Leslie Arliss is a figure in British cinema whose early life and background remain shrouded in mystery and dispute, decades after his death. A screenwriter/director whose work was highly influential on British cinema of the 1940's -- if not widely respected -- the mystery of his origin is a remarkable footnote to a career that engendered more than its share of controversy. Many credible and responsible reference sources state without equivocation that Leslie Arliss was the son of George Arliss, one of the most renowned British stage actors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; other sources categorically deny that this is the case, and state without equivocation that Arliss and his wife, Florence Arliss, had no children. What is definite about his early life is that he was born in 1901, and apparently had the name Leslie Andrews (which was, indeed, the Arliss family's original surname). And he grew up with a thorough background in literature and theater, and entered adult life as a journalist and critic in the 1920s. By the end of that decade, however, Arliss had developed a serious interest in film and had begun contributing to screenplay adaptations of theatrical works. He entered the movie industry formally in the 1930s as a screenwriter. His work was usually done in collaboration with others, and divided equally between serious historical profiles and comedies, including Strip, Strip, Hooray (1931), The Innocents of Chicago (1932), Rhodes of Africa, Windbag the Sailor (both 1936), Good Morning, Boys (1937), and Said O'Reilly to McNab (1937). By 1939, he had moved up to work on the screenplay of the Boulting brothers' production of Pastor Hall, the first serious anti-Nazi drama ever made in England. His subsequent output included the screenplay of the topical comedy The Foreman Went to France (1942), set in the dark early days of the war.
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Arliss moved into the director's chair in 1941 when he joined Associated British Productions to work on The Farmer's Wife, a sound remake of a film that Alfred Hitchcock had done as a silent in 1928 (from a screenplay to which Arliss had contributed, uncredited), based on a hit play of the 1920s. Arliss co-directed the remake with fellow screenwriter Norman Lee, and it was moderately successful, enough to get Arliss a solo directing spot on the thriller The Night Has Eyes (1942), starring James Mason. A stylish mystery set on the Yorkshire mores, the movie proved a good vehicle for the star (who showed an attractive vulnerable quality that was new to his screen image) and the director. Arliss' career took off, however, when he moved to Gainsborough Studios, a part of J. Arthur Rank's General Film Distributors, where he wrote and directed The Man in Grey (1943). The first of what became known as Gainsborough romances, the movie was set some three hundred years in the past, featuring what seemed like lush costuming amid the wartime austerity of the early '40s, but what made it special was the overt lustiness and wickedness of the two protagonists, played by Mason and Margaret Lockwood, all wrapped around some unbridled (for its era) sadism. The movie was a huge hit, and even played well in the United States (where it was shorn of some ten minutes' running time), and it helped elevate Mason to a major stardom as a serious box-office draw.
Next up for Arliss was the romance Love Story (1944), retitled A Lady Surrenders in America, a romantic melodrama about a terminally ill woman pianist (Lockwood) who falls in love with a pilot (Stewart Granger) who is going blind; this film was also successful. Arliss followed it with The Wicked Lady (1945), starring Lockwood and Mason -- that movie stretched and shattered numerous boundaries marking out good taste, steeped in lusty talk about sex and some of the most revealing gowns ever worn by actresses in a British film. It was a box-office smash in England and even in America (despite the fact that the studio had to reshoot numerous scenes for the U.S.-released version with less revealing gowns on the ladies), and it should have been the flashpoint of Arliss' career, heralding his emergence as a major and distinctive filmmaker. Audiences wearied by years of wartime austerity and devotion to duty were delighted with the movie's frankness and humor, and, even 50 years later, the movie is startling to be seen as an artifact of its time. Alas, the same characteristics that allowed the film to earn a fortune for its studio -- its frank lustiness -- also brought a halt to the progress of Arliss' career. Audiences may have loved the scenes of Margaret Lockwood greedily cavorting with James Mason, and the veiled and not so veiled references to women's and men's libidinous natures (and the not so veiled female cleavage), but all of those elements personally appalled J. Arthur Rank, the owner of General Film Distributors. A devout Methodist, Rank had initially started producing movies as a means of spreading the gospel, and even in 1945, well into the business of entertaining millions, he preferred conveying positive values and focusing on uplifting messages, not the uplifted bosoms of Margaret Lockwood or Patricia Roc. The British mogul pulled the plug on the Gainsborough romances, preventing the next of them, Arthur Crabtree's Madonna of the Seven Moons -- a similarly lusty drama about a woman's affliction by a gypsy curse -- from getting wide distribution overseas.
By that time, Arliss had left Rank for the seemingly friendlier and more lucrative environment of Alexander Korda's London Films. There he worked on three lackluster films, Man About the House (1947), Saints and Sinners (1949), and A Woman's Angle (1952), with one last Gainsborough-style potboiler in between the first two, the independently financed Idol of Paris (1948), which made a valiant effort at recalling the uninhibited sexual free spirits of The Wicked Lady without as good a cast. Arliss left Korda in 1952, and after that began writing and directing for television, including the anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Presents, and the adventure shows William Tell, The Buccaneers (starring Robert Shaw), The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, and The Forest Rangers. He also directed some short films starring Peter Sellers, but he was largely absent from the movie business from 1964 until the early '80s, when Cannon Films and director Michael Winner made a remake of The Wicked Lady (1983), starring Faye Dunaway and based on a new screenplay by Arliss, which carried the libidinous nature of the original even farther and ran into trouble with censors in England over a scene -- lifted from his own Idol of Paris -- in which Dunaway and Marina Sirtis engage in a duel with carriage whips. Arliss passed away four years later. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi