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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Arliss Spoke and Wickets Shook


Disreali (1929) Helps History's Lesson Go Down

The creaking sound you hear is TCM bringing forth a first-ever talkie with George Arliss, Disraeli not often shown and (so far) not on DVD. This was really the show they'd remember GA for. He was identified with the part for board-trod of it, then screen playing same sans voice. Arliss overcame stiffness that plagued talkie thesps by tight cling to stage convention and inviting microphones in on the party. Of cameras, and more importantly swaying booms, he had no fear. The monocled master just took what worked on a stage and made movies accommodate it, experience in silents smoothing path to sound mastery. It needs Arliss projected large to catch sly inflections, his face a constant register of knowing humor. GA could get at funnybones even of a great unwashed, his following not limited to urban sophisticates. Most could identify and laugh with him, even when it was remote historical figures he impersonated.

The Grand Arliss Gesture. Audiences Looked Forward To These. I Still Do.

Helpful too was more people knowing then who Disraeli was, history less distant, and public education more rigorous, as of '29. Arliss wisely cast youth in support for Disraeli and elsewhere, knowing pretty faces beyond his own singular countenance were needed. Disqualified as sex lure, Arliss would be Dan Cupid in the alternative, empire matters taking back seat to union of callow lovebirds. All that took onus off dry parchment and made Arliss schooling like all-the-time recess. If he seems an outlandish show-off today ... well, that was just mastery of the craft talking, flamboyance an Arliss signature writ by a disciplined hand. Disraeli is remarkable for being (a one and only?) spy thriller played out at a single garden and sitting room, close quarters in which to haggle the fate of a nation. Disraeli was a hit ($1.4 million in worldwide rentals), the biggest such of GA's Warner career, and a rare mating of prestige with money. Arliss had taken the old concept of "Famous Players In Famous Plays" and finally made it pay. I don't wonder at Warners giving him such creative leeway over vehicles to come.

More George Arliss at Greenbriar Archive: Getting In George's Groove, a youthful George Arliss (was there ever such a thing?), and Voltaire.


3 Comments:

Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on George Arliss:


Yours is an astute observation, that George Arliss surmounted the limitations of the early talkies by clinging to stage conventions. Stars of the late silent films had developed an intimate relationship with the camera. Every subtle change of expression registered as thought or emotion. Called upon by the talkies to project untried voices before cameras a chilly distance away, and being photographed through the diffusion of plate glass, they all but disappeared. Not so Arliss. Comfortable reaching patrons in the back rows of theaters, those cameras in their booths posed no challenge to him. He was not an especially subtle artist, just a dynamic and entertaining one. When he would end a thrilling peroration on a rising note of exultation, with one hand thrust heaven-ward, there was no doubt that a performance was being given. Whether he persuaded as Disraeli or Cardinal Richelieu or Alexander Hamilton, he always persuaded as George Arliss, the "First Artist of the Theater," and the one for whom the audience put down their coins to see and, of course, hear.

Daniel Mercer

2:07 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

When some one at WB suggested to Arliss (prior to filming) that the title be changed to something the public would find more provocative, he is said to have replied, "What would you suggest? Wild Nights With Queen Victoria?"

The subject was never broached again...

2:32 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Would love to catch up with this one again. Saw it once, back in the sixties at a public library screening. My companion was blown away with how sharp and clear the image and sound were (not sure what was expected in a film almost forty years old) and how stiff and dated every thing and body except Arliss were.

3:56 PM  

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