One reason that I love February is because it’s during this month that TCM broadcasts 31 Days of Oscar. Over the course of this month, TCM is devoting itself to showing Oscar-nominated films. While this means that they are showing a lot of my favorite films, it also means that they’re showing some obscure films that I might otherwise never have had a chance to see.
Disraeli is one of those previously obscure films. Released in 1929, Disraeli was an early sound film that starred a distinguished stage actor named George Arliss. Recreating a role that he had previously played on stage and in a silent film, Arliss was the first British actor to ever win the Academy Award for Best Actor. Disraeli itself picked up a nomination for best picture but lost to All Quiet On The Western Front.
Disraeli tells the story of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (played, in a likable if overly theatrical performance, by Arliss). Disraeli was the first (and, to date, only) person of Jewish descent to serve as prime minister. A favorite of Queen Victoria, Disraeli held the office of prime minister several times during the late 19th century and remains one of the most influential leaders in British history.
Reflecting the fact that it was initially made at a time when its title character was still a well-known historical figure, Disraeli spends next to no time explaining how Benjamin Disraeli reached the office of prime minister or why he believed the things that he believed. Indeed, the film tells us remarkably little about just what exactly Disraeli, as leader, did believe in. Instead, it takes for granted that the audience will know who Benjamin Disraeli was and why he was important. The film, focuses on one aspect of Disraeli’s career — his efforts to purchase the Suez Canal and allow Victoria to add “Empress of India” to her list of titles. Along the way, he finds the time to encourage a tepid romance between his aide (Anthony Bushnell) and the young Lady Clarissa (played by Joan Bennett, who — nearly 50 years later — would play the sinister Madam Blanc in Dario Argento”s Suspiria). While this approach may have worked for audiences in 1929, modern viewers will probably wonder just what exactly everyone’s going on about.
If you didn’t know that Disraeli was based on a stage play, you would be able to guess it from watching the movie. It’s not just that this is an extremely talky film. It’s also a very stagey film, a reminder that the initial introduction of sound resulted in American cinema taking a step back artistically. Whereas silent films were free to experiment both visually and narratively, a film like Disraeli had to be shot in order to accommodate the limitations of the early sound era. As a result, the camera rarely moves and scenes are made up of static shots of groups of people standing close together and delivering lengthy passages of exposition. While this may not have been an issue for audiences who were still amazed by the very existence of talking pictures, modern audiences will probably find the film to be pretty dull.
Disraeli is a difficult film to recommend for a modern audience but it is interesting to watch from a historical point of view. As I watched Disraeli, I was reminded of a current Oscar contender. Much like Lincoln, Disraeli attempts to humanize a famous politician and is structured around the lead performance of an acclaimed British thespian. Much like Disraeli, Lincoln is a fictionalized account of how a powerful and controversial leader manipulated a reluctant government into making history. That Lincoln deals with the struggle to end American slavery while Disraeli celebrates British imperialism says a lot about the difference between 1929 and 2013.