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The Prime Minister (1941) is the legendary Benjamin Disraeli, played by the legendary John Gielgud in a tour-de-force performance that takes Disraeli from a foppish young novelist, to a neophyte member of Parliament, to prime minister of England and confidante of Queen Victoria. Along the way, "Dizzy" woos and weds his wife Mary Anne, who provides shrewd support for his career. He also battles political opponents, helps the poor and working class, buys the Suez Canal, expands the empire, and foils the imperialist plans of the German-Austrian-Russian political alliance.
The film's emphasis on the latter achievement is very much a product of the times. Made at Teddington Studios in the early months of World War II, the film's script is full of references that were as applicable to recent world events as they were to historical ones. Some of the language resonates with contemporary references, and could be a call to arms. "They recognize only one argument - force!" Disraeli tells his cabinet. "They hold themselves a race apart, divinely ordained to rule the world...they cannot be appeased."
The Prime Minister offers a rare opportunity to see one of the great talents of the English stage in his prime. John Gielgud is best known to modern film audiences for the roles he played in the last decades of his life: crusty-but-loveable codgers in films such as Arthur (1981), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar®; and imposing elders in Shakespearean roles and historical dramas like Elizabeth (1998) and The Portrait of a Lady (1996). In the 1930s and early 40s, however, Gielgud made a handful of British films, including Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936). For most of his career though, he devoted himself to the theater, rivaling Laurence Olivier for the title of leading actor on the London stage. The Prime Minister, in fact, would be Gielgud's last feature film appearance until 1953's Julius Caesar.
In The Prime Minister, Gielgud has a juicy role, and he has fun with it, elegantly and eloquently declaiming several of Disraeli's long Parliamentary speeches, and tossing off Disraeli witticisms ("Every woman should marry - but no man"; "Youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret") with Noel Cowardly panache. He is ably supported by a strong cast, including Diana Wynyard (Cavalcade, 1933) as Mary Anne, and Fay Compton as Queen Victoria.
The Prime Minister opened in the United States in February of 1942, nearly a year after its British premiere. The American version was some 15 minute shorter than the British version, and among the scenes cut was one featuring a young actress just beginning her career, Glynis Johns. But even the cuts did not help the film succeed in the United States. American audiences, unfamiliar with English history, were either bored or did not understand the political machinations and references to some historical events and social movements.
A bigger problem, which Gielgud -- a top actor in Britain but virtually unknown in the U.S. -- could not overcome, was the memory of George Arliss' vivid, Oscar®-winning portrayal in Disraeli (1929). New York Times critic Bosley Crowther stated flatly, "To say the young man has failed woefully to present a convincing or captivating character is simply to say that he is being repaid for his audacity. For no one can play Disraeli as George Arliss plays himself." That may have been the case in 1941, but more than 65 years later, modern audiences who have never heard of Arliss will be fascinated by a rarely-seen performance by one of the great English actors of the 20th century.
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Producer: Max Milder
Screenplay: Michael Hogan and Brock Williams
Cinematography: Basil Emmott
Editor: Leslie Norman
Music: Jack Beaver
Cast: John Gielgud (Disraeli), Diana Wynyard (Mary Anne Wyndham-Lewis), Will Fyffe (The Agitator), Owen Nares (Lord Derby), Fay Compton (Queen Victoria), Pamela Standish (Princess Victoria), Stephen Murray (Gladstone), Frederick Leister (Lord Melbourne).
by Margarita Landazuri