, Lloyd played substantial roles in the Arliss films. Here Lloyd is Mrs. Travers, the charming spy for Russia who ingratiates herself into Disraeli’s household:

Here Lloyd is the worrisome Mrs. Lorne, a struggling novelist who has two children “under the rose” (i.e., out of wedlock) by old Heythorp’s deceased son. Their respective characters between DISRAELI and OLD ENGLISH (1930) could not have been more different:

David Torrence was the first actor to play stuffy Lord Probert in the Montreal tryout for DISRAELI in 1910. Apparently, Torrence did not appear with the Arliss stock company until he resumed his role of Lord Probert in the 1929 sound film. Thereafter, he continued to play in Arliss films, adding a dignity to otherwise disagreeable characters:

How many members of the Arliss stock company can you find in this photo? While Mr. A gives advice to newcomer Margaret Lindsay, behind beards, veils and wigs are Ivan Simpson, Doris Lloyd, David Torrence, and Douglass Dumbrille (who will be discussed in Part 2):

The Forgotten Roles of the Stage

The theater triumphs of George Arliss have been enshrined in reasonably effective film versions – his personality being the raison d’etre to see them all. DISRAELI debuted in 1911 and was filmed in 1921 as a silent, and again in 1929 as a talkie. ALEXANDER HAMILTON debuted in 1917, filmed in 1931. THE GREEN GODDESS debuted in 1921, filmed in 1923 and 1929. OLD ENGLISH debuted in 1925, filmed in 1930. Between the years of these successes were many false starts – promising plays that didn’t succeed. Here we will take a look at some of these well-mounted but forgotten plays (with one exception) and the characters that Mr. A so carefully created for them.

THE DEVIL was a sly comedy written by Ferenc Molnar that served as Mr. A’s very first starring vehicle in 1908. Playing the title role, the Arliss production had to compete with other versions at the same time due to the lack of copyright protection for this particular play. But he managed to eke out a full season, first in New York and then on tour. Here’s some imaginative marketing to publicize the 1921 film version:

SEPTIMUS was based on a popular novel by W.J. Locke that became Mr. A’s second starring play for the 1909-1910 season. The title character was an absent-minded inventor who was so absorbed in his work he didn’t seem to mind giving up his true love. Audiences were not pleased:

Following the incredible five-year run of DISRAELI, 1911-1915, many prominent playwrights were offering their talents to craft Mr. A’s next vehicle. He got together with Edward Knoblock to create another historical portrait for the 1916-1917 season. This time it was the early 19th century violinist Nicolo Paganini. Friends told Mr. A that PAGANINI was “very interesting,” which he knew doomed the play’s chances to be a popular success. It lasted for 48 performances in New York:

After HAMILTON completed its two-year run beginning in 1917, Mr. A was again on the prowl for a play. A Philadelphia lawyer sent Arliss a play he had co-authored with a novelist about the 18th century philosopher Voltaire. Mr. A seems to have read every play sent to him by anybody and everybody. He added his own revisions to the script, uncredited, then obtained a producer’s promise to stage it for the 1919-1920 season.

But the producer reneged, perhaps fearing that VOLTAIRE was just another PAGANINI type of flop. Here is a tinted photo from the 1933 film that made a bundle for Warner Bros., a 29% profit over the combined production and distribution costs – and during the worst year of the Great Depression. Some producer in New York was probably kicking himself by then:

Booth Tarkington was a friend of Mr. A’s and wrote a topical post-World War I play concerning Bolsheviks in America in 1920. Mr. A played the title character in POLDEKIN and was supported in the cast by a young Edward G. Robinson, and a future Charlie Chan, Sidney Toler. But the comedy-drama of a Bolshevik who comes to love America was too offbeat for the temper of the times and it lasted only 44 performances in New York, despite the top-rated author and the star:
Despite the failure of POLDEKIN, the 1920s was an incredibly successful decade for George Arliss. He enjoyed back-to-back hits with THE GREEN GODDESS and then with OLD ENGLISH. By 1928 he was scouting for a new vehicle and his producer, Winthrop Ames, selected Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Mr. A played Shylock:


The beautiful program cover for this play is undimmed by Time:

The choice of the play was actually made by Mrs. Ames whose husband gave her a choice for her birthday gift: either a pearl necklace she admired or the play. Mrs. Ames chose the play:

The cast included a number of actors who would appear with Mr. A in his 1930s films including Murray Kinnell (who later suggested that Mr. A hire an unknown actress named Bette Davis), Hardie Albright, Henry Morrell, and Romney Brent (misspelled in the program):

Portia was played by Peggy Wood, later the Mother Superior in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), among other things. Spring Byington, who played Portia’s maid, later became a beloved character actress in movies and television:

Mr. A would later try to persuade film producers to make THE MERCHANT OF VENICE into a movie, but they declined, perhaps owing to the stereotyping of Shylock. Mr. A said that Shylock was really the most honest character in the play – others were engaging in deception while Shylock said what he meant and meant what he said. But MERCHANT would not be made into a major film until Al Pacino played Shylock in 2004. Here’s another study of Mr. A:

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE did well in its New York run and was successful on tour throughout the United States, even as the Jazz Age reached its zenith. This play would mark Mr. A’s final appearance on the stage. During the play’s run in Los Angeles, Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck visited Mr. A backstage to ask if he would be interested in making talking pictures – the rest is history.

