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Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton(1931)

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teaser Alexander Hamilton (1931)

The Warner Brothers studio of the Depression Era is known for producing assembly line, rapid-fire urban comedies, musicals and melodramas populated with streetwise working class characters. But while those films were its bread and butter, the company longed to produce the type of prestige pictures that MGM and other studios were turning out. One means to that end for Warners in the early thirties was the historical biography, and no one was more identified with that genre than George Arliss. Neither young nor handsome, and with a theatrical acting style that betrayed his roots on the stage from a much earlier period, Arliss nevertheless had a successful screen run from the silent era until the late thirties, winning the Academy Award for his performance as another historical figure, Disraeli (1929). It was a part he had played many times on stage and once earlier on film in 1921.

Arliss's theatrical repertoire, which began in 1887 in his native England, often included the "Great Men of History." Around 1917, casting about for another subject to emulate his earlier Broadway successes, Arliss stumbled upon a script from an unlikely source, a New York housewife and aspiring playwright named Mary Hamlin. Ignorant of the usual channels for selling a play, Mrs. Hamlin had simply written directly to Arliss and asked if he might be interested in a piece about Alexander Hamilton, one of the most important framers of the U.S. federal system and the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury. Arliss responded favorably, and Hamlin sent him the first act which was all she had written. He liked what he read and saw commercial possibilities in playing an American historical figure at a time when nationalist fever was running high due to America's involvement in World War I.

According to Hamlin, Arliss thought the script for Alexander Hamilton needed some polishing by a "more practiced hand", and instead of passing it off to another playwright, he took on the task of adapting it himself. He and Hamlin worked well together, and years later he noted of her: "She was entirely unlike other untried dramatists that I had met. She never once wept over her own pathetic lines, nor did she ever refer to the play as her baby or even as her little papoose. I was very grateful to her for that. During our association in the writing of Hamilton her unselfish and generous attitude towards me surprised me always and left me ever her devoted friend." Under the direction of Dudley Digges (who would star in the film version), the stage production that came out of their efforts was a success and brought its star more fan mail than any play he ever appeared in.

By 1931 Arliss was firmly established at Warner Brothers and he sold the studio his and Hamlin's script. After disentangling from some legal complications involving the Broadway producers, two new writers were assigned to make it screen worthy (under the watchful eyes of the original authors). The story centered on two key moments in Hamilton's life and career: his efforts to establish a federal banking system and the near thwarting of that goal through an attempt to blackmail him over an earlier extramarital affair. Liberties were taken with historical fact, of course, but not nearly as many as most other biographical dramas of the time, including Arliss's own. The biggest liberty, however, was in the age discrepancy between star and subject; in his early 60s, Arliss was more than two decades older than Hamilton when the story takes place. Reviews were generally positive, however, and Alexander Hamilton made a modest profit, not as much as the studio had hoped but enough to carry the star through several more such characterizations, including turns as Voltaire, Cardinal Richelieu, and the first of the Rothschilds.

Hamilton, of course, died before he even turned fifty. An intelligent, aggressive, highly influential statesman and political theorist, and a close confidante of George Washington, he made many enemies in his career. Among them were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (both of whom are depicted in this film), who regarded him as an aristocratic elitist and a danger to states' rights. But none were more bitterly opposed to him than Aaron Burr, one-time vice-president of the U.S. and a politician whose ambitions were equal to Hamilton's. The two fought a famous duel in 1804, and Hamilton was fatally shot. The story told by Alexander Hamilton, however, takes place several years before that incident.

The direction of Alexander Hamilton was entrusted to John G. Adolfi, a former silent screen actor and director who entered the film industry in 1913. In 1931, he and Arliss worked together for the first time on The Millionaire and hit it off. Adolfi directed eight more pictures over the next two years, all but two of them with Arliss. Their partnership would likely have continued if it hadn't been for 45-year-old Adolfi's sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage while on a canoe trip in Canada.

Director: John G. Adolfi
Screenplay: Maude T. Howell, Julian Josephson, based on a play by George Arliss and Mary Hamlin
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Editing: Owen Marks
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Original Music: William D. Dunham
Cast: George Arliss (Alexander Hamilton), Doris Kenyon (Betsy Hamilton), Dudley Digges (Sen. Timothy Roberts), June Collyer (Mrs. Mariah Reynolds), Montagu Love (Thomas Jefferson), Alan Mowbray (George Washington).

by Rob Nixon

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