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)  
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A Novelization of THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD printed in October 1934 in the Isling Holloway Press

Back in the day many new film releases had tie-in novels to publicize the movie. But book sales suffered during the Great Depression, so instead the studios used film fan magazines and newspapers to build interest in the plot. This weekly British newspaper, The Isling-Holloway Press, had been published since 1872 and was keeping up with the times by printing this concise story of THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD with dialogue taken directly from the script. The story appeared in two parts in the October 13 and 20, 1934 editions, respectively. One photo from the film accompanied the first part (see below) and I have added a few more to give a sense of the action.

Frame grab from the ROTHSCHILD Technicolor finale

Happy Birthday, Mr. A – April 10, 2022, marks his 154th Birthday!

Actor, author, playwright, and filmmaker George Arliss was born in the Bloomsbury section of London on Good Friday, April 10, 1868. He made his professional stage debut in 1887, a time when theaters were lit by gaslight. Crossing the Atlantic in 1901 as a member of the Mrs. Patrick Campbell Company, George and his wife Florence eventually established themselves in the U.S. theater world. What was planned as six months stay turned into 20 years. Turning 60 in 1928, retirement seemed to be calling Mr. A, but so were talking pictures. Thus, he suddenly embarked on ten years in the studios (a phrase he used for the title of his second volume of memoirs) winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in the process. Today, at least seven of his films can be viewed on DVD and streaming video.

Published in: on April 9, 2022 at 8:10 PM  Comments (3)  
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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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Mr. A Sails the High Seas

Back before the age of jet liners linked America and Europe in a matter of hours, transatlantic travel meant spending several days at sea and, hopefully, in good weather. Mere acquaintances on land would form onboard friendships during the voyage, though most of these tended to fizzle out once they were back on terra firma.

Mr. A was no exception to this social ritual as many candid photographs attest. Here’s a collection of moments from long ago voyages during the 1920s and 30s when Mr. and Mrs. A shuttled between Southampton, England, and New York City, then cross-country by train to Los Angeles.

Here the caption informs us that Florence and George have arrived in New York onboard the S.S. Mauretania in September 1922 after a visit home to England :

George Arliss is considered a “notable” onboard the S.S. Berengaria as he returns to New York after a two month vacation in Europe on November 22, 1924:

The Arlisses leave New York on the S.S.Leviathan on May 21,1927. The ship had been converted from a luxury liner to a troop ship during World War I and was then transformed back to a liner. The “slug” or photo caption adds some details:

The slug states that Mr. and Mrs. A are leaving New York on the S.S. Majestic on May 29, 1931, for a combined vacation and search for new film material. Color by Moi:

Mr. A chats with a fellow passenger in this undated photo, circa mid-1930s:

Another undated photo but Mr. A’s stiff collar suggests the late 20s or early 30s. By the mid-1930s, Florence’s eyesight had worsened and she rarely appeared on deck:

Mr. A seems happy to share the attentions of the paparazzi with a fellow thespian, Edith Evans, or so I believe. The back of this news photo indicates that it was taken onboard the R.M.S. Majestic in Southampton in 1934:

Having just completed CARDINAL RICHELIEU (1935) in Hollywood, Mr. A has his stateroom invaded as he and Flo leave from New York aboard the S.S. Olympic, sister ship of Titanic, on what I believe is the ship’s final voyage before it was retired:

After an absence of two years while making films in Britain, Mr. A returns to New York on November 9, 1937 via the S.S. Aquitania. He seems to be waiting to go through customs:

Another photo of Mr. A still waiting to go through customs on Nov. 9, 1937. He seems to be saying to the photographer,”Haven’t you taken enough?”

A familiar shipboard pose on the ship S.S. Aquitania as it arrives in Southampton from New York on April 26, 1938:

Finally, a view from the other side of the cameras aboard the S.S. Aquitania on Mr. A’s return to America on Nov.9, 1937:

 

Arliss ALERT! Double Feature: THE GREEN GODDESS and DISRAELI – Tuesday, February 18 at 6 AM EST

TCM aka Turner Classic Movies – is showing Mr. A’s first two talkies this Tuesday, February 18th, starting at 6 AM eastern time (THE GREEN GODDESS) and then at 7:15 AM his Academy Award winning performance in DISRAELI (1929).
Not to be missed!

Published in: on February 16, 2020 at 5:14 PM  Comments (4)  
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The Official 2020 George Arliss Calendar

Here it is – our official 2020 George Arliss Calendar. This year we offer Mr. A with a distinctly “cowboy” look. The colorization is, as usual, by myself. Get your calendar today, and that’s easy. Just print it out. Looks great in 8×10!

