TBT: Alexander Hamilton (1931)

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I wonder if, since the popularity of the Broadway musical Hamilton, there will be a new historical costume movie or TV series about America’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Because all we’ve had until Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit show is 1931’s almost totally ignored film Alexander Hamilton. One interesting parallel between these versions of Hamilton’s life is that both stars, Miranda and the 1930s George Arliss got a writing credit, as Arliss co-wrote the stage play his movie was based on.

Alexander Hamilton (1931) Alexander Hamilton (1931)

This film does cover the essentials of Alexander Hamilton’s story, vacillating between the politics of running a new country and creating some intrigue from the main character’s personal life so the two strands intersect in the end. We start by seeing Hamilton as George Washington’s right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and then the chief counselor in Washington’s cabinet. This leads to conflicts between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in the new Congress. At home, Hamilton is shown having a perfect little marriage with Betsy, until she needs to leave and care for her sister in England. When the cat’s away, the mice will play — especially if he’s setup by political rivals, at least, that’s how Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds (called “Mariah” Reynolds in the movie) is portrayed. His infidelity is pitted against his government position, and the stars and stripes win in the end with a decidedly unromantic flourish.

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

Unfortunately, it’s all a bit tedious — just showing off from talky actors instead of a moving drama, a legit history, or even romantic intrigue.  The political scenes are unsubtle in the wordplay; I expect more from an adapted stage-play (compare to A Man for All Seasons or Beckett). George Arliss’ Alexander Hamilton is a foppish, purse-lipped bureaucrat, wearing shiny brocades and dripping with lace. Montagu Love’s Jefferson is a dull nonentity, and other characters keep trying to build him up by repeating his full name, as in ‘well what does Thomas Jefferson think about that?’ And the women are, of course, cliches, as typical of the era’s films.

Ditto the costumes — 1780s by way of 1930s, and I suspect costume designer Earl Luick (nope, hadn’t heard of him before either) wasn’t all that stressed out about historical accuracy or even consistency. I think we’ll just have to wait to see if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway show ever becomes a movie, because then we’d get a more engaging drama, and while the costumes might stick with the musical’s modern-meets-historical aesthetic, at least that would make its own sense.

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

Hamilton with an English accent, sure. But the ultra-fancy suit? I dunno. Compare with this more subdued 1792 portrait by John Trumbull.

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

The extravagant look works for the French ambassador, Talleyrand.

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

Mariah Reynolds is basically wearing a Victorian gown with 1920s-30s ringlets for her seduction scene.

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

If I’m generous, I’d say the designer was inspired by this 1787 portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton when thinking of Betsey’s white gown here. But that’s a biiiiiiiig stretch!

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

Then there’s the reception for Betsey’s return from England. Where the women are wearing I-don’t-even-know-what.

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

No really. These dresses, can someone explain what historical period they’re from? It’s not the 18th century.

Alexander Hamilton (1931)

They spent some time and money on embroidering Hamilton’s waistcoats for an 18th-century affect, but zero 18th-century corsetry is evidence on the women in this film.

 

 

This trailer for Alexander Hamilton is more exciting than the film itself!

 

 

What historical biopics have disappointed you lately?

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

5 Responses

  1. Lady Nefertankh

    And I guess once more we ought to thank you for seeing this, so we don’t have to! ;)

    That said I’d seen a bit of this on youtube ages ago, and noticed a lot of the issues you mentioned. I think there were several factors in play here. Filmmakers were still adjusting to sound, often finding it difficult or impossible to use the same techniques they had with masterpieces of the silent era.The result is that many films were stagey and yes, talky. Though silent films had been made using the plot of famous plays, adapting theatrical productions for talking pictures was a new concept as well, and many filmmakers hadn’t fuly grasped yet how a play might be enhanced with music, or dialogue melded with the intimacy of the closeup.

    Regarding the costumes, studios were hit by the Depression as well, and even during more prosperous years, recycling costumes was fairly common. I suspect many of the gowns you’re seeing on extras and minor characters were indeed originally “Victorian inspired” get-ups meant for productions set in the late 1800s. As for whether the costumes worn by the leading ladies were specially made for them, or there was any attempt at historical accuracy beyond the costume designer’s (very) loose interpretation of the late 18th century silhouette, I have no idea. Earl Luick seems to have specialized more in contemporary dramas like Little Caesar, or male dominated westerns like the Ox-Bow Incident, with a few swasbucklers or musicals. While the influence of current fashions on historical classic films is obvious (as excellently covered in articles on this site), the costuming here seems to be definitely subpar, even compared to the earlier Orphans of the Storm (1921) or Marie Antoinette (1938) a few years later.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      All good points. I just wonder why the men’s costumes seem so lavish & trying to be historical but the women’s are so lackluster. Made a pretty good (for the time) attempt at wigs across the board tho, & the sets were all quite excellent, so I get the feeling this was a big-budget production. George Arliss was one of the first & few silent screen stars to make a successful crossover to talkies, & while this film doesn’t seem to have been a major hit, he is much better known for a film based on British Prime Minister Disraeli.

      Reply
  2. Indie

    “Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds (called “Mariah” Reynolds in the movie)”

    According to the highly acclaimed Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton (which is what inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical), Maria Reynolds name was “probably” pronounced “Mariah”, which IIRC, is an older variant.

    Reply

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