The Prime Minister
Cast & Crew
In 1837, a young Benjamin Disraeli, writer of brilliant, scandalous novels containing political criticism, is on his way to Londonderry's political tea party when he collides with Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis' carriage. Mary Anne delivers him to the party, but not realizing who her passenger is, informs him that she controls a seat in the Parliament and feels that her favorite writer, Disraeli, is wasting his time and soul by not working to reform government from the inside. Upon learning his identity, she stalks off angrily. At the party, he then impresses Prime Minister Lord Melbourne with his profound denouncements of elitism, and is shocked when the great man gives him the same advice as Mary Anne. Melbourne, upon learning that the king has just died, takes Disraeli with him to inform Princess Victoria, and her ideals so inspire Disraeli that he races to Mary Anne to ask for the seat in Parliament. When she wheedles him a nomination, however, the old guard politicians form a long-lasting distrust of him. During Disraeli's first big speech in Parliament, the statesmen heckle his pompous manner until he flees, followed by an encouraging Melbourne. A few weeks later, while throngs of citizens riot for better working conditions, Disraeli asks Mary Anne to marry him after she competes with the coquettish Lady Blessington for his attention. Six months after their wedding, he triumphs in the Parliament with a diatribe against Melbourne's antiquated, classist ways. As soon as a new Parliament is formed, however, he is crushed to discover that his seat has been given to William Gladstone. Mary Anne motivates him to continue to fight for England, and during the next forty years, he gradually makes himself indispensable to his party. By 1874, Disraeli, although much older and weaker than Gladstone, wins a brilliant debate against him and is named Prime Minister. At home, meanwhile, Mary Anne hides the fact that she is suffering from a fatal disease in order to help Disraeli contain political infighting which would weaken her husband's cause. Soon, Disraeli passes sweeping reforms in public health, education and employment. When Queen Victoria offers Disraeli an earlship, he gives credit for his success to Mary Anne, who is named Lady Beaconsfield instead. Weeks later, just as he fails to convince his cabinet that the Russian-German-Austrian alliance will be disastrous to Europe, Mary Anne passes away. Grieving, he brings his resignation to Victoria, who informs him that the Russians are advancing on Turkey, which England has sworn to protect, and that his opponent in Parliament, Bismarck, will aid them if he is elected. He agrees to continue, and when the Cabinet, fearful of alienating the voters, refuses to mobilize troops, Disraeli secretly amasses Indian troops and stations them near Turkey. Soon, Russia attacks Constantinople, and Disraeli is hailed as a hero when his troops scare off the Russian leader and peace is upheld during the Congress of Berlin. When he returns to England, Victoria names him Lord Beaconsfield, and he cries as the people cheer them both for saving the country.
The Prime Minister
The film's emphasis on the latter achievement is very much a product of the times. Made at Teddington Studios in the early months of World War II, the film's script is full of references that were as applicable to recent world events as they were to historical ones. Some of the language resonates with contemporary references, and could be a call to arms. "They recognize only one argument - force!" Disraeli tells his cabinet. "They hold themselves a race apart, divinely ordained to rule the world...they cannot be appeased."
The Prime Minister offers a rare opportunity to see one of the great talents of the English stage in his prime. John Gielgud is best known to modern film audiences for the roles he played in the last decades of his life: crusty-but-loveable codgers in films such as Arthur (1981), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar®; and imposing elders in Shakespearean roles and historical dramas like Elizabeth (1998) and The Portrait of a Lady (1996). In the 1930s and early 40s, however, Gielgud made a handful of British films, including Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936). For most of his career though, he devoted himself to the theater, rivaling Laurence Olivier for the title of leading actor on the London stage. The Prime Minister, in fact, would be Gielgud's last feature film appearance until 1953's Julius Caesar.
In The Prime Minister, Gielgud has a juicy role, and he has fun with it, elegantly and eloquently declaiming several of Disraeli's long Parliamentary speeches, and tossing off Disraeli witticisms ("Every woman should marry - but no man"; "Youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret") with Noel Cowardly panache. He is ably supported by a strong cast, including Diana Wynyard (Cavalcade, 1933) as Mary Anne, and Fay Compton as Queen Victoria.
The Prime Minister opened in the United States in February of 1942, nearly a year after its British premiere. The American version was some 15 minute shorter than the British version, and among the scenes cut was one featuring a young actress just beginning her career, Glynis Johns. But even the cuts did not help the film succeed in the United States. American audiences, unfamiliar with English history, were either bored or did not understand the political machinations and references to some historical events and social movements.
A bigger problem, which Gielgud -- a top actor in Britain but virtually unknown in the U.S. -- could not overcome, was the memory of George Arliss' vivid, Oscar®-winning portrayal in Disraeli (1929). New York Times critic Bosley Crowther stated flatly, "To say the young man has failed woefully to present a convincing or captivating character is simply to say that he is being repaid for his audacity. For no one can play Disraeli as George Arliss plays himself." That may have been the case in 1941, but more than 65 years later, modern audiences who have never heard of Arliss will be fascinated by a rarely-seen performance by one of the great English actors of the 20th century.
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Producer: Max Milder
Screenplay: Michael Hogan and Brock Williams
Cinematography: Basil Emmott
Editor: Leslie Norman
Music: Jack Beaver
Cast: John Gielgud (Disraeli), Diana Wynyard (Mary Anne Wyndham-Lewis), Will Fyffe (The Agitator), Owen Nares (Lord Derby), Fay Compton (Queen Victoria), Pamela Standish (Princess Victoria), Stephen Murray (Gladstone), Frederick Leister (Lord Melbourne).
by Margarita Landazuri
The Prime Minister
WWII propaganda film akin to Young Mr. Pitt, The (1942) with Disraeli meant to represent Winston Churchill. The scene in which Disraeli observes Victoria receiving the news that she is now queen is based on an 1880 painting by Henry Tamworth Wells.
Disraeli's supposed first glimpse of the Queen is based on a famous Victorian painting entitled "Victoria Greeted as Queen".
The working title of this film was An Empire Is Built. Although opening credits include a copyright statement, the title is not listed in the Copyright Catalog. Benjamin Disraeli was born in 1804 and wrote novels throughout his twenties. In 1837 he became the first Jewish person elected to the Conservative Party and quickly became a leading conservative spokesman, despite his lack of popularity with aristocrats. He married Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis in 1839 and their close relationship lasted until her death from cancer in 1872. He served as Prime Minister in 1868 and again from 1874-1880, during which time he gained fame for his strong foreign policy as well as his work improving living conditions in England. At his death in 1881, he was awarded a hero's burial.
According to news items, during the filming of The Prime Minister, daily air raids and bombings near the production's London Teddington Studios caused a distraction. The film was released in London in March 1941, and in America in 1942. Prints released in the United States were 15-20 minutes shorter than the British prints. Warner Bros. was so pleased with the British version of the film that they canceled plans to film a separate version in America.
Other films based on the life of Disraeli include two productions titled Disraeli: a 1921 United Artists picture, directed by Henry Kolker and starring George Arliss and Mrs. George Arliss; and a 1929 Warner Bros. production, directed by Alfred E. Green and starring George Arliss and Joan Bennett (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.1356 and F2.1357). The 1963 NBC television drama, The Invincible Mr. Disraeli, was also based on his life.