Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

Director: John G. Adolfi                                 Writers: George Arliss & Mary Hamlin
Music: David Mendoza                                  Cinematography: James Van Trees
Starring: George Arliss, Doris Kenyon, Dudley Digges and Alan Mowbray

Alexander Hamilton was one of the unfortunate founding fathers, as his early death precluded his becoming president. But even with that, he still holds a high place in the country’s history, residing on the ten-dollar bill, almost single handedly given credit for the success of big business through his banking policies, and a different kind of example of the American Dream than the other, more well-off, founders present, as his humble beginnings as the bastard child of a Caribbean merchant were a distinct contrast with the rest of the founding generation—and something conveniently ignored in this film. Warner Brothers’ Alexander Hamilton from 1931, is a decidedly brief and incomplete portrait of Hamilton, but then that is to be expected with early biopics. What the film does well is to humanize the man—to the extent that’s possible in early Hollywood—rather than completely imbue him with mythological greatness. The film stars George Arliss as the title character, and it’s the actor’s play called Hamilton, co-written with Mary Hamlin that is presented on the screen, a play that he had starred in fifteen years earlier on Broadway. (The less said about its execrable modern counterpart, the better.) The play received mostly positive reviews in 1917, but a decade and a half later it hadn’t aged so well.

The film begins after the Revolutionary War, with George Washington saying farewell troops. Arliss, as Hamilton, tells Washington, played by Alan Mowbray, that the general will be needed to run the country as president. Washington says he’ll only agree if his colonel, Hamilton, continues as one of his cabinet. The central conflict of the first half of the film concerns Hamilton’s monetary policy, the assumption of all state war debts by the federal government. Montague Love as Thomas Jefferson sees this as a consolidation of power by the government that will make the states subservient in a way they’ve never been before. Hamilton’s view, however, is global. And without a strong government, the U.S. will never be a great power. Naturally, all of this is painted with the broadest possible brush. The people accuse Hamilton of being an aristocrat, and the film does nothing to dispute that view. Doris Kenyon plays Hamilton’s wife, Betsy, who is more concerned with having him home than fighting to keep the union together. When the southern states demand that the new capital be located in the south, it sets up a way for Hamilton to get a quid pro quo, the passage of his assumption bill for his support of a southern capital. His primary enemy throughout is Dudley Digges as the fictional Senator Reynolds, who takes every opportunity to embroil Hamilton in scandal, and oppose him politically. But of course, our hero rises above it all with aplomb, as any good founding father would do.

As with all such films, there’s a prodigious amount of bombast and histrionics when it comes to portraying national mythical figures. But because Arliss’s play also centered around the Reynolds’ affair scandal, there’s also a significant attempt to humanize Hamilton in a way not generally done in patriotic pictures. The fact that this is a pre-code film, however, is most likely what made that entire part of the storyline possible. Obviously, nothing was shown onscreen, but Hamilton’s eventual confession makes it clear that something did. But in the end there’s nothing really original about the story, and nothing separates it from dozens of others with similar themes. Unfortunately, the biggest issue with the film is the author and lead actor, George Arliss himself. By the time he made the picture he was already sixty-three, but looked seventy. As such, he was far too old to be playing Hamilton, who was only forty-eight when he died, and only thirty-seven at the time of the events in the film. In addition, John G. Adolfi’s direction is fairly uninspiring. But he had worked with Arliss on many previous films, and the actor’s ownership of the original material undoubtedly resulted in his being given the lead role and attaching Adolfi as director. So, in some sense the production was hampered from the very beginning. It’s difficult to say whether this is worth watching or not. There’s a certain cinematic historical merit to it, but the acting and story are so entirely pedestrian that unless one is simply curious, Alexander Hamilton is probably best avoided.