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Friday, March 23, 2018

Never Enough Arliss

GA Delightful Again as The Millionaire (1931)

George Arliss never was misguided in all the pictures he made. At least I never observed him so. Audiences wouldn't have stood him making a wrong move. I enjoy Arliss because he always takes the smart turn, has always the ideal retort, with never less than a grand scheme to put  situations right. And he's divinely funny in the doing. Not ha-ha or falling down, but understated in ways that flatter our intelligence. I think the secret of Arliss popularity was that he made viewers feel good about themselves. He elevated the mob rather than letting them pull him down. Control of vehicles increased as each came back with profit, Arliss as sure a grossing thing as Warners had during the early 30's, and not just among hoi-polloi and carriage trade --- you'd not imagine so watching today, but his stuff clicked in the sticks. Arliss was down-to-earth enough to remind everyone of Granddad or whatever font of local wisdom they knew. He was not for a moment a remote figure, despite time-to-time frock coats and monocle.

If Arliss had a comedy counterpart, it might have been W. C. Fields, only GA was more benign, his a tolerant approach to knaves and stuff-shirts that Fields would rail mightily, futilely, against. Arliss had sly way of insulting a man without his knowing he'd been insulted. In fact, no one got the wink save us in the dark, George knowing these fools won't get the gag, but we will. What actor took viewership so much into his confidence? It wasn't just stagecraft learned and then transferred to screens. This was Arliss knowing exactly where advantage lay in movies as opposed to theatre, and using them like none so far had. What he didn't realize (or maybe he did) was that no one afterward would duplicate the trick, no matter that all his devices were plain as day to look at and learn from. I regret that young thesps aren't taught him today. If they were, maybe we'd get more distinctive performing. Trouble is, Arliss is such an odd duck to look at, plus all his movies are old, as in real old, and try getting actor school types to look at these when they could study trendier stuff in color. I'm not proposing that Arliss be duplicated --- that's not doable anyway --- but there are sure methods, useful ones, that could be learned.

The Millionaire is modern-set comedy, GA's first such with sound, him a tycoon car-maker put but briefly to pasture before earning a new fortune on wit and daring (another basis of popularity: Arliss was virtually a how-to for upward-mobility). The Millionaire is Dodsworth arrived early, but airy and less the heavy lift of Goldwyn/Wyler's 1936 go. Arliss is told by doctors to slow down, which he doesn't, is pushed by his board-of-directors to build low-grade engines, which he won't. We know all along that Arliss is right, and enjoy immensely his proving it. His was career-long dispersal of common sense. That said, I'd compare Arliss also to Will Rogers, an aristocrat v. rustic, but otherwise supping from a same well. Arliss played a lot of rich men, but never one we'd dislike. He's still the best argument for capitalism we have, but who's watching? TCM plays his stuff, but sporadic. There needs to be more of him, maybe a George Arliss Wine Of The Month selection, or a GA-branded monocle among TCM knick-knacks available from their website. A few Arliss films are on DVD from Warner Archive, but not so far The Millionaire. TCM had a recent run --- this one could use a fresh transfer --- not that seeing/hearing Arliss isn't gracious plenty, but let's have more of his upgraded to HD (so far there are two I've noticed --- The Working Man and The Man Who Played God).


Blogger Neely OHara said...

Agree Arlis should be wider shown, but please, no TCM "wine pairing" -- the "trio of grapes" making up the Marx Brothers blend is sufficiently absurd. The cruises are bad enough, but the "wine club" has to be the dumbest, most cynical money-grab in TCM history. (And I say this as a TCM addict since the first broadcast...)

11:31 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

Arliss does resemble millionaire John D. Rockefeller. I wonder if that fact had any influence in the casting.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

In "The King's Vacation" he's sort of wrong. Removed from the throne, he happily returns to a long-ago love and finds she's a snobbish social butterfly and not really his type any more. He gratefully returns to his former queen.

But he does sort out his daughter's romance, helps her boyfriend with an invention, and enlightens the revolutionary who'll eventually displace him.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Very insightful piece, John. I should watch more Arliss than I do.

11:12 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

He's definitely an odd looking bird however everything I have seen him in has not only been but also, and more importantly, left a good impression. Triumph of substance over looks, style, call it what you will. Remember those were the days when movie theaters sat thousands not hundreds. In A MILLION AND ONE NIGHTS AT THE MOVIES Terry Ramsaye described the audience for motion pictures as between 11 and 30, primarily between 14 and 24. Same age group today. We have more people today. Less of us are going to the movies. Don't blame that lack of interest on TV, home video, or what have you. The people in those age brackets live to go out. They are going out. As well, to them, money is no object. In fact, the more something costs the more they want it. The movies have lost their audience BIG TIME.

2:41 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

I think it was Scott Eyman who said Arliss resembled one of the higher amphibians - no surprise WB cartoons caricatured him as a turtle. The matchmaking on the side seemed to be a common thread in his films. I'd love to see more of him. I've only watched DR. SYN, and he was great in that. He does come across as a delightful old gent.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Appalled said...

Interesting, but it leaves out the occasional Arliss villain (most notably, the Green Goddess), who is definitely not benign. In fact, I think Arliss, in his villain mode, lives on in all those terribly polite villains who cloak their evil in very good manners. See, in particular, Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lector.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

One of the most mindboggling things about Arliss movies is that you're watching a 19th-century stage actor in the 21st-century. And he still holds up!

6:03 PM  

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