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George Arliss and the birth of celebrity politics

NPG x134432; George Arliss (Augustus George Andrews) as the Duke of Wellington in 'The Iron Duke' by Unknown photographer

George Arliss is a long forgotten figure. But in the 1930s he meant a lot to British movie audiences, so much in fact one poll made him the most popular film star of 1934, knocking Clark Gable into second place. Arliss was, however, an unlikely star – in his sixties, he had a stoop and bad teeth – but his screen persona clearly resonated with cinema audiences.

Thanks to the 1929 Hollywood movie Disraeli, Arliss was a transatlantic star. It won him an Oscar and was followed by a string of movies made in Hollywood and Britain in which he played various historical figures, including Voltaire, Nathan and Meyer Rothschild, Richelieu, Alexander Hamilton and the Duke of Wellington (pictured above). Indeed, so omnipresent was he, the historian Philip Guedella jokingly remarked:  ‘History, according to the cinema, has three epochs: the epoch of Roman oaths and circuses, followed by that of polygamous kings, followed by that of George Arliss’.

When not playing historical roles, Arliss assumed the parts of millionaires, prime ministers, monarchs and aristocrats, each of whom shared the same generic, genial characteristics. For Arliss played men of affairs as kindly, approachable and even whimsical figures, although they were also wise and possessed the necessary low skills to achieve their disinterested ends: his screen Disraeli was even considered ‘glamorously sly’.

As I argue in this new article in the Historical Journal, Arliss gave the cinema going public a version of leadership for which many of them appeared to hanker. Certainly, when the British producers of The Tunnel (1935) – about an ill-fated attempt to create a physical link between Britain and the US – needed someone to play a plausible prime minister, they automatically called on Arliss.

Arliss was also a Conservative. Trading on his fame, in 1935 he reprised his Disraeli in one of the party’s propaganda shorts which were played by its fleet of cinema vans that toured the country during the election campaign and took the message to an estimated 1.5 million people. In it, Arliss-Disraeli reportedly took the great Victorian statesman’s ideas as the basis of a stirring message to present-day Britain.

In the article I speculate on the meaning of this merging of real and fictional politics. What seems likely is that Arliss pointed to a comforting style of leadership for which many people hankered during a decade of economic uncertainty and impending diplomatic crisis. Perhaps it was no accident that the party leader who best embodied this phlegmatic style was also one of the period’s most successful: Stanley Baldwin.

Steven Fielding

Published inArt, Fiction & PoliticsBritish Politics

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