The Doctor is In – Dr. Syn!

George Arliss as action hero? Not likely but Mr. A comes close with DR. SYN (1937), a corking good pirate yarn based on a popular novel by Russell Thorndyke. The novel is a thematic blend of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sigmund Freud that was so successful Thorndyke wrote several sequels. The novels still have quite a following in the UK. The story is set in Dymchurch, a seaside village in Kent, England, in the year 1800.

Mr. A plays the saintly vicar, Dr. Syn, who looks kindly on the blossoming romance between the orphan Imogene, played by Margaret Lockwood, and Denis Crabtree, son of the village squire, played by John Loder:

Dymchurch is plagued by nighttime apparitions of ghost riders on the nearby Romney Marsh but the main business of the villagers is a little fuzzy. Turns out the leading occupation is smuggling to avoid the exorbitant excise taxes imposed by the King. The ringleader is known only as “The Scarecrow.”

Dr. Syn becomes alarmed for his parishioners when a contingent of the King’s revenue patrol arrives at Dymchurch to investigate smuggling activities. Captain Collyer suspects that the nightly ghost riders are a cover for the smugglers and that Dr. Syn knows a lot more than he cares to tell:

Collyer learns that a number of the villagers were the crew of the notorious pirate, Captain Clegg, who was hanged twenty years earlier and lies buried in the churchyard cemetery – or does he? Dr. Syn alerts the sexton to spread the alarm:

Dymchurch schoolmaster Mr. Rash has designs on Imogene and tries to blackmail her with threats to reveal that she is the daughter of Captain Clegg:

As Capt. Collyer begins to close in, Dr. Syn realizes that he must take action to protect the village. Of course, not only is he “The Scarecrow,” he is Captain Clegg….

…and Imogene is his daughter. Mr. Rash must be silenced:

The discovery of Mr. Rash’s corpse results in the convening of an inquest where Capt. Collyer cross-examines Dr. Syn and forces him to admit his true identity. Before he can be arrested, the villagers intervene to foil Collyer’s men:

With Collyer’s men in hot pursuit, Dr. Syn stops by the church long enough to marry Denis and Imogene, then rejoins his old crew on their old ship, which was kept ready and hidden in a nearby cove, where they sail away for further adventures.

DR. SYN is technically George Arliss’ final film, but we at the Arliss Archives prefer to regard it as Mr. A’s most recent film. On the set, Alan Whittaker is Mr. A’s stand-in, Maude Howell serves as associate director, and Mr. A is in his 70th year:

Queen Mary attended the film’s London premiere, and the New York Times gave DR. SYN an enthusiastic review stating that it was better than MGM’s TREASURE ISLAND (1934). The film is widely considered the best of Mr. A’s five British films and is available on home video in an acceptable (but not restored) dvd edition through various outlets including Amazon.

Broadcasting to Millions

By the mid-1920s, the rising popularity of radio was cutting into movie theater attendance. While some film producers could only complain about it, the Warner Brothers acquired their own radio station, KFWB Los Angeles, and erected twin broadcasting towers to give it a powerful signal. Among other things, Warner film stars were expected to appear to build up public interest in their films. Young stars with limited stage experience were terrified to be performing “live” with millions of people listening. But veterans of the stage such as George Arliss who had performed “live” their entire careers were not intimidated by broadcasting.

Mr. A broadcasts his opposition to movie censorship in Medford, Massachusetts on April 3, 1922. Newspapers stated that this broadcast was heard “as far west as Wisconsin and as far south as the Carolinas.” That’s Maude Howell listening in on the headphones:
Arliss said, “The influences of the films were better for the young than the average methods of learning; that the conscience of boy or girl is a far better judge of right or wrong in the movies than the application of the censorship rod.”

George Arliss was President of the Episcopal Actors Guild of America from 1921 to 1938. Here he broadcasts a fundraising appeal on behalf of the unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine, over station WJZ in New York:

Station KWK in St. Louis, MO, was part of a national syndicated network on June 23, 1931, to broadcast another defense of Hollywood by Mr. A. The subject this time was the bad behavior of certain actors and actresses – some things never change:

Fellow Warners star John Barrymore said he “didn’t think much of this radio thing” when he first participated in a broadcast in 1928 over station KFI in Los Angeles:

By 1941, the Great Profile derived most of his income from radio, here with his brother Lionel on the right:

Warner colleague Al Jolson’s ebullient personality transmitted well and he starred in his own weekly show from 1932 on. Here he is rehearsing for an April 1935 Shell Chateau broadcast where his guests were Amelia Earhart and Babe Ruth:

Radio permitted another of Mr. A’s Warners colleagues, Edward G. Robinson, to tackle something he couldn’t do in movies – Shakespeare. Here he rehearses his role of Petruchio for an August 2, 1937 broadcast of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW:
Mr. Robinson was such a hit that by the Fall 1937 he began starring in his own weekly series, a newspaper drama, THE BIG TOWN, for the next six years.