A Video Tour of the Original Souvenir Program from DISRAELI (1929) with original color lobby cards


Souvenir programs from vintage films are highly collectible and one in mint condition can be quite expensive to acquire. Let’s take a video tour of this 1929 DISRAELI program from my collection. I’ve interspersed the set of color lobby cards released by the studio to enhance the tour.

Here we have a complete copy of another Arliss-DISRAELI souvenir program. But this one is from the stage version and dates from 1912!

THE RULING PASSION – A Review of Mr. A’s 1922 Silent Film Comedy

Typically listed as a “lost” film, Mr. A’s 1922 silent film comedy, THE RULING PASSION, may exist after all. Hope is kindled by news that one or more foreign film archives may own a print. These include the Russian Gosfilmofond, the Cinémathèque Française, and the Belgian CINEMATEK. Also on your blogmeister’s “hopeful list” is the Dutch EYE Film Institute that has led the way by posting so many of its vintage holdings online.

THE RULING PASSION was based on a short story by Earl Derr Biggers, who later became famous as the creator of the “Charlie Chan” novels. Mr. A plays John Alden, an automobile tycoon who is forced into retirement by his doctor’s orders. Bored, he decides to invest in a business deal – a gas station – in partnership with a young man, Bill Merrick. Of course, Alden uses an alias so his young partner doesn’t know his colleague is practically Henry Ford. Alden and Merrick are swindled in the sale by the seller, Peterson, who competes against them with his new gas station.

Complications develop when Alden’s daughter, Angie, drives in and discovers her father pumping gas. She and Merrick meet and romance blossoms. Angie agrees to keep her Dad’s secret life from her mother but Mrs. Alden eventually stops by for a fill-up and discovers the truth. Alden and Merrick plan a successful marketing campaign, taking so much business away from their rival that Peterson offers to buy them out at a huge profit on their original purchase.

Bill asks Angie to marry him and he goes to her home seeking her father’s permission, unaware that his partner is Angie’s father. The ruse is happily revealed and Alden’s doctor has to admit that the adventure was healthful for Alden who can now return to work again.

The film had its New York City premiere on January 22, 1922, and received mostly excellent reviews. Released through United Artists, THE RULING PASSION was independently produced through a company, Distinctive Pictures, that was formed specifically to make George Arliss films. PASSION became the third Arliss film, following THE DEVIL (1920) and DISRAELI (1921). The success of the earlier two led to making the third, which in turn led to three more films being made.

A trade press story of the day:

Another story for the exhibitors:

Box Office tells the tale:

Doris Kenyon plays the role of Mr. A’s daughter, Angie. A popular screen actress she would play Mr. A’s wife nine years later in ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1931):

While THE RULING PASSION is still considered among the missing Arliss films, we are fortunate that he decided to remake the story as a talkie in 1931 renamed THE MILLIONAIRE. However, lettering on studio photos indicate that the talkie version’s working title continued to be THE RULING PASSION.

An original color half-sheet (22×28 inches) for THE RULING PASSION:

A Costume from THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (1934)

The Arliss Archives recently acquired a unique item: one of the costumes worn by Mr. A as Nathan Rothschild in his blockbuster, THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD (1934). The ensemble consists of trousers and a vest. Alas, the jacket is missing but the acquisition is exciting nevertheless.

Arliss Rothschild Costume 1_edited-1This is how the costume was displayed by the auction house. Based on the length of the trousers or breeches it confirms that Mr. A seems to have been about 5’8″.

Arliss Rothschild Costume 2The costume company tag in the lining of the trousers.

Arliss Rothschild Costume 3A rear view that moviegoers would have never seen.

Rothschild Costume SetThe Costume arrives at the Arliss Archives

Rothschild pants_edited-1The waistline is enlarged to accommodate the padding that Mr. A wore to suggest the historical Nathan’s corpulence.

Rothschild Vest_edited-1The vest was likewise let out around the waist to suggest Nathan’s girth. The small diamond pattern led me to search our collection of 8×10 ROTHSCHILD photos to match the scene(s) the costume was worn in.

Arliss Rothschild Cut Scene

By enlarging the stills to see the pattern on the vests I became aware of how many costume changes that Mr. A had in the various scenes. I found vests with large diamond patterns but I almost despaired of finding an exact match until I found this photo showing a scene that was cut from the film.

Arliss Rothschild Cut Sc001 vest

This enlargement of the photo above provides an exact match with our vest. This level of detail is impressive considering that none of these design patterns would have been visible to audiences even when watching on the “big screen” in 35mm.

Arliss Rothschild Cut Sc001 ed

A close-up of the ensemble including the now-missing jacket.

Costume from ROTHSCHILD 1

Happily, I found a photo from the climatic scene where Rothschild receives news of the Battle of Waterloo. Our costume is beautifully viewed here.

Costume from ROTHSCHILD CU

Our vest in close-up!

Arliss Star on Walk of Fame LA

Mr. A’s Star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.

 

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