Thursday July 11, 2019
Arliss on Cagney
In 1931, Warner Bros. biggest star, George Arliss, who had played Disraeli in “Disraeli” (twice: silent and talkie), and who would soon resurrect his stage role as Alexander Hamilton in “Alexander Hamilton,” was casting his new comedy, “The Millionaire,” in which he, of course, played the title role. The following is from his autobiography:
There was a small but important part in The Millionaire, the part of an insurance agent. The scene was entirely with me and was the turning point in the story. I knew it depended largely on the actor of this small part whether my change of mental attitudes would appear convincing. I saw several promising young men without being much impressed one way or another, but there was one more waiting to be seen. He was a lithe, smallish man. I knew at once he was right. As I talked to him I was sure he could give me everything I wanted. He wasn't acting to me now. He wasn't trying to impress me. He was just being natural, and I thought, a trifle independent for a bit actor. There was a suggestion of here-I-am-take-me-or-leave-me, and hurry up. As I came to my decision, I remember saying, “Let him come just as he is. Those clothes and no makeup stuff. Just as he is.” The man was James Cagney. I was lucky.
Also unlucky. Arliss had had a nice run, but Cagney's naturalistic acting helped put an end to his more theatrical version. Within a year, it was Cagney who was Warner Bros.' big star—even if he wasn't treated as such by Jack Warner. He's been the longer-lasting, too. Arliss kept going, playing Voltaire in “Voltaire,” and Cardinal Richelieu in “Cardinal Richelieu,” but increasingly America wanted to see less of these guys and more of Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan.