Alexander Hamilton (1931) DVD Review: I Never Expect to See a Perfect Work Anyway

An entirely-too-old George Arliss portrays a much younger Hamilton in this early pre-Code biopic from the Warner Archive Collection.
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Far removed from the musical stage sensation of today, the 1917 Broadway production of Hamilton presented audiences with a condensed version of the first Secretary of the Treasury's battle to pass his Assumption Bill funding act in the years following the end of the Revolutionary War. With very little else in-between. But that didn't seem to matter much to the public, who were probably more excited to see recent Academy Award winner George Arliss ‒ the first (and youngest) English-born actor to earn such an honor in the US ‒ parading about amid a compelling human drama he himself had co-wrote.

Nearly 15 years after the debut of the biographical play, Warner Bros. premiered a modest little movie based off of Arliss and co-author Mary Hamlin's well-received (if decidedly short-lived, as it only had 80 performances) four-act event. Though 1931's Alexander Hamilton was shorn of most of its story, presumably for the sake of timing (most movies rarely exceeded the film's 70-minute runtime in those days), it managed to retain the play's big attraction himself: George Arliss. So much so, that his name was always marketed ‒ from advertising campaigns right down to the opening title card ‒ in a much larger size than that of the actual title.

Alas, there was little anyone could do to disguise the fact Arliss was a frail 63-year-old man at the time. Quite the contrast considering the real Alexander Hamilton was in his early 30s. Sure, the real Hamilton lied about his age, but this is a stretch. Even if you can get overlook it (that's what you get when you give a guy a ten-picture contract with complete creative control), there are still a great deal of other bizarre eye-openers to encounter in this pre-Code film from director John G. Adolfi. Such as the noticeably fake giant nose and copious amounts of stage make-up the great Alan Mowbray wears as he portrays George Washington in the opening and ending portions of the movie.

Like many early Talkies, Alexander Hamilton feels like a filmed stage play. Viewed in this light, it becomes somewhat easier to fathom the aged Arliss as Hamilton, as it does various other actors' oft-hammy performances, especially that of Lionel Belmore. Cast as the burgomeister in Frankenstein earlier that same year ‒ Belmore essentially re-played the same role in many other early horror features such as The Vampire Bat. Here, he is in particularly fine (if excessive) form as Hamilton's father-in-law, General John Schuyler. Doris Kenyon is Betsy Hamilton, June Collyer is the woman who lures Hamilton into America's first publicized sex scandal.

Also starring in this slow-paced Library of Congress entry are Dudley Digges, Montagu Love as Thomas Jefferson, Morgan Wallace as James Monroe, and Ralf Harolde. Australian-born actor John T. Murray portrays Count Talleyrand. The Warner Archive MOD DVD-R release presents the film in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio with mono sound. No special features are included with this WAC offering, but that should not come as any sort of surprise considering how obscured the film (and its leading star) has become in the decades that have followed. Nor should it dissuade a stalwart American (film) history buff from checking Alexander Hamilton out.

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