Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: Disraeli (1929)
- Standing:Best Picture Nominee for 1929/30 season
- Type: Biopic, Drama
- Other AA Nominations: Best Writing Achievement (Julien Josephson)
- Other AA Wins: Best Actor in a Leading Role (George Arliss)
- Director: Alfred E. Green
- Studio/Producer: Warner Bros.
- Cast: George Arliss, Doris Lloyd, David Torrence, Joan Bennett, Florence Arliss, Anthony Bushell, Norman Cannon, Ivan F. Simpson
- Production Notes: Screenplay by Julien Josephson, Adapted from the 1911 play by the same name by Louis N. Parker, Cinematography by Lee Garmes, Costumes by Earl Luick
- Viewing Order: 13/270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
Disraeli is a biopic about England’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli during the time of Queen Victoria. Disraeli’s (George Arliss) far reaching foreign policy ambitions don’t sit well with Liberal Party leader William Gladstone and others like him. While Disraeli seeks to make England an Imperial country, his opposition sees it as an invitation for war and discord. Disraeli’s impassioned speech at the House of Commons flops.
Disraeli’s wife, Mary Anne (Florence Arliss – George Arliss’ real time wife), is planning a party and Disraeli requests she invite the Russian ambassador and the mysterious Mrs. Travers (Doris Lloyd), a spy working with the Russians and fellow spy Foljambe against Disraeli. Their operation is genuinely terrible. They speak openly about their plans against him while he’s in the same room and their “spy game” is mostly limited to hiding behind doors. It’s no wonder that he’s not fooled and keeps an eye on Mrs. Travers while employing Mr. Foljambe (Norman Cannon) as his personal secretary to keep him close.
Meanwhile, two others in his circle are Disraeli admirer Lady Clarissa (Joan Bennett) and wealthy, un-ambitious Lord Charles (Anthony Bushell). They seem on the verge of romance, but Clarissa refuses his bland proposal as she desires someone with more drive and energy. Disraeli realizes that Clarissa likes Charles in spite of this and plays matchmaker, offering Charles a job with him so that he can make something of himself and impress Clarissa.
Disraeli finds out that the Khedive of Egypt is in need of money and may be persuaded to sell the Suez Canal to England, which would solidify their control of India, but Disraeli faces opposition from the head of the Bank of England. Not outdone and wanting to make a move before Russia acts first and grabs the canal for themselves, he enlists Jewish banker Hugh Myers (Ivan F. Simpson) to help him. Unfortunately, he tells Charles about the canal, but not the spies and Foljambe is able to find out information that he plans to take back to Russia. Clever Disraeli and humbled Charles, eager to right his own wrong, act quickly to clear England’s way to the canal in spite of spies, sabotage, danger, and all other obstacles that get in their way.
While most of the actors pose and throw their voices around through their roles, George Arliss does stand out as suave, witty, and in command of the film. Joan Bennett as Clarissa is the other standout, a pretty face certainly, but with fire behind it. The scenes wake up a bit when either are in them.
Behind the Scenes:
George Arliss won the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli. He originally played the role in the successful 1911 play, alongside his real wife Florence Arliss as Disraeli’s wife Mary. The two played the same roles in the 1921 silent version of the film and then again in this 1929 talkie version.
Why was it nominated for Best Picture?
The film was considered classy and highbrow and gave the film industry a level of panache. The subject was an interesting one to viewers and George Arliss especially was singled out for an incredible performance.
How does it hold up today?
So/so. The acting by George Arliss and others is acknowledged as dated and stagy by both critics and viewers, but the question is whether or not you can find that charming (critics seem more inclined to).
- IMDb rating = 6.2 out of 10
- Rotten Tomatoes rating = 80% out of 100% fresh by critics (4 fresh votes vs 1 rotten) and 43% by viewers.
Would this be my pick for 1929/30’s Best Picture?
Meh. Though it had its moments, I found the film fairly average and probably not one I would watch again.