George K. Arthur Biography
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George K. Arthur Biography

"Understan' we goin' do a show together."

George K Arthur, half of the screen duo of Dane & Arthur, recalled that these were the first words that Karl Dane spoke to him upon their meeting for the first time in Arthur's dressing room at the MGM studio. The year was 1926, and both men were providing comic relief separately in the now-lost King Vidor costume drama Bardelys the Magnificent, starring John Gilbert. It was MGM producer Harry Rapf who first conceived of the idea to pair up "the pint-sized, dapper, quick moving guy and a bluff, burly, slow-thinking giant" as a kind of brains versus brawn of the screen.

Amazingly, although they had worked at the same studio for several years, and their tiny cubicle-type dressing rooms were on the same floor, Karl and George had never actually met before. Rapf called each of them to his office separately to inform them of the pairing, and Karl immediately came to seek George out to discuss it. As George recalled in his unpublished memoir, With My Foot in the Door,

    "We talked it over a little, and to this day, I don't know why we did not go out and have dinner together or do something to make the occasion an event. We just didn't. Perhaps if we had known how much of a turning point that day would be in our careers we would have. But I don't think so. We were so entirely different in background, personality, friends, ambitions, everything, that the contrast that made us funny together on the screen kept us from becoming intimate off, though through the years, we built a solid and real affection for each other."

This underappreciated British comic actor had a long and varied career: he appeared in over a dozen silent films before Talkies came into vogue. Then he started anew producing and distributing films long after his acting career ended. His life also happily lacked the tragedy and turmoil that marred that of The Great Dane. George K. Arthur was born Arthur George Brest on 27 January 1899, in Littlehampton, Sussex, England, to a stable middle class family. George Brest, his father, was a former carpenter's apprentice who became a shopkeeper and traveling salesman. His mother Harriet had been employed as a product demonstrator by a British department store, so this may be where Arthur got some of his love for performing. He attended boarding schools as a youth, and enlisted in the Army when World War I broke out, although he was not yet 16 years old. His youth and diminutive stature won him a place in the Bugle Corps, and while performing in concerts and skits for the troops, he discovered his own love for performing on stage.

After the war was over, his passion for acting still strong, he promptly enrolled in the prestigious Lady Benson's Dramatic School in London. Since he had trouble pronouncing his R's, he took extensive voice lessons. He also decided that his surname was not suitable for a professional actor, and took the name George K Arthur, the initial "K" being chosen at random to differentiate himself from decorated war hero George Arthur. With his new name, Arthur first appeared in small walk-on parts in Shakespearean plays at the Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon. Under the watchful eye of Lady Benson, who recognized his talent, he soon graduated successfully to small comic roles.

Arthur enjoyed his theatre work, but was interested in a new challenge, and in 1919, applied for work in motion pictures in Britain. There were ten different studios in those days, and none of them showed any interest in this dapper, baby-faced young man. Arthur was undaunted, however, and one day he read in the newspapers that a film version was being made of H.G. Wells' popular novel Kipps by American director Harold Shaw. In this satire of upper-class mores, the title character, Artie Kipps, was an orphaned lower-class shopkeeper who unexpectedly inherits a fortune, and tries to crash high society. He discovers, of course, that becoming "a gentleman" is not as easy or desirable as he originally thought, and was based on many of Wells' own life experiences. Arthur immediately knew he was ideal for this part, but also knew that he had little chance of securing an interview the old-fashioned way. In typical daring fashion, he went straight to Shaw's flat in London to appeal to him directly. Shaw was impressed by Arthur's gumption, and agreed that he was the personification of Kipps, an opinion also later heartily endorsed by H.G. Wells himself. However, Arthur told the story a little bit differently for an interview in the fall of 1957. Here Arthur said that the interview with Shaw went very poorly, and on the way out the door, due to his nervousness, he knocked over a very valuable vase. Because that was the sort of thing that the character Kipps would have done, Shaw, according to Arthur, immediately awarded him the part. This is a great story, but one has to wonder about this recollection, since this vase-breaking scene is identical to one of the comic sequences from the 1929 Dane and Arthur film, China Bound.

After shooting ended for Kipps, Arthur quickly appeared in three other films, and became a celebrity in London, with director Shaw as his manager. One of these films was based on another Wells story and was called The Wheels of Chance. The savvy Arthur always had a gift for self-promotion, as Romano Tozzi reported for Films in Review in 1962:

    "While The Wheels of Chance was being shot, Chaplin visited London for the first time since he had acquired worldwide fame. Chaplin expressed a desire to meet H.G. wells, and Arthur, learning of this, went to Wells' house, and told him he had just seen Chaplin, who had said he wanted to meet Wells and see 'Kipps'. Arthur then went to the Ritz and pulled the same stunt on Chaplin, who was delighted to accept. All the papers ran pictures of the thr ee men together. Kipps was still unreleased."

By this time, Arthur had gotten engaged, to a young and talented sculptress named Milba Lloyd, sister of actress Doris Lloyd. No date was set, though, because of his uncertain finances. There was so much that he still wanted to do before settling down-like try to crash Hollywood, in true Kipps-like fashion. Milba supported his decision, and promised to join him across the pond once he was established.

Although he could barely afford it, Arthur took a leap of faith. In 1922, he booked first class passage to New York on the S.S. Olympic. Like his future comedy partner Karl who came to America with similar finances, he had only $20 to his name when he boarded ship, but amazingly, won $400 en route. He also made the acquaintance of some rich and influential people, like Ivor Novello, the British matinee idol. Arthur's demeanor, poise, and style convinced his new friends that he was already a man of society and they invited him to stay with them upon their arrival in New York. As he told Motion Picture Classic magazine in September 1927:

    "Lord knows why! They were tremendously wealthy. I guess they mistook me for a millionaire's son-I was playing that part. I had to, I was so broke!"

Once in Gotham, Arthur hit the town with his wealthy new friends and quickly spent most of his newfound winnings from aboard ship. Once he actually arrived in Hollywood, he was just about broke again, having almost no money to his name-twenty cents and the five dollars that he had previously wired ahead . He was able to rent a small room for $7 per week and start looking for work at the studios. He found it tough going, as he recalled later:

    "If it hadn't been for friends, I would have found myself against a stone wall that would have been utterly impossible either to scale or batter down. Viola Dana, whose sister, Edna Flugrath, I had known in England, got me work. On the third day I rose again-with John Gilbert in a Fox picture 'The Madness of Youth."

One of those friends was Chaplin, who remembered Arthur from England, and agreed to pose for a publicity photo with him, and to recommend him personally to Gilbert. This friendship with Chaplin was to last for the rest of the two men's lives. Things were rosy for a time, but eventually, Arthur's funds were once again drying up and he needed work. By chance, he heard that James Cruze was looking for a pair of unknowns to play the leads in his big-budget satire of the movie business, Hollywood.

To be continued. In Part II, Arthur wins acclaim in Hollywood, produces and stars in "The Salvation Hunters", and obtains an MGM contract, where he stars in many A list features, and finally teams up with Karl Dane.

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Last modified: December 18, 2006