Wednesday, November 30, 2011

1929/30 - Disraeli

Awards season has begun, which unashamedly makes me giddy. I've already seen a lot of the films that could potentially be recognised over the coming months but there are still plenty to go. One that I am particularly looking forward to is The Artist, especially after being named the favourite of the New York Film Critics yesterday. I'll be attending a screening of it (sadly, sans Q&A) on Friday, and will report on its merit soon.

Time now to discuss another nominee from the 1929/30 Best Picture contest...

Alfred E. Green
Julien Josephson
(based on the play by Louis N. Parker)
George Arliss, Joan Bennett, Florence Arliss, Anthony Bushell, David Torrence, Ivan F. Simpson, Doris Lloyd
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
1 win, for Best Actor (Arliss)

19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (Arliss) is having a tough time of it. His political rival, William Gladstone, has helped to undercut Disraeli's plans for a more far-reaching British Empire. But when Egypt puts the Suez Canal on the market, Disraeli sets his sights on purchasing it in order to secure control of India. Only trouble is the head of the Bank of England (Torrence) won't release the needed funds. Not one to give up, Disraeli calls upon wealthy Jewish banker Hugh Meyers (Simpson) for a loan and, with the help of his aide Charles (Bushell), Disraeli makes every last effort to ensure the transaction is successful.

With a generous helping of dialogue, the film's genesis as a play is unmistakable. There is very little action among the mostly political discussions until at least an hour into the story when a sense of urgency is finally introduced. At this point, the tale becomes exponentially more involving. Interestingly, the plot devices used are incredibly similar to those of farce, just without the humour. Disreali observes a foreign agent sneak an important piece of paper into her sleeve and excuse herself so she can secretly read it. Our inimitable hero ushers one of his allies to pester the rival, making sure she is not alone. It's like a doorless version of Noises Off. While exciting, this sequence is clearly far from historically accurate, along with much of the film's story, I imagine. The spy element, in particular, seems rather unlikely. Nonetheless, the picture is certainly not intended to be a documentary.

One of the more realistic elements of Disraeli, namely his apparent struggle against anti-Semitism, is treated with subtlety. The film does, however, present an interesting take on women's rights. Disraeli seems somewhat enlightened in terms of allowing women to remain present when political secrets are being discussed, yet his wife tells the story of how she suffered in silence after having her finger slammed in a door. She stifled her anguish, not wanting to bother her husband. With no sense of irony, everyone agrees that this was a "wonderful thing" for her to do.

You will probably find parts of this picture dull, but it is certainly worth watching, if for George Arliss's (pictured) intelligent performance alone. He became the first British actor to win an Oscar, and was arguably also the first to benefit from the Academy's penchant for transformational character work.

1 comment:

  1. I got to watch Disraeli on youtube. It actually kept my interest and stagy as it was, translated well to the early talking picture screen. Its chief asset is Mr. George Arliss, who seemed quite comfortable in front of the camera, looking cagey with his question mark hair comb.

    The story was intriguing and didn't come across as a history lesson. You are absolutely on target with the references to farce. Doris Lloyd as Mrs. Travers skulking about in doorways and open windows was rather comical, in a Noises Off way.

    This is the only film of George Arliss that I have seen, and I can understand his winning the Best Actor Oscar.