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.

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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