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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Arliss Clocks Laughs As Voltaire

Here's where I (again) sing George Arliss praises. I don't know another before-camera artist so meticulous, so knowing of just what registered best to moviegoers he never saw. Ringing applause over years on stage taught Arliss what effects worked best, so imagining on-set how a thousand-strong would later react came easy to him. A laugh line had no greater master. Who knew Voltaire was funnier than most that worked at comedy? I recently watched on TCM for a third or so time, and still had forgot how effective this played. Arliss for me occupies a small clutch of players whose stuff is evergreen-watchable, his well of tricks' bottom so far (by me) unreached.

What producer would today back a theatrical release about Voltaire? Past no one knowing who he was, there's anchorage of powdered wigs, poufy sleeves, etc. Arliss makes grand sport with these. Few wore costumes with such aplomb. Bits he does with props is joy unbound for watching. Quill pens, coffee service, a snuff box --- all put before GA to grand comic effect. Arliss was live action's Popeye for a throwaway line, an under-spoke aside (maybe the animated sailor, arriving in 1933, learned from George). Those unacquainted with Arliss err in assuming he was a serious ac-tor, with pitfalls that entailed. Not so. He was light and deft and readier with a quip than most clowns who tried harder. Seeing Voltaire in a crowded house would be some kind of blast. Talk about laughter as contagion --- I didn't measure Arliss pauses for crowd reaction, but I'll bet he factored them in more precisely than even Hope and Crosby later would.

Negative cost of Voltaire was $310K. That was top-end expense for Warners in 1933. Only Busby Berkeley musicals and one or two others cost more. But George Arliss was a money star. I found none of his entered in red ink save Alexander Hamilton (and that barely below break even). Voltaire returned $765K in world rentals. Euro revenue was always stout for Arliss. In fact, he was Warner's #1 man for overseas income. So how is it Arliss clicked as well with gum-poppers over here? Maybe it was common touch he applied despite uber-Brit-ness and high flown diction. They knew GA wasn't taking any of it too seriously and was there after all to show humblest of us a good time, which he surely did, in spades.

Voltaire sets were designed by Anton Grot. He should be credited as much as any director for the look of Warner output. Grot made program pictures look like specials. Voltaire used furniture and period knick-knack from 1927's When A Man Loves, according to Robert Fell's fine book, George Arliss: The Man Who Played God. Did Warner brothers collect antiquities during Euro trips like MGM execs? The latter was said to have gathered much across ponds for use in studio historicals. WB wouldn't attach undue importance to Voltaire and kin --- it runs only 72 minutes --- other Arlisses came in even under that (The King's Vacation an hour long). Notable too is how briefly these stayed in Depression theatres, two days an average with bills shared by news of the day, a cartoon, whatever extras could make a dime seem money's worth.

There was confidence enough not to mislead patrons beyond adding The Affairs Of ... before the title. His public surely knew that whatever affairs an Arliss as Voltaire engaged would be political ones, romance confined as often was case to his being Dan Cupid for younger players. A WB pressbook made suggestions for selling, these not necessarily heeded, though I'd like to think at least a few showmen tied-in with book merchants to promote The Best Known Works Of Voltaire in its bargain-priced eight volume edition. Arliss was a modern Voltaire after all, his dialogue mightier than swords wielded by other leading men. You'd not accuse 30's patronage of narrow tastes so long as Arliss clicked. I'm only surprised Voltaire was his last at Warners. Did GA, like George Bancroft at Paramount, price himself out of contract renewal? WB would blanch at terrific receipts rival Twentieth-Century Pictures took with The House Of Rothschild and two further Arliss hits the newly-formed and Zanuck-run company produced (according to Fells' book, Warners lodged complaint before the Academy Board for 20th having conducted a "talent raid").

Publicity positioned Arliss as a stickler for dignity and decency, and indeed, his vehicles could as easily have fallen to either side of Code enforcement without notice. Said Voltaire's press release: He allows nothing suggestive or vulgar to appear in any production with which his name is to be associated. He never swears on the screen. Acknowledging GA as being human however, he has been known to do so in real life. Interesting here was WB having forgotten Arliss' "She would probably have been a damn nuisance" curtain line from 1930's The Green Goddess, a finish that surely would have been modified had Code edicts been observed that year as resolutely as they would be after mid-1934.


Blogger James Abbott said...

Bette Davis thought Arliss was a great genius.

11:30 AM  
Blogger Christopher Stilley said...

I've always wanted to see this.It seemed the perfect part for Arliss.Few actors,other than Arliss and John Wayne could claim to be the "whole" show.I've enjoyed everything I've seen him in.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Christopher Stilley said...

theres a quote in the Bible in Ephesians 4:29 that goes.."Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs,that it may benefit those who listen"-This was the George Arliss character in most his films..He was a master of the good word...It must have really been a comfort to depression era audiences..

5:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

For a guy who's accused by contemporary critics as being hammy, George Arliss actually underplays quite effectively post-"Disraeli," particularly when it comes to delivering a witty line. I wonder how he was near the end of his career. Have you seen "Dr. Syn"?

4:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Have not seen "Dr. Syn," but assume it can be streamed somewhere. This one would be worth tracking down.

4:44 PM  

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