At the age of 70, Mr. A made his dramatic broadcast debut on the Lux Radio Theater, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille, on January 17, 1938 in DISRAELI. He returned on March 21, 1938, in THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD, and again on January 23, 1939, in CARDINAL RICHELIEU:
It was conservatively estimated that 30 million people heard each of Mr. A’s Lux broadcasts.

Greta Garbo was the only major film star never to perform on radio. Even Rin-Tin-Tin had his own weekly show in 1931:

The Kings of Warners

The Arliss Archives include holdings indirectly related to George Arliss. In this post, we’ll take a look at some material highlighting Mr. A’s colleagues. When Warner Bros. signed George Arliss in the summer of 1928 to make three “talking pictures,” he joined the ranks of two other super stars of that studio – Al Jolson and John Barrymore.

No, this photo is not Mr. A arriving at Warners. I can’t place the occasion but it looks like a movie still. It was taken some time in the early to mid 1920s (judging by the automobile) but the original photo annotation suggests a candid shot. Florence Arliss was fond of little dogs, Mr. A apparently less so:

Al Jolson was the musical comedy sensation of Broadway and Warners had to pay dearly to acquire his talents. Jolson thought the Brothers were on to something with Vitaphone but they didn’t have much ready cash. Al agreed to take partial payment in studio shares of stock and became wealthy as a result:

Everybody knows that THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) was the first commercially successful sound film. Less well known is that the follow up, THE SINGING FOOL (1928), was an even bigger moneymaker:

John Barrymore had made four epic silent films for Warners in the mid 20s following his theater triumph in HAMLET, so the Brothers were eager to get him back when sound came in. In those days, it seems that no expense was spared in making a Barrymore film.

The composition of this photo from his first talkie, GENERAL CRACK (1930), seems inspired by late 18th century portraits:

Fans could even read the novel of GENERAL CRACK in movie magazines of the day, complete with an elaborately painted cover portrait of the Great Profile:

Kings usually help each other and the protocol was no different at Warners. Here Barrymore and Jolson lend their support to Mr. A’s first talkie:

Warners also acquired an upcoming dramatic star of the theater who had actually corresponded with George Arliss some 20 years earlier, then appeared in support of Mr. A on the stage in 1920. Here is an uncharacteristically dapper Edward G. Robinson:

This next photo might be called, “Kings in Exile.” Mr. A is in costume for OLD ENGLISH (1930) and the film’s director Alfred Green stands to his left. The other three gentlemen are all legendary stars of the theater: standing behind Mr. A is Otis Skinner; seated next to him is Wilton Lackaye; and the gentleman standing on the right is Winthrop Ames who produced all of the Arliss theatrical hits of the 1920s. The lady is the equally legendary Maude Howell, who was Mr. A’s stage manager, then associate director, associate producer, and contributing writer on the Arliss films:

Eventually, the Kings of Warners followed in Mr. A’s footsteps in making biopics (historical biographical films). Here Edward G. Robinson discovers the cure for syphilis in DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET (1940) with Otto Kruger:

John Barrymore resumed wearing a powdered wig to portray King Louis XV in MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938):

Darryl Zanuck even persuaded Al Jolson to play 19th century minstrel E.P. Christy in the Technicolor SWANEE RIVER (1939) with Don Ameche and Andrea Leeds as Stephen Foster and his long-suffering wife. This is a b/w photo rendered into faux Technicolor:

And now for something completely different – these two gents could be the maternal and paternal grandfathers of the Marx Brothers (in an artistic sense, they were), but they’re actually the Broadway producer/comedy team of Joe Weber and Lew Fields. These fellows invented the dramatic parody in the 1890s that’s been a staple of American comedy ever since, right up to today’s skits on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, making them theater kings in their own right:

Beginning their act in 1877, here they are in 1940 still going strong. Arliss was a relative latecomer only beginning his career in 1887!

Out of costume, Joe and Lew looked more respectable when they moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s. There they spent many delightful evenings reminiscing about the old days with their friend, Mr. A (and it would be great to find a photo of the three of them together!):

Next week’s post will be very special in celebration of Mr. A’s birthday on April 10th. We’ll take a look at his masterwork – DISRAELI – the play, the silent film, the talkie, and the radio broadcast. With the exception of Shakespeare, I doubt there has been another dramatic work that has been adapted into so many different media as DISRAELI, and which starred the same actor.

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