[By Mars Five: Originally Posted 12/4/2016]
This movie was a vehicle for the celebrated movie star George Arliss.
“Who?” I wondered—but the joke’s on me because George Arliss was an extremely successful stage actor, who went on to be an extremely successful silent film actor, who <i>then</i> went on to be an extremely successful sound movie actor, picking up an Academy Award in 1930 for Disraeli—which he won by beating himself, as he’d also been nominated for his performance in The Green Goddess. He also served as his own producer, which makes him one of the few auteurs who was an actor rather than a director. You learn something new every day but I’m embarrassed at my ignorance, so let’s move right along to The Working Man. Show us what you got, old man.
John Reeves (Arliss) is a hard-working shoe magnate who loves his job. But two things happen that disturb the corporate idyll. First, he learns of the death of his rival, the head of the Hartland Shoe Company. Second, he overhears his nephew and deputy (and efficiency expert) saying that the old man is past his prime and should be put out to pasture. Irritated, he takes up a friend’s invitation to go fishing off the Maine coast.
One thing I immediately noticed was that Arliss seems more a character actor than a leading man. He was born in 1868—1868!—and was middle-aged when new opportunities were created by this new-fangled “Cinématographe” apparatus. He’s old, short, thin—I think “wizened” is the correct term—and he’s much quirkier than his co-stars. But he is charismatic: he’s in almost every scene and held my attention without difficulty.<
Meanwhile, off the coast of Maine, his fishing is disturbed by the yacht of a bunch of hard-partying Jazz Age leftovers. They include the two Hartland heirs, Tommy (Theodore Newton) and Jenny (a young, unsuccessful starlet named Bette Davis). In a series of Hollywood plot turns, Reeves gives his name as “John Walton,” becomes their friend, and is ultimately appointed to manage the trust set up by Hartland Senior.
The character John Reeves/John Walton is a good guy with a few eccentricities to make him more approachable: he’s a bit vain, he can be crotchety but is still kindly, and he’s manipulative even though he has good intentions. We’d previously learned that Reeves and Hartland loved the same woman; she chose Hartland, and Reeves never married. While undercover at the Hartland mansion, Reeves asks to use the phone and is led into a study. There he sees the painting of a young and beautiful woman. A beatific expression unfolds on his face. Suddenly what seemed like farce makes emotional sense: he still has feelings for the dead Mrs. Hartland and feels a paternal obligation to the children who might have been his. Jenny comes in to put flowers in front of her mother’s portrait, and there’s a touching father-daughter dynamic now.
Arliss has been entertaining so far, but this unexpectedly subtle scene—it’s short and nothing is put into words—elevates the movie. Another nice scene follows. Now that “John Walton” has been appointed trustee, Tommy and Jenny throw a party, believing that their new pal is going to keep those trust fund checks coming. “Walton” gives a little speech:
This party was given in honor of my appointment as their new guardian. They didn’t like the old one. *partygoers boo* I hope they’ll like me. *partygoers applaud* I want you to make the most of this party for, who knows, it might be the last! *laughter* I might cut off supplies! Our Jenny might decide to take care of her youth and beauty and go to bed sometime! Our Tommy might turn over a new leaf and go to work at the factory! *uproarious laughter* You can never be sure of anything in this world. Enjoy yourselves and kiss goodbye to the Hartland home tonight, for who knows—you may never see it again.
While the Wild Young Things cheer this full-throated defense of hedonism, we know how double-edged those words are. The next morning the leftover liquor is poured down the drain—we never see any of the party-goers again—and it’s time for everyone to shape up. “Walton” teaches all these young whippersnappers a lesson: his efficiency-expert nephew back at Reeves Shoes gets an ass-whupping from the newly re-energized Hartland Shoes, and the young wastrels get a much-needed reality check and a dose of discipline.
The movie is perfectly competent and I was impressed by George Arliss. So let’s discuss the implicit question: Why has George Arliss been largely forgotten?
