13 September 2015

The Green Goddess -- a Brief Look at a Forgotten Sensation (*Corrected!)

Even film buffs usually know the English actor George Arliss for, first, several costume dramas like Disraeli and The House of Rothschild, and second, his early support for Bette Davis in contemporary dramas like The Man Who Played God. But at the time, he was already famous as a stage star, and his biggest hit was a remarkable play entitled The Green Goddess. (And yes, the famous salad dressing was indeed created in honor of Arliss in this role.)
There were two movie versions of The Green Goddess, one silent and the other a sound remake (it was a very popular play!), both starring Arliss. And it's one of the few instances where the sound film is better than the silent, thanks to Arliss' star performance. 
The story concerns a party consisting of three English people, an army officer, Major Crespin, the Major's much younger wife, Lucilla, and Doctor Traherne, a well-known scientist, whose plane crashes in the remote, exotic kingdom of Rukh. Rukh is ruled by an urbane, immensely wealthy Rajah, played by Arliss. The Rajah offers them the hospitality of his palace until some arrangement can be made to continue their journey, and they accept with some trepidation. 
Soon the contrast between the Rajah and his guests becomes striking. During the course of the story we learn that Lucilla is unhappy with her husband, who drinks to excess, and in love with the doctor, a high-minded researcher into tropical diseases. From the beginning, the officers are shown as arrogant and dismissive of native people's values, addressing anyone non-British quite rudely as a matter of course. At the same time, the Rajah is the soul of courtesy and sophistication. Arliss brings his dry humor to the Rajah's interactions with the clumsy Major, in particular, with sarcasm so rapier-swift that the duller-witted officer doesn't even know he's been insulted half the time. 
By this point, this story was already uniquely suspenseful for contemporary viewers on two points -- first, the uppity "native"  Rajah definitely has the upper hand in all their meetings, due to his immense wealth and his large, well-armed, well-trained western-style army. He shows no sign of respecting the Englishmen's authority -- or their intelligence. Second, and even more disconcerting for the audience, the Rajah does not hesitate to express his romantic interest in Lucilla, which is shocking on several levels -- she is not only a lady, but she is married to an officer, and she is a mother -- and she is white.
Two more circumstances must have increased the tension for conventional audiences; first, the Rajah has an English servant, which, in the context of the time, almost seems unnatural (I know of no other film -- or story, for that matter -- where this is the case). Secondly, his advances to Lucilla -- which include offers of luxurious surroundings and a closet full of fashionable Paris gowns -- make it quite clear that he has had several affairs with European women already. 
At first the Rajah's hospitality seemed like a stroke of good luck, but over an elaborate Western style dinner, the Rajah explains to the travelers that sentiment in his country has turned strongly anti-Western, resulting in certain activists being arrested, tried, and convicted by the British, to the people's outrage. The Rajah coolly informs his unfortunate guests that public opinion will demand revenge if these individuals are executed. He proposes appeasing this outrage  -- which he insists he does not share -- by holding the group hostage, and, if this doesn't succeed, executing them in turn. 
A series of twists and turns bring a couple of unexpected casualties, and in fact, in another shock to convention, the Rajah shoots Major Crespin while he's trying to contact the British authorities nearby. The Rajah offers to spare Lucilla if she consents to stay on as his mistress; she refuses vehemently. Lucilla and Traherne declare their love and prepare to die together -- but it turns out that Major Crespin has redeemed himself somewhat by successfully alerting the British. The Rajah, whose people are frightened by the threat of an air attack by British forces, decides to release them
The very last scene has the Rajah reflectively smoking a cigarette, as unruffled as ever.
"Oh, well," he says. "She probably would have been a damned nuisance, anyway."
This was a huge sensation in 1921, when the play was first produced. It brought up issues of race, Colonialism, sex, wealth, you name it. In fact, seeing it now, we really can't feel how sensational some of these scenes were, with the cosmopolitan -- and non-white -- Rajah spending most of the play running rings around the slow-witted English, the supposedly "superior" race, and (quite reasonably, it seems to us now) seeing no reason why he shouldn't be interested in a woman of a different race. We truly can't imagine how shocking this was in 1921. And he suffers no apparent ill-effects for this impertinence; his life will go apparently go on just as before, despite his blatant disrespect for white people and their ways, up to and including personally murdering a British officer. He predicts that he probably will end up with the other ex-kings living in Monte Carlo, but he expects no immediate repercussions.
I really can't think of another film of the 20s - 40s where this happens (with, as always, the recognition that this self-willed non-white character is of course played by a white person). Even those films that are respectful of people of other races -- and there are actually many of these -- only go as far as advocating cooperation between races; WASP values are still assumed to be superior, and inter-racial romance is strictly forbidden.
The perfect host -- the Rajah of Rukh

*Thanks to Robert Fells, host of the wonderful ArlissArchive site, for helping me clarify some plot points I misstated.