"Disraeli" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
With the 85th annual Academy Awards being announced later this month, I thought it might be interesting to review some past winners, as I have done previously during this month. That leads us to "Disraeli" (1929).
"Disraeli" is an interesting hybrid of a movie. Part of it is a bio-drama, based on the life of the former conservative UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (played by George Arliss). It is part espionage story, involving Russian spies, and part love story, centering on Disraeli's relationship with his wife, Lady Beaconsfield (Florence Arliss, who was married to George in real life).
The movie also hints at some social and political commentaries. Disraeli was and is the only prime minister who was Jewish. In the film much is made of this. He is referred to as an "alien" throughout the film. He was not a "true" Englishmen. The English people deserved a prime minister who was a "pure" Englishmen, so goes the argument in the movie. An argument made by the Liberal Party.
But the film also talks about England's place in the world. Should England flex its muscle? Should it conquer more lands? Become an ever growing "super power", though that term is never said in the film. It is much like a national conversation which America is currently going through. Is there still a need for a "super power" in this new century? And should that "super power" be America?
"Disraeli" only focuses on one single moment in Disraeli's term as prime minister. His desire to purchase the Suez Canal, which would give them greater and quicker access to India. Most in the Liberal Party oppose this idea. England doesn't need to purchase the canal. It doesn't need to make this power move. But Disraeli sees long term potential and is determined to find the money to buy it.
Meanwhile there are Russian spies who are watching Disraeli. They too have an interest in the Suez Canal but are not in a financial predicament to buy it, just yet. But Disraeli is on to the spies and tries to mislead them.
To say any more about the plot wouldn't be fair to those who haven't seen it. So lets discuss the performance by George Arliss. Arliss originally played this role on the stage. It become the role most associated with him throughout his career. He won his only Academy Award for his performance in this film in the best actor category.
Of all the actors in the film Arliss gives the most "lively" performance. Others might call it a "ham" performance. But I think the style of acting was a deliberate choice by Arliss and the film's director, Alfred E, Green. First of all it separates Disraeli from the stuffy, liberal elitist in England at the time. It presents Disraeli as more of a "man of the people". More down to earth. Whereas it makes his opponents seems to speak in platitudes. Disraeli has a more "common" touch.
However that "common" touch also serves another purpose. Since Disraeli is Jewish and not accepted by the elite, it makes Disraeli seem just plain "common", rough around the edges. Not a seasoned, diplomatic politician. Almost a "vulgar" man who lacks British refinement, since he is of course a Jew, an "outsider".
I have a hard time believing neither Arliss or Green didn't think about these ideas while making the film. You also have to remember back in 1929 sound pictures were something new. Arliss gives the kind of performance you'd expect a man of the theatre to give. He is acting of those in the back row. He definitely has a "presence" on-screen. The performance is "larger than life". These kind of exaggerated performances were common during the early days of sound pictures, so, I don't hold it against Arliss.
In addition to the best actor nomination "Disraeli" was also nominated for best picture and best writing. It lost the best picture Oscar that year to "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930), the greatest of the early war pictures. It was the second war movie to win a best picture Oscar, "Wings" (1928) was the first, winning the award at the first Oscar ceremony.
"Disraeli", while not a great film, it would have been better if it told us more about this man and his life in politics. For example, the real Disraeli was also a novelist. But that is never mentioned in the film. Practically nothing about his time in office is mentioned. Still this is an interesting film. Those with an interest in watching early Oscar winners may enjoy this film.