Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

The Green Goddess (1930) - George Arliss, Alice Joyce and Warner Brothers Before the Gangsters

The Green Goddess is one of those movies that appears to be fairly commonplace in the early sound era in that they are obsessed with the British aristocracy and their affairs. In this instance it positively revels in its Britishness, from the cast and their clipped accents, to the colonial setting in India and right through to the “brownface” and casual racism. Filmed in 1929, but not released until 1930 the movie was an adaptation of a popular 1921 play (which additionally spawned a silent film version in 1923). Watching it today or indeed in 1930 it’s ridiculously stagey and old fashioned, but does hold a certain Kiplingesque charm that brings to mind the early output of Ronald Colman and the like. The play certainly must have been popular in its day as it brought forth multiple adaptions in film and radio. Orson Welles was seemingly an admirer, adapting it for stage and radio performances of The Mercury Players and it even inspired a salad, which is something you can’t say about a lot of plays.

What’s interesting to me about the movie is with its exotic locale, savage tribesmen, British stiff upper lipped resolve and general plodding presentation that it’s surprisingly produced by Warner Brothers. MGM maybe, Fox definitely - but Warner? This is the studio that within a year would be producing Little Caesar and kicking off a wave of violence, sex and sin so beloved of Pre-Code movie fans. However, when you look at Warner Brothers output in 1929 and 1930 it’s clear that they were a studio still finding its voice (so to speak) in the world of the talkies.

In fact, while the studio’s movies from this era include some minor gems, overall it’s a weird patchwork of genres and styles. There’s biblical epics (Noah’s Ark), operettas (The Desert Song), historical biopics (Disraeli), exotic dramas (The Squall) and whatever Golden Dawn is supposed to be. Add to that a raft of Al Jolson vehicles, a ton of Broadway based fluff starring Alice White and some attempts at drawing room drama and comedy with the likes of Dorothy Mackaill and Billie Dove and you certainly have an eclectic selection. It’s definitely a mixed bag in the days before Cagney, Robinson and Blondell hit the scene. Yet in the middle of this potpourri of cinematic uncertainty sits Warner Brothers' most bankable and dependable star of the era, George Arliss

Whilst mostly overlooked these days, make no mistake about it - George Arliss was a very big deal in the early 30s. For an industry desperate to achieve artistic respectability, he provided it in spades. Arliss began his theatrical career in his native Britain but found virtually all his success in America. Touring in plays such as “The Devils”, “Disraeli” and “The Green Goddess” made him a hugely successful and respected actor in the early part of the 20th century, a position that he used to transition to movies in the early 20s. By the time sound films arrived Arliss, then in his 60s was one of the unexpected successes of the period. I first realised the power that he commanded in the industry when I heard his debut on Lux Radio Theater in an episode from 1938. The hushed tones of reverence used by host Cecil B. DeMille to introduce him let the radio audience know in no uncertain terms that they were in the presence of greatness, and were glimpsing a dramatic talent far beyond the abilities of the average studio player. George Arliss represented artistic quality and with his extensive stage background, that all important ‘legitimacy” so craved by certain quarters in Hollywood.

However, the mark of quality surrounding his movies was not just hype. When he signed to Warner Brothers to make talking pictures starting in 1929 he was given an extraordinary amount of control over his output, at a level which possibly no other actor had at the time. He was responsible for virtually every element of his movies from casting to scripts to set design and his productions had essentially their own unit on the Warner lot. Though his movies are now fairly unfashionable, being largely overwrought historical biographies or adaptions of his theatrical successes, they were incredibly popular in their day and brought in a lot of money and prestige for Warner Brothers. It’s also worth noting that despite his own success he had an undeniable eye for young talent and cast the likes of Bette Davis and James Cagney in early roles and took an active part in cultivating and mentoring new stars. 

