Arliss Alert! VOLTAIRE (1933) to air on TCM (US) on July 12 at 4:45 PM EDT


For US viewers, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will air Mr. A’s hit biopic VOLTAIRE on Thursday, July 12, as part of the channel’s celebration leading up to Bastille Day on the 14th. This terrific film will be shown at 4:45 PM eastern daylight time. VOLTAIRE had been a story that Mr. A had wanted to play since 1919 but was never able to find sufficient financial support for it. Perhaps producers feared that the subject was too “high brow” for movie-goers. But to Warner Bros.’s credit, the studio decided to move forward with project. They need not have worried – Mr. A turned in a canny and hilarious performance as the French philosopher and wit – proving again the historical biographies could be very humorous and very profitable, at least in Mr. A’s hands.

VOLTAIRE provided Mr. A with his most unique character unlike his other historical roles where he plays great gentlemen. His Voltaire is a scamp who gets himself in trouble with the king and faces imprisonment. Mr. A is supported by a great cast including Doris Kenyon, Alan Mowbray, Reginald Owen, and the members of the “Arliss stock company,” Ivan Simpson, Doris Lloyd, Murray Kinnell, among other familiar faces.

Don’t miss it!

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.

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