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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Passing The Baton On Broadway

Barrymore Blows Kisses and Arliss Hugs Back

Two lions grazing off the Main Stem … that was George Arliss and John Barrymore as each triumphed off a newly vocal screen and tossed brocades to one another. Both were Warner artists now, or should I say artistes? --- for WB sold A/B as indistinguishable from what they had been on a live stage. In fact, Vitaphone rendered them better, and if you didn’t believe that, look at turn-away crowds and receipts it took elephants to haul off. Movies wielded a big bat now that they could talk, and so-called “legit” could like it or go fish. For Arliss and Barrymore, who after all liked to eat like the rest of us, there was gold flowing as from Midas purse. Never had board-trod yielded such wealth. And to live and work in California where a sun shone all the time and juice fairly dripped off fruit trees! To blazes with centuries-old tradition, for here was wealth Thespis dare not dream of, plus exposure to millions more than had seen them strut and fret upon a stage. Actors never had it so good, as long as they could deliver on a celluloid basis.

The date was December 1, 1929, ads for Disraeli and General Crack looming large on The New York Times’ amusement page. One was making room for the other at the Warner Bros. Theatre, where 1,360 seats cushioned Roadshow rears to see a best of what WB had to offer in newly-fangled, and ever-improving sound. Their Vitaphone was talk of the industry, patronage obliged to reserve seats if they had hope of seeing George Arliss do his Disraeli better even than over five seasons wherein he’d been the character, an on/off occurrence since 1911 and already adapted to film, albeit silent, in 1921. Those not near enough to have watched Arliss in person had heard of the actor/role melding, and what a mesmerizer it was. Harry Warner told GA frankly that WB “did not expect it to pay," that Disraeli was “expensive bait to hook people into the cinema who had never been there” (this from GA’s memoir, My Ten Years In The Studio). Was Harry thinking first of Broadway-ites disdainful of movies who might be lured now that there was sight plus sound of noted plays? Snobbery for the stage had to take a hike upon arrival, and seeming perfection, of the Vitaphone miracle. Talk about Old Man Depression --- he'd really land hard at legit addresses.

Disraeli played for two months at the Warners’ Theatre, October through November 1929, then moved to the Central Theatre to finish the year. It had left the Warners’ to make way for General Crack. Ads shown here appeared on that same NYT page dated 12/1/29. George Arliss was surrendering his Warner berth to “America’s Greatest Actor,” John Barrymore. “My engagement,” as Arliss put it, would continue at the Central. Further linkage of the two saw John Barrymore quoted re Disraeli: “Extraordinary --- delightful --- beautifully directed --- acted with exceptional skill.” All this smacked of live performing, distinction having blurred, if not erased, between that and Vitaphone. Part of Arliss success came of patrons going over and over to see him play Disraeli. He recalled in his first memoir, Up The Years From Bloomsbury, that “Nearly every member of the audience had been to the play five or six times --- some ten --- some twenty …,” this no hyperbole, for Arliss kept good account of who attended his performances, and how often they were there. Considering the 1929 film’s success and longevity, we could wonder how many repeat views it inspired, and how much that had to do with considerable profit Warners earned.

Price scale for the Warners’ Theatre was one to two dollars, by no means cheap seats. Disraeli and General Crack demanded $2 per admission, being regarded as top attractions. A significant percentage of any film’s total gross was got from New York first-runs alone. Consider $25,700 that Disraeli saw for a first full October week, then $24,637 realized by General Crack for a similar frame in December. Wall Street crashed in the middle of Disraeli’s stay, but its take was not affected, a $23.5K average through the Arliss run. Audience satisfaction witGeneral Crack must be taken on faith, the show having scattered to wind after 1929-30. Stills are plenty appetizing, as in Barrymore at constant clinching, a powder monkey and dwarf for humor assist, plus tilting with Lowell Sherman, all boosted by Technicolor spurts. What survives of General Crack are sound discs (a complete set at UCLA), and a silent version of the feature. Unfortunately, the two don’t match.


Blogger Dave said...

I am a huge fan of Arliss's (and Barrymore's, but that's not why I called). I find his approach simultaneously period and refreshingly modern, almost always with an acknowledgement of the absurd circumstances his characters are in. (Would that that applied to "Alexander Hamilton," though, where he's thirty or forty years older than A. Ham.)

I especially like him in the silent version of "The Green Goddess," even if I was disappointed at the talkie remake.

4:16 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Always happy to discover an Arliss movie I haven't seen, although "Disraeli" isn't in my top 5 favorites. In fact, I'd probably put it at the bottom of those I've seen. Even "Alexander Hamilton" is more entertaining, for the reason Dave described: the crazy age difference!

I find as time progressed, and Arliss appeared in more modern dress roles, he got better, more subtle, and, at times, astonishingly witty. Remarkable how an actor who started on stage in the 1880s can be seen walking across TV screens in the 21st century -- and is still entertaining.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Forgot to add in my previous comment: a $2 ticket in 1929 would be worth about $29 now -- and the price of admission is getting ever closer to that.

4:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers John Barrymore:

John Barrymore fascinates me, a titanic talent with flaws ultimately fatal. It is the stuff of tragedy, with each moment in its progression intriguing for what was and might have been.

I’ve seen only a few smeary minutes of “General Crack” on the web and would love to see the whole of it, albeit in a better copy. I’d want to hear the sound discs of the talkie version, too, even without the images, though I could imagine a more artistic presentation, with stills and photographs and occasional snippets of the silent version to accompany them.

“General Crack,” however, is not the only film record of Barrymore in something approaching his prime. A few days before it opened, Warner Bros. released its all-star extravaganza, “Show of Shows,” which features him performing a soliloquy as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, from Shakespeare's "Henry VI":

He had made his reputation as a great Shakespearean in a Broadway production of “Richard III,” thus evincing an apparent affinity for the demonic duke. This performance is only two years removed from his triumphal London appearance in “Hamlet.” Shrewdly, given his macabre makeup as Richard, the Warner Bros. have him appear to introduce the piece, debonair in evening dress. Apparently speaking extemporaneously, with occasional thoughtful pauses, he puckishly notes that Richard will eliminate all his rivals with "the graceful impartiality of an Al Capone." One appreciates the Italianate pronunciation of "Capone."

As for his Richard, though, he is simply electrifying: an intelligent, ambitious, bitter man too aware of the bad joke nature has played on him and too willing to return it in spades to men who consider themselves his superiors. The language is brutal but delivered not without humor or passion. The last cry he gives, as he swears to pluck down his fortune, demonstrates the marvelous instrument that he’d made of his voice.

What a presence he must have had on stage, no less so for the Vitaphone audience, which would have seemingly justified the process for them. It also provides us with something to remember him by, a souvenir of what was and might have been.

5:26 PM  

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