Even though The Green Goddess bears all the hallmarks of an Arliss production in terms of cast, crew and treatment, pretty much everything about the movie is absolute hokum. There is possibly a serious point to be made about the role of race, class and colonialism in India submerged somewhere within the setting but it is lost in a sea of melodrama. The plot concerns a three British people who crash land their plane on the kingdom of Rukh (supposedly some Indian province currently warring with the main government) The Rajah, played by George Arliss holds them prisoner and intends to execute them in retaliation for the government executing three of his countrymen for acts of terrorism. Our plucky heroes must try to escape before the Rajah has his ‘eye for an eye’ revenge.
For modern audiences such movies, featuring the otherness of another (usually non-white or certainly non-Western) culture leave a bad taste in the mouth, especially since as in this case the lead actor is essentially in ‘brownface’ to portray an Indian. This was not unusual in 1930, and indeed for many, many decades to come in movies and television. One unfortunately just has to accept the film for what it is - a product of its time made with noble intentions and with a small world view that was painfully unaware of its cultural surroundings. At the very least there is some discussion of the issue of British colonialism in India which serves as an attempt to paint the characters in a few minor shades of grey.

The Rajah is initially assumed by the British contingent, and especially the arrogant Major (played with impassive superiority by H.B, Warner) to be a savage (his line about wanting to get ‘back to civilisation’ starts relations with the Rajah immediately on the wrong foot) but is nonetheless erudite, educated and modern. There is an amusing scene where the Rajah points out this ‘household cavalry’ and we see a group of misshapen and elderly old codgers, one of which can’t even stay awake. This makes the British contingent bristle with satisfaction until at the snap of his fingers the real soldiers turn up like a modern well-oiled machine (bizarrely assembling in speeded up fashion). Despite tribal beliefs and idol worship going on amongst Rukh’s people (hence the titular Green Goddess who demands appeasement), the locals seem to be a strange lot, combining every available stereotype of movie tribesmen. The men carry spears, play the war drums, all the while whooping and shrieking in a variety of weird outfits. Conversely the women glide about like concubines in a harem, seductively shaking their hips in a hand me down 'Dance of the Seven Veils'. Typically with Western culture’s then-portrayal of the mysterious East, this exotic hodgepodge seems to have no connection with anything remotely Indian. One of the tribesmen even inexplicably carries a trident! Why he does so is never explained...

While the arrogance of Hollywood and its cultural view is never taken to task, luckily the movie at least attempts to tackle the attitudes of the British and their rule in India. The Rajah refuses to back down on his threat to have his British visitors killed, saying "Asia has a long score against you swaggering lords of creation, and by all the gods I mean to see some of it paid tomorrow" Of course, he has a valid point and the play brings up an interesting moral dilemma. Sadly, when he clasps eyes on the lone white female of the group, this ethical high ground goes swiftly out the window as he becomes another typically lust crazed foreign devil. He then goes out further on the crazy scale by attempting to justify his actions on some eugenic level, "For though I hate the arrogance of Europe, I believe that from the blending of a flower of the East with a flower of the West that the man of the future, the Superman will be born!" Not surprisingly, our flower of the West quickly turns down his advances.

Despite some of the more dubious elements of the scenario, the movie undoubtedly belongs to George Arliss. He commands the screen, resplendent in his silken finery as the sly and arch Rajah and is positively glowing with both charm and menace. It’s no wonder he is so confident in role having played it on and off for the better part of a decade. What’s surprising is how easily, at his first attempt, he adapts to talking pictures. His performance is assured without being theatrical, adept at the small moments as well as the large and seemingly at ease with acting within the new medium. Admittedly Arliss does at times chew the scenery with his proclamations and he holds a cigarette in the most weirdly off-putting manner - horizontal!  Most divertingly, his appearance and manner immediately brings to mind Kenneth Williams’ tour de force Khasi of Kalabar in Carry On Up the Khyber, but to me that’s the highest of praise.

