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Thursday, January 20, 2011

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 ├╝ber-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.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

Every time I see a photo of Mr. Arliss, it makes me wonder if Chaney did his make-up.

Not exactly a "chick magnet," but a fabulous actor.

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I love this: "...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..."

Great post about an actor who should require no re-introduction, but I guess does.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous dbenson said...

Arliss story from an old book -- I think it was actually a Dale Carnegie relic. A Hyde Park speaker is holding forth on vegetarianism before an audience of hecklers. Arliss happens by, and takes the speaker's side.
The great actor address the crowd:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I have been a vegetarian all my life!"
A voice calls back:
"Yes. And look at you!"

Only Arliss I've seen is House of Rothschild (played like gangbusters in a revival house) and Mysterious Dr. Syn (on UHF television; rather sedate compared to the Disney and Hammer versions)

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Bill Luton said...

Just saw that Transatlantic Tunnel is now available for instant viewing on Nerflix. Arliss has a sort of guest star appearance as (what else?) the Prime Minister. Also see that The Guv'nor from 1935 with Arliss is also available. One I haven't seen yet!

2:52 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I adore Mr. Arliss, especially his performance in "The Green Goddess." He's about as believable as a heathen priest/warlord as Chester Clute, but so outclasses the rest of the cast in terms of showmanship, entertainment, and acting values that he doesn't just swipe the picture, he deposits it in a Swiss bank account.

He's an utter delight in anything.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

wow..I had no idea this set was out..I'd a put it on my Christmas list for sure!...Arliss is simply mezmeriszing!!

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Arliss is first-rate in "The Man Who Played God." I really enjoy watching him in any of his movies; if I'm going to pay to watch someone act, whether it's for the price of a DVD or cable bill, then I want to see him ACT! (Although I must admit the first time I saw a photo of him he scared me.)

As for not being a chick magnet -- my mother has a had a crush on him since she started going to the movies in the 1920s! (Yes, she remembers him in silents.)

10:48 AM  
Blogger ANTONIO NAHUD said...

Maravilhoso blog, John!

2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've shown Arliss films to college audiences back in the 70s - DISRAELI, ALEXANDER HAMILTON, and VOLTAIRE, so I can shed some light on how he goes over with an audience. He held them in the palm of his hand! The most typical comment was: who IS that guy and why haven't I ever heard of him!

Bob Fells
Mr. Arliss's Official Biographer

8:07 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Aroids always seemed like he needed more Geritol.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Didn't Muni eventually also rise to the level of a "Mr."? Seems to me he was billed that way in the credits to Juarez -- "Mr. Paul Muni" -- but I don't have a copy to confirm it.

1:51 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Relating to Dave's comments about "The Green Goddess" it was while Arliss was touring with the stage version that he had the chefs at a San Francisco hotel create the salad dressing that bears the same name.

8:24 PM  

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