Getting In George's Groove
Don't be thrown by George Arliss' appearance. He's one I promise you'll be hooked on from first exposure forward. Warner Archives did major service releasing a DVD three-fer at $24.95 (sales/coupons get it for less). Interesting how GA and fellow odd-duck Marie Dressler just missed being born during the Civil War (both 1868), trod boards from youth, and found stardom (as in few more popular) on talking screens. Arliss made "stage-derived" seem a good thing, and unapologetic he was for putting words and grand gesture first. Shouldn't young actors be studying him? There seemed a rush to dismiss Arliss after he was gone. Does the fact I enjoy him so much suggest need to better acquaint myself with "good" acting? Branding Arliss a relic is habit mostly of those who haven't watched him. I'd venture GA before an audience ... take your pick of vehicles ... would light up auditoriums as though he were there live, which was pretty much effect his screen presence had during its 30's heyday. Arliss made crowds feel uplifted (a lofty reputation preceded him) and gave them fun besides with a bottomless bag of performing tricks (back when that was admired). His way with gentle putdown was without peer. Been awhile since watching him (16mm days in fact), so I'd forgot what delights these are. First out of Warner's triad came A Successful Calamity, being lighter confection for Arliss. The credit reads "Mr. George Arliss," appendage given no one else at Warners (or anywhere?). His was among precious few names good for prestige and money. Paul Muni would succeed Arliss by means actorly but not physical. There was no duplicating GA the latter way. One look at him on a poster settles debate as to tastes running different then, but doesn't this say more for a 30's public that saw a unique talent and gravitated to it?
Choices were broader then. You knew Warners aimed wide when a George Arliss or Joe E. Brown led season offerings. Novel personalities could break through given such prodigious output from companies. Arliss had done silents, but like W.C. Fields and Ronald Colman, needed dialogue to really put over his act. Playing Disraeli got him an Academy Award and confirmation of theatrical way being right to popularize all-talkies. Now it may not seem so, what with latter-day anxiety for movies to always move, but GA had chops to stand still and make customers like it. He knew, and made them believe, that George Arliss reciting dialogue was reason enough to buy tickets, it helping lots for films being on and off under ninety minutes, some considerably less. A Successful Calamity reflected the Arliss drift toward comedy --- was this to avoid looking stuffy? There were only so many great men of history he could play, after all (a dilemma Muni would not later overcome). Arliss works best when stringing his bow with humor. A Successful Calamity puts varied modern absurdities before him, enjoyment coming of Arliss recoil from each. It's fun observing his old world take on then-fashionable art deco and experimental music --- anyone GA's age must have thought such a fad-driven world utterly mad. His sage's answer to all this is sufficiently droll to make you see things his way. On-screen Arliss was habitually the wise old owl (even looking the part) who put pretension to rout and made out a regular Joe even when he played über-tycoons, as in A Successful Calamity.
Pretty amazing how George Arliss could enact (often) richest guys in town and still maintain rooting interest of fans who might well have been giving up meals for a movie ticket. His Successful Calamity's Wall Street lion is never less than a man of the people, good to his butler, tolerant of phonies and stuffed-shirts, all but winking at us as he puts each in their proper place (for his years on the stage, GA really had a sense of how to play scenes to an audience, even if he couldn't see them). Arliss' millionaires were repositories of keen wit and horse sense. They could advise presidents and kick back in the servant's quarters on a same day, situations Arliss pulled off without stirring his public's resentment. The device would get tired, but GA had a solid five or so year run at WB. Variety was perhaps rougher on A Successful Calamity than I would have been, calling Arliss' a milk and water diet that no amount of prestige could sustain forever. There'd be a move to Fox for three good ones, a brace in England (but of course!), then retirement and passing at age 77 in 1946. The Arliss inventory canvassed TV from 1956, though stations bought packages more for access to familiar Bogart, Cagney, and Flynn action. What exposure Arliss got by the seventies was from broadcasters, mostly UHF, that couldn't afford higher profile titles. Historian/teacher William K. Everson was an early booster, seemingly alone in voting an Arliss ticket --- his classroom and film society runs amounted to as much exposure as these films would get until TCM put them into rotation. Warner Archives' recent release is happy outcome of years waiting to get Arliss on home-disc. I hope there will be more of them.