George Arliss: Disraeli Gears

Today we chiefly remember George Arliss (August George Andrews, 1868-1946) as the answer to trivia questions. He was the first Brit to receive an Oscar, as well as the earliest born to receive one, both for Disraeli (1929). But perhaps we should take a minute to remember all that lies back of that — a body of work, a skilled performer. He’s more than a footnote; there’s an entire career behind that award.

Arliss was the son of a London publisher, who broke into regional English theatre circa 1868, and began appearing on the West End around the turn of the century. In 1899 he married Florence Montgomery, who became his frequent co-star on stage and screen as Florence Arliss. They came to the U.S. with Mrs. Patrick Campbell and her troupe in 1901, and remained for decades. Arliss went on to appear in 26 Broadway productions and 26 films. He was known especially for appearing in biographical vehicles, sometimes appearing in multiple versions (stage, silent, and talkie). Such roles included the title characters in Disraeli (plays in 1911, 1912 and 1917, films in 1921, 1929 and 1931); Paganini (play in 1916); Hamilton (which he also wrote, play in 1917, film in 1931); and the films Voltaire (1933), The House of Rothschild (1934), The Iron Duke (1934), and Cardinal Richelieu (1935). Other “multiple vehicles” included The Green Goddess (play in 1921, films in 1923 and 1930), The Ruling Passion (1922, later remade as The Millionaire in 1931). and the films The Man Who Played God (1922 and 1932). Arliss’s long, impassive face sometimes got him cast as exotic potentates; some of his characters had names like The Raja of Rukh, Zakurri, and the Sultan of Rungay. His last screen role was the title character in the original Doctor Syn (1937), later remade by Walt Disney as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1937).

In 1938 and 1939, the Arlisses starred in radio versions of some of their more popular films on Lux Radio Theatre. In 1939 they returned to England, where they were essentially trapped for the duration of the Second World War. Arliss died of bronchitis a few months after hostilities attended.

To learn more about show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.