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Disraeli (1929), a cinematic tale of the life of Benjamin Disraeli, is virtually a one-man-show. The focus of the film is simple - how Disraeli uses all his skills as Great Britain's Prime Minister to prevent Russia from dominating British India. This can only be achieved by thwarting a wily female spy and secretly purchasing control over the Suez Canal from key rivals. And still he has time to play matchmaker for the two young principles in the film - Lady Clarissa Pevensey and Lord Deeford.
Okay, one clearly has to take Disraeli (1929) with a grain of salt as it reduces a complex piece of history to a simple story of spy vs. spy in virtually one set piece; historians also love to point out the factual error that it was not Hugh Myers, who bankrolls the Suez scheme, as is depicted in the film, but the Rothschild family who came to Disraeli's aid. It also helps if one is sympathetic to the rather static, stage-bound production and inferior sound. After all, it was 1929 and Hollywood was still making the transition from an era of silent films to 'talkies.'
Despite these shortcomings, George Arliss shines in the title role. Arliss played the role of Benjamin Disraeli on stage and in a silent version from 1921 and the part is a wonderful showcase for his talents. This version from 1929 was his sound debut. He was already 61 years old, yet displays the verve of a much younger performer. His rich, stage-trained voice, expansive gestures and distinguished stage "pedigree", earned Arliss the moniker: "The first gentleman of the talking screen". While some critics accused Arliss of being a 'ham,' his theatrical background served him well in Disraeli and he was awarded the Best Actor Oscar® for his performance, beating out Wallace Beery, Maurice Chevalier, Ronald Colman, and Lawrence Tibbet in competing films.
Film buffs might also get a kick out of watching a young ingenue in this film named Joan Bennett. She was just 19 years old, and appearing in only her second starring role. Yet this film, following her success in Bulldog Drummond (1929) with Ronald Colman, saw her stock rise in popularity, matching her sister's (Constance Bennett) status as a rising young star in Hollywood.
Director: Alfred E. Green
Screenplay: Julien Josephson
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Original Music: Louis Silvers
Principal Cast: George Arliss (Disraeli), Joan Bennett (Lady Clarissa Pevensey), Florence Arliss (Lady Mary Beaconfield), Anthony Bushell (Charles/Lord Deeford), David Torrence (Lord Probert)
by Michael Toole