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A Successful Calamity (1932), based on a 1917 play by Clare Kummer, is a witty domestic comedy about a Wall Street tycoon who returns home after an extended government mission in Europe, to find that his much-younger second wife and grown children are too busy with their own social lives to spend time with him. So he pretends that he's lost his money, and is pleasantly surprised at the reaction of his family.
For George Arliss, playing the tycoon in A Successful Calamity was a refreshing change of pace from the "important" historical dramas that were his specialty. But there's nothing grand about Arliss' portrayal in this film, and no sense that he's slumming. On the contrary, he appears to be having a great time. Never overacting, Arliss is a master of understatement rare in early talkies, indicating amusement, disbelief or disappointment with the merest gesture, a raised eyebrow, or a wry smile. The British-born actor had already had a long and distinguished career in the London and New York theater and silent films when he became an unlikely movie star at the age of 61 -- and the first English actor to win an Academy Award -- in his first talkie, Disraeli (1929). It was a role he had previously played on the stage and in a 1921 silent version. Arliss' contract with Warner Bros. gave him control over casting, script, and director, a privilege afforded to few actors. He gave Bette Davis her big break by casting her in The Man Who Played God (1932), and portrayed two more historical figures, Alexander Hamilton (1931) and Voltaire (1933) before moving to 20th-Century-Fox to continue his gallery of great men of history, including two Rothschilds in The House of Rothschild (1934), the Duke of Wellington in The Iron Duke (1934), and Cardinal Richelieu (1935).
Mary Astor, who played Arliss' young wife, was only 25 when she made A Successful Calamity, but she, too was a veteran. Pushed into an acting career by her ambitious parents, she made her film debut at 15, and became a star at 17 when she played opposite John Barrymore in Beau Brummel (1924). For the next few years, Astor was one of the busiest young actresses in Hollywood, and her low, vibrant voice was an asset when talking films arrived. When she made A Successful Calamity, she was recently married and pregnant. It would be her last film before the birth of her daughter, and the latest in a long string of not-very memorable parts. As Astor recalled in her memoir, A Life on Film, "I played secretaries, princesses, the wife of, the girlfriend of...I played many more characters who had things happen to them - reaction characters - than those who did things, who moved the story around." Her role in A Successful Calamity is one of those "reaction characters." Knowing Astor's later career playing predatory sophisticates, one waits in vain for the revelation that she's been dallying with her musical "protg" while her husband has been away. But her character is only a bored but faithful upper class wife who sees the "calamity" as an opportunity to prove that she's more than just a lovely trophy wife to her older husband.
The second film Astor made after having her baby would finally give her a character that "moved the story around": the faithless wife whose passion for plantation owner Clark Gable leads to near-tragedy in Red Dust (1932). Astor would have too few such juicy parts in her long career, but when she did, she made them memorable - and won a supporting actress Oscar® for one of them, the rapacious concert pianist in The Great Lie (1941).
Playing a small supporting role as the polo-playing suitor of Arliss' daughter in A Successful Calamity is Randolph Scott. It was typecasting for the sporty, polo-playing southern gentleman from North Carolina, who got his break in movies when he met Howard Hughes while playing golf. By the mid-1930s, Scott was playing romantic leads, but it was not until he began making westerns in the late 1940s that he reached the peak of his stardom. In the early 1950s, Scott was one of the top ten box office attractions, and he went on to produce his own films.
As for A Successful Calamity, Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times reported that "its amusing incidents appealed to a Roxy audience." The critic's own opinion was that "It is a light, breezy, improbable tale, which although it hardly affords the English actor any major opportunity, makes a pleasing diversion."
Director: John G. Adolfi
Producer: Lucien Hubbard (uncredited)
Screenplay: adaptation by Maude T. Howell of a play by Clare Kummer
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Editor: Howard Bretherton
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Cast: George Arliss (Henry Wilton), Mary Astor (Emmy Wilton), Evalyn Knapp (Peggy Wilton), Grant Mitchell (Connors), David Torrence (Partington), William Janney (Eddie Wilton), Hardie Albright (George Struthers), Randolph Scott (Larry), Fortunio Bonanova (Pietro Rafaelo).
by Margarita Landazuri