The whole production, while having that certain rough at the edges charm of early sound movies, still retains a sense of gloss and grandeur. The interiors of the Rajah’s palace look impressively dressed and the courtyard set with its enormous thick doors (which I couldn’t figure out if were real or realised by visual trickery) at times brought to mind hints of silent Babylonian epics. If this had been made six months earlier one could easily imagine The Green Goddess being a lush and expensive silent melodrama of the highest order. 

There is a lot to like in some other members of the cast, most noticeably in the lovely Alice Joyce as Lucilla, the beleaguered housewife who wants only to be reunited with her children but who has to put up with the Rajah's creepy advances. Although is it a standard underwritten ‘woman in peril from evil foreigner’ role which requires her to look anguished and nervous for most of the film, Miss Joyce succeeds in being quietly understated and rather charming. Like a lot of great silent screen actresses, she excels when having to emote and her ability to use her face gives her character a lot more depth than perhaps appears on the page. Alice Joyce retired from the screen in 1930 and only appeared in a couple of more movies after The Green Goddess, which is a real shame as I would have likes to see more of her. However, at her age (a positively geriatric by Hollywood standards 39 in The Green Goddess but still looking delightful), her days as a leading lady were probably over. To be honest, she probably didn't have enough charisma in sound to be a big success, and her persona is definitely that of an earlier more demure era. However, she definitely appeals to my love of seeing silent stars making charmingly serviceable attempts at talking pictures so to me she's just right.

A brief mention also needs to be made of Ivan F. Simpson as the butler Watkins. Again this was a role he had played with Arliss previously on the screen and on stage and he oozes menace and class resentment with every pore. He’s a grubby, bitter little man and expertly brought to life by Simpson, who would go on to be one of Arliss’ regular stock players. The Green Goddess attempts, mostly unsuccessfully to say something about social class but in the scenes between Watkins, the Rajah and the new visitors the dynamic finds its greatest success. There's a great scene where the captured Brits try to convince him to turn on his master and help them out. They try to guilt him into doing it for the old country and offer him a variety of financial bribes. He remarks that if he's going to do it he's "got to have enough to make a gentleman of me" Without thinking the prisoners all laugh at his nerve. Even though their lives depend on him, they still need to remind him of his place in the world. In the end he double crosses them and so they throw him out a window to his death. I think there's a lesson to be learned there for all of us. If you ever figure it out please let me know.

In the end, your opinion of the The Green Goddess depends upon what part you choose to concentrate on. It’s old fashioned even for 1930, it has some misguided racial politics, it makes a confusing and ham fisted mess of untangling British colonialism and class conflict but if you can choose to overlook this there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on. Of course, these issues are difficult to get past but the movie (and the play) are of their time and entertainment and melodrama are the focus, not outdated social mores. On a technical and artistic level the movie is mostly above average, presenting a confident attempt at early sound filmmaking. It also allows a charismatic veteran actor in George Arliss to set out his stall for what would be a string of captivating and successful performances that would seal his legend in the public consciousness (and give Mitzi Green someone to impersonate).

The movie also shows Warner Brothers finding their feet at trying to create an identity as a studio. 'Tales of the British Raj' wouldn’t last long for the studio once they found a successful formula in gangsters, good time girls and slice of life Depression era grifting. It was no great loss when the likes of The Public Enemy started to be the in-house style for the studio at the expense of stagey nonsense like The Green Goddess. Yet the movie is emblematic of an industry finding its feet and trying different things to see what worked and what didn't. That in itself makes the movies of the early sound era endlessly fascinating. Sometimes they work, sometimes you can generously label it as 'a curio'. If I'm being generous, this one is a curio.

If nothing else, The Green Goddess ends with one of the best final scenes I can remember seeing. As the Rajah makes a final desperate effort to enslave Lucilla only to be foiled by the cavalry at the last moment he admits defeat, sits down cross legged and lights up a cigarette. Arliss looks at the camera with a twinkle in his eye and says, "Well, well, she'd probably have been a damned nuisance" It almost makes the film worthwhile. Almost, but not quite but I hope at least The Green Goddess made for a tasty salad.