The critical consensus seems to be that he and his movies were too old-fashioned. I can’t help but suspect that if this movie had been made ten years later as a vehicle for Bette Davis, then Jenny might have rejected all the sage advice and gone into a self-destructive spiral of booze and partying, rather than instantly realizing the virtues of hard work and matrimony. (She ends up engaged to the efficiency-expert nephew.) In The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes: “Arliss’s greatest contribution to the movies may have been his championing of Davis at a crucial moment in her young and failing career.”
I don’t agree (and I find Thomson condescending). Arliss does have an archaic, theatrical style, but in the context of this particular movie I’m willing to defend it. John Reeves, business magnate, is played as a larger-than-life personality and the exaggeration is appropriate since the plot is semi-farcical. (I found Davis and the others a bit bland, honestly.) And, as noted above, Arliss does provide a little psychological backstory to ground his character. And here, I think, is where we can find a fundamental difference between older and newer styles of characterization. Arliss doesn’t express any inner conflict. He’s sad that things turned out the way they did, but he went on to live a rich, full life. If someone made a modern remake *shudder* I think Reeves would be conflicted or tormented, and there’d probably be a ten-minute flashback to “fill in his backstory.”
Arliss’s conservatism may also have contributed to the neglect. By this I mean: I have no idea about his personal political opinions but in most of his roles—which, remember, he chose and rewrote as he wished—there’s a clear conservative spirit.
There’s a battle of the generations in The Working Man but it’s entirely one-sided. The nephew needed to learn respect for his elders and loosen up a little. (Due to plot reasons, Jenny-in-disguise becomes his secretary; having a young Bette Davis fluttering around his office leads him to realize that there are more important things than corporate efficiency.) The two heirs needed to be pushed into becoming productive members of society. So the old man is right all across the board, the social order is restored, and everyone is happy. The Great Depression is simply handwaved: Everyone just needs to pull up their socks and roll up their sleeves. Main Street is good; Wall Street is evil—there’s a sub-plot I skipped over; hard work is good; easy living is bad. The End.
And that’s not unique to The Working Man. Arliss starred in several other movies with similar plots—hey, don’t mess with success—and when he starred in several historical “biographies”—in quotes because they’re not exactly “historically accurate”—he consistently chose conservative heroes: Richelieu, Hamilton, Wellington, Disraeli. Overall, I see a pattern of conservative paternalism: He’s in charge, but it’s all for the best; there’s a very deferential attitude towards authority that doesn’t have much appeal nowadays. Not to progressives who are more interested in race, gender, oppression, transgression, liberation; not to modern conservatives who have no interest in witty intellectual noblesse oblige attitudes. Personally, I have no objections: George Arliss was born in 1868 so he came by his Victorian values honestly.
But I’m spending too much time on politico-psychoanalysis. The reason George Arliss has been forgotten is because, in the end, everything is forgotten. So the real question is, should he get a second chance? Based on The Working Man, I’d say yes. The movie isn’t a classic, but I was glad to be introduced to its star. He’s historically important, if nothing else. Here he is on the cover of Time:
This implies that, in his time, he was as famous as Charlie Chaplin, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, several Barrymores, and… uh… Raquel Meller.
The movie featured on the cover, by the way, is The House of Rothschild and it looks interesting: Leonard Maltin gives it 3 out of 4 stars; Boris Karloff co-stars as the villain; the finale is an early use of Technicolor (the rest of the movie is in black-and-white). And finally George Arliss, one of Hollywood’s major players, decided to make a movie that’s openly sympathetic to Jews—he has a double role as patriarch Mayer and son Nathan—in 1934. Regrettably this movie is not currently [legally] available—though several other Arliss features can be ordered as manufactured-on-demand discs.
The sesquicentennial of George Arliss’s birth is coming up in 2018. Maybe it’s time for a re-evaluation? Do you hear that, American Film Institute and/or British Film Institute? Get on it!