A Centennial Salute to DISRAELI – the Play, the Silent Film, the Talkie, the Radio Broadcast

I doubt that there is another dramatic work, excepting Shakespeare’s plays, that has been translated into so many different mediums in the performing arts as DISRAELI. First debuting as a play in 1911, it was turned into that most peculiar relative of the spoken stage – a silent film, in 1921. At the end of that decade this vehicle was reinvented as an Academy Award-winning “talking picture.” Nearly a decade later, the play-cum-silent film-cum-talkie was turned into an hour-long radio broadcast heard around the world via the CBS network and shortwave in 1938. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of DISRAELI is that ALL of its various incarnations starred the same actor – George Arliss.


A Souvenir Program from the 1911-12 season

The play was written specifically for Mr. A by the then-famous playwright Louis N. (for Napoleon) Parker. There was one problem – Parker had never seen Arliss perform on the stage. Then Parker quit saying that a play about Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister of the 1870s, couldn’t be written. Mr. A convinced Parker it could be written and explained how. Parker completed his play due largely to its star’s role as midwife.

The final scene where Disraeli receives a telegram he fears will tell him of his wife’s death: Mr. A with Marguerite St. John, the first actress to play Lady Beaconsfield (Mrs. Disraeli) on the stage.

Mr. A starred in DISRAELI for five consecutive years, from 1911 to 1915, then revived it thereafter. Here is the cast for a 1917 revival – note that Florence Arliss plays Lady Beaconsfield. Also, note that the ingenue role of Lady Clarissa is played by the talented, ill-fated Jeanne Eagels:

The 1921 silent film is now lost but a number of stills have survived….

No longer stagebound, the garden party scene was filmed outdoors:

A rare glass slide advertising the silent film in theaters:

Margaret Dale plays the spy, Mrs. Travers. Dale had played the role continuously since 1911 and never missed a performance, not even in this film version.


Florence Arliss as Lady Beaconsfield tries to console her husband: he has just written a bad check – to buy the Suez Canal!

Warner Bros. persuaded Mr. A to make the play into one of the first full-length talking pictures. He did and won the Best Actor Academy Award:

A souvenir program for the 1929 film

Here’s a detail from the Warner pressbook telling theater owners how to sell the movie to their patrons:

Exteriors were filmed at the old Busch Gardens during the summer of 1929 by ace cinematographer Lee Garmes. This scene looks pretty but Mr. A recalled that it was hot as ….blazes.

The romantic young couple, Lady Clarissa and Lord Deeford, were played by Joan Bennett and Anthony Bushell:

The 1929 film cast and crew, from the original program:

The ever-reliable Ivan Simpson plays financier Hugh Myers, a fictional character based on the real-life Lionel Rothschild who financed Disraeli’s purchase of the Suez Canal:

A flyer highlighting scenes from DISRAELI:

Outtakes – not every scene made it into the final production:

Disraeli and Gladstone exchange sharply divided political views in the House of Commons – but not onscreen.


Mrs. Travers meets Disraeli – but not onscreen. Doris Lloyd plays the spy, the one time that Margaret Dale missed a performance!


We only glimpse the Prime Minister working in his garden and never to this extent!

Back to the movie:

Joan Bennett at the beginning of her very successful career. When I showed DISRAELI in college in 1970, I had the idea to write a thesis and wrote to Ms. Bennett to ask what Mr. A was like to work with. Here is her reply:

Now about that bad check for the Suez Canal: Congress didn’t invent “stop gap spending.” Here the Prime Minister threatens to ruin the Bank of England if its president, stuffy Lord Probert (David Torrence), doesn’t cover the check:

Probert signs to save the Bank but is dismayed that Disraeli has such power.


In the dramatic payoff, Disraeli confides that as Prime Minister he has no such power, “but he doesn’t know that.”

Here is Mr. and Mrs. A in the final scene involving the telegram again:

On January 17, 1938, George Arliss made his dramatic radio debut on the CBS network with DISRAELI. This live broadcast on the Lux Radio Theater was heard all over the world and brought to the microphone much of the cast of the 1929 film version including Florence Arliss, Ivan Simpson, Doris Lloyd, and David Torrence. Mr. A was nearly 70 years old and noted that more people heard this one broadcast than all the audiences combined from his years performing in the play, the silent film, and the talkie:

Here’s the photo’s original press caption:

Want to hear this broadcast from long ago? It is right at your fingertips so just click below:

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