Given how much of a standout year the prior ceremony’s list of nominees turned out to be, my expectations were somewhat lessened going into the 3rd ceremony’s list. In particular, I was left rather stymied by the acting in last year’s nominees, especially considering the field of Best Actor. I guess it turned out to be very fortunate, then, that I started off this year with Disraeli, which features George Arliss reprising the role he made his own on stage and previously on the silent screen. Arliss was apparently a huge fan of doing this role, so much so he secured the screen rights to it years before the first silent-cinema depiction of the famed British Prime Minister, just to make sure he was the only one who could do it, and do it justice. Well, he does the role justice, all right, but one might have a hard time arguing the rest of the film is up to matching Mr. Arliss’ efforts.
The film is a two-fold story, and surprisingly, it manages to balance the two stories well against each other, by essentially tying them together midway through the film. Disraeli is the current Prime Minister of Britain, a man of great standing and character, and with an even greater amount of criticism from those who oppose his policies. The film itself zeroes in on Disraeli’s efforts to acquire the Suez Canal from Egypt, thereby securing Britain’s presence and shipping routes to India, and the opposition to his efforts by both those in other powerful positions in the government as well as foreign spies situated in positions close to Disraeli himself. Alongside this is a pseudo-love story between Lady Clarissa, an admirer of Disraeli’s, and Lord Deeford, who proposes marriage to Clarissa but is rejected as being too mannered and haughty by the manner of his proposal. Disraeli, for whatever reasons he has, takes an interest in the burgeoning romance, and aspires to set the pair up to be together by giving Deeford a role to play in the Suez Canal affair. For similar reasons as when I’ve done so in the past, I go into particular depth with the plot because the film, as a whole, doesn’t have very much in terms of features to talk about, with the exception of Arliss himself. I wouldn’t say the screen lights up whenever Arliss is on-screen; more like, the film seems to become more of an actual film whenever he’s there, instead of a caricature of one. Arliss, at least, knows how to act; he comes off as a consummate stage actor who knows how to translate his skills to the medium of sound filmmaking, and for the first time in this Best Picture odyssey I can see how an actor won or got nominated for Best Actor. Kudos to him, though Lord knows he could’ve done with a less comparatively on-the-nose hairstyle. The rest of the film is more or less a run-of-the-mill of background biopic material and filmmaking, and thankfully the film seems to know this soon after it sets up the middle section, after which we are focused almost entirely on Disraeli and his actions, so kudos there as well.
As much as I enjoy a film with a strong central performance, it does make it that much harder to judge the film as a whole, or even the rest of the film outside that central performance, since it becomes that much more unremarkable and forgettable because of the actor in question. Disraeli is probably the perfect example of such a film that was made in the earliest of the sound era; unremarkable, but good enough, made more so by the acting of its lead. Plus, the film is short, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It might treat its material with a little bit of the built-in reverence that tends to plague most biopics, treating Disraeli as the central figure of the whole thing and as a man who, being always in the right, can do no wrong; I don’t know if this was what actually, historically, happened or not, but the film, even with doing this, doesn’t seem to suffer that much as a result. This is probably more of one to seek out for its acting rather than its nomination for Best Picture, which I’m still unsure if I agree with or not, but it’s not really a bad film, should you decide to go ahead and watch it.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10