Theatre yesterday and today



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In writing these columns and looking into theatrical events on a given date, it's always fun to find things I never knew existed. Such is the case when I Googled September 17th to find that a play called Hamilton opened 99 years ago tonight in 1917.

And yes, it was about that Hamilton.

It was co-written (along with Mary P. Hamlin) by the British actor George Arliss, who also starred in the play. A renowned stage actor in his time, Arliss also made a number of films and was the third actor to win an Academy Award as Best Actor in 1930 for his portrayal of the title role in Disraeli. He had created the part on Broadway where his credits total two dozen over a twenty-six year period. He was something of a Renaissance man in that he had complete control over most of what he appeared in, often writing, directing and producing. This extended to the time Hollywood beckoned as it did to most stage actors who could speak well when talkies came to prominence. Arliss was given free reign by Daryl Zanuck first at Warner Bros., then later at 20th Century Fox, where Arliss personally adapted many of his Broadway successes to film, including Hamilton, renamed Alexander Hamilton for the screen.

At sixty-three years old when the film was shot, I'm sure Arliss displays far less of the youthful vigor Lin-Manuel Miranda brought to the role in his musical. Still, I'm curious to see how it plays, but as far as I can tell, it's not available on DVD or on demand, though it was broadcast recently on Turner Classic Movies (cleverly airing the night the other Hamilton swept the Tony Awards). Since I never knew of the film's existence until today, I'm going to be keeping an eye out for it on the TCM schedule.

George Arliss as Alexander Hamilton (1931)

As for 1917's Hamilton's production, it only ran one month, but not because it wasn't well received. It was. It closed due to having the bad fortune of opening during an influenza pandemic which led to dozens of theaters closing (remember this was when there were close to a hundred theatres throughout a widely dispersed theatre district back in the day). Arliss's collaborator on the play, Mary P. Hamlin, was a 46-year-old mother of four from Canandaigua, New York. It was where she lived and worked her whole life, until she passed away in 1964 at the age of ninety-three. She sent Arliss a working draft of a play she was writing about Alexander Hamilton, having a keen interest in the subject being distantly related by marriage to Lincoln’s first Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin. To her great surprise, Arliss was interested in bringing Hamlin's play to the stage. It wound up being her sole effort as a playwright.

In a New York Post article from June of this year, a quote from Mary Hamlin summed up her brief career, citing a memoir she wrote when she was eighty-two: "There are a few writers among women who can surmount family and make a successful business of playwriting, but I don’t seem to have been one of them.” The Post also makes clear that according to Hamlin, "Mr. Arliss did little writing of my play. He knew nothing of American politics, did not even know, at first, that Thomas Jefferson was president of the United States.”

If this has aroused any further curiosity about the career of George Arliss, someone has painstakingly devoted a website to his life and career:

The site even includes alerts when any of Arliss's films are playing on TCM, evidently one of the few places where the work of this once famous actor can be viewed. With film preservation vitally important to the arts, it's comforting to know that the works of artists such as Arliss have a home.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.