In 2015 Alexander Hamilton was reintroduced to pop culture in phenomenal fashion by Lin-Manuel Miranda's Tony-winning hip-hop musical, which has won guarded endorsements from historians like Ron Chernow, on whose biography it is largely based, and Gordon S. Wood, the dean of historians of the Revolutionary era. Miranda apparently has succeeded in making the first Secretary of the Treasury not only relevant but fascinating -- Chernow's book is a best-seller again -- through his choice of music and lyrics and aggressively inclusive casting in which almost none of the players are white. Miranda is 36 years old. He plays a man who died at age 49. Miranda follows in the footsteps of Mr. George Arliss (as movie publicists worshipfully called him), who wrote a 1917 play about Hamilton and starred in John G. Adolfi's film adaptation fourteen years later. Arliss's Hamilton -- on the strength of his Oscar-winning turn in Disraeli the actor had considerable creative control over his work at Warner Bros., Adolfi being little more than his stooge -- is microfocused on one episode in the great man's short yet eventful career, but opens several years earlier with the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783. In this scene Hamilton, then 28, is played, as in the rest of the picture, by Arliss, then age 63. The principal action is set in 1790, when Hamilton was 35, and Arliss is still 63. Only our imagining of all the Founders and Framers as patriarchal figures can excuse such ghastly casting, but without Arliss there probably would be no Hamilton movie in 1931. What would we have missed?
Alexander Hamilton's subject is the Funding Act of 1790, better known as the Assumption Bill. If approved by Congress, the federal government will take responsibility for the debts the states owe to Revolutionary War soldiers, many of whom were still owed considerable back pay. Hamilton considers this step necessary to establish the credit of the new federal government. It is opposed mainly by southerners, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (Montagu Love) and James Monroe (Morgan Wallace) -- James Madison is strangely absent from the movie even though he was one of the leaders of the opposition to the bill in the House of Representatives, while Monroe did not join the Senate until November 1790, after the bill was passed and signed -- along with the fictional Senator Roberts of nowhere in particular (Dudley Digges). They dislike the measure because it will compel states that have paid their soldiers, like Jefferson and Monroe's Virginia, to help bail out other states. Jefferson also sees it as part of Hamilton's overall program for a consolidated central government, which he sees as fatal to state autonomy. Another factor in the opposition that doesn't come up until later in the picture is the fact that speculators were swarming the country buying up veterans' IOUs from their state governments in the expectation of making a killing if the feds paid up at full face value. Hamilton can't be bothered with Jefferson's ideological paranoia, but at least the Virginian is making a principled stand. Roberts proves more dangerous because he's less principled. You probably could guess he'd be the bad guy once you realized he wasn't real, and if you recognized Dudley Digges as a regular heel actor in pictures.
Hamilton thinks he can win over the Virginians by promising them that the permanent U.S. capital will be built in the South. He'll get northern congressmen to sign off on that idea as long as Jefferson and Monroe can get their fellow southerners to support the assumption plan. The location of the capital really matters to the Virginians, so they'll willing to make a deal, but the unreconciled Roberts tries to sabotage everything by entrapping Hamilton in a compromising situation with a young woman while Mrs. H. is away in London. The trap sprung, Roberts blackmails the secretary, telling him to withdraw the bill or face public exposure. In real life, Hamilton probably would have challenged Roberts to a duel, but in reel life he preempts the senator by confessing his indiscretion. After that there's apparently nothing left to do but resign, but in a Charlie Brown Christmas moment the leaders of his own party and the opposition, including Jefferson and Monroe, and President Washington himself (Alan Mowbray) in full military uniform, show up to announce that the Funding Bill has been passed by an overwhelming margin and that of course Hamilton can stay in the Treasury! Imagine what the Clintons could have accomplished back in the 1990s if politics actually worked this way.
I suppose Mr. Arliss might not bother you if you didn't know how young Hamilton was, but he does look pretty ghastly. There's something immobile and lacquered about his face that seems exaggerated by his own knowledge that he's playing a much younger person. As a dramatist he does an okay job of setting up the issues behind the assumption debate, only to trivialize them with his pandering melodramatic subplot. Oddly, I can see the seeds of Capracorn in Arliss's tale of a principled man nearly broken by manufactured scandal but vindicated by other people's good conscience at the end. Capra did it better, though, because he was totally untethered from history, while Arliss's plot contrivances turn a promising historical picture into a travesty as well as a preposterous ego trip. A hip-hop Hamilton might seem authentic by comparison.