Thursday, March 6, 2014

Don Juan (Warner Bros., 1926)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Don Juan is an historically important film because it was on the first program of films made with the Vitaphone sound system (debuted in New York in August 1926) and featured a synchronized music and sound-effects track throughout. Though most of the sound was mere background music (by Major Edward Bowes, David Mendoza and Dr. William Axt, recorded by Henry Hadley conducting the New York Philharmonic), there were some synchronized effects that must have wowed audiences back in 1926: when you saw people playing trumpets or knocking on doors, you heard those sounds more or less when you should have; and the most famous scene showed Barrymore dueling with the villain, with every metallic click of sword against sword duly recorded. The sound quality was quite good — equal to, or maybe even a bit better than, the best phonograph records of the day — and so was the music itself, though I think they missed a good opportunity by not using any of the music from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (some of the opera’s music would have fit quite well in the film: especially for the character of the Don’s servant, called Leporello in the opera and Pedrillo — ironically, the name of the comic male in another Mozart opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio — in the film).

Overall, Don Juan was an excellent production, though it tended to lag in the middle; Bess Meredyth’s screenplay was surprisingly literate (a few typically overblown intertitles notwithstanding) and Alan Crosland’s direction was quite good, with effective editing and some stunning lighting effects, particularly in the early scene in which Don Juan’s father, also played by John Barrymore (the way Rudolph Valentino had played both father and son in Son of the Sheik earlier that year and José Ferrer would play father and son in Moulin Rouge in 1952), catches his wife with a lover and walls the poor guy up behind bricks being used in remodeling his castle. (Apparently Meredyth, who judging from this script was an omnivorous reader with a broad familiarity with various public-domain plots, had read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”) Barrymore’s face was already beginning to get rather craggy, but his body was still lithe and lean enough to do some Douglas Fairbanks-style acrobatics (though I assume that he, unlike Fairbanks, used stunt doubles for the heavier athletic scenes), and Astor and Loy in their supporting roles (Astor in the female lead and Loy as a servant Barrymore briefly flings with) both indicated the promise they eventually fulfilled in their subsequent careers. — 7/30/98


Charles and I watched TCM’s showing of the 1926 Don Juan, produced by Warner Brothers (I remember Clive Hirschhorn rather snottily commenting in his book The Warner Bros. Story that the studio’s name should always be abbreviated, never spelled out, because they had never used the full phrase “Warner Brothers” in their official logo — in fact they did spell out “Brothers” in the version of the logo used here, in The Jazz Singer and on all their films until 1931) and shown at the world premiere of the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process August 6, 1926 along with a series of shorts, mostly classical music performances, that showed what Vitaphone could do to bring music and speech (in that order of importance!) to the masses as part of the movie medium. Don Juan was filmed as a silent and had a synchronized music-and-sound effects track added later — the score was assembled by Dr. William Axt and conducted by Harry Hadley with the New York Philharmonic (which also performed the Dresden version of the Bacchanale to Wagner’s Tannhäuser as one of the shorts on the same program) — and audiences thrilled when they heard as well as saw the bells that madden Don Juan Marana (John Barrymore) as his girlfriend de jour, Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor in an early role — TCM was showing this as part of their “Star of the Month” tribute to her) is about to be married off to Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love), henchman of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia (Warner Oland and Estelle Taylor).

When Don Juan and Donati have their obligatory swordfight later in the film, they got to hear the clank and swish of blade against blade, and earlier they’d got to hear the sound of an outraged husband knocking on Don Juan’s door as Don Juan entertains the man’s wife. As might be inferred by the presence of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia as on-screen characters, this is not the classic story of Don Juan Tenorio and his 2,065 worldwide amours as famously presented in Moliére’s play and the Mozart-da Ponte opera. This Don Juan is the son of a Spanish nobleman, Don José Marana (also played by John Barrymore — a bit of stunt casting that may have been copied from Rudolph Valentino’s dual role as father and son in his last film, Son of the Sheik, and may also have been intended to give Barrymore, whose biggest previous film hit was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a chance to play hero and villain in the same movie), who catches his wife having an affair with a rather twerpy guy. Showing that screenwriter Bess Meredyth (who had just got through another assignment for Barrymore, remodeling Herman Melville’s Moby Dick into a romantic adventure called The Sea Beast) had read Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, Don José reacts to being cuckolded by walling his wife’s boyfriend up in a disused room of his castle, and he decides to live the rest of his life in a state of continual debauchery, loving (or at least fucking) and abandoning women as if they were toilet paper. What’s more, while he’s on his deathbed — placed there by a woman whose reaction to him treating her as disposable was to sneak in a dagger and dispose of him, leading to a death scene so protracted some opera singers probably thought Barrymore was overdoing it — he trains his son to live the same way.

When the kid grows up to be John Barrymore he becomes the famous, legendary lover Don Juan (an “trivia” poster claimed that Barrymore “plants 191 kisses on various females during the course of the film, an average of one every 53 seconds,” though this being a 1926 movie he doesn’t get to do much more than kiss any of them), and in the main part of the movie he finds himself in Rome, suffering under the tyrannical rule of the Borgias. Needless to say, Lucrezia Borgia has the hots for him — while Cesare sees him as a threat and tries to dispose of him with the Borgias’ favorite technique, poisoned wine (in one scene Don Juan catches on and throws the poisoned wine into a flower bed, whereupon it wilts the rose it lands on — what, one wonders, was in that stuff?) — and there’s always Giano, the Borgias’ ace swordsman, who can be counted on to dispose of Don Juan by his blade if the poison doesn’t work. The other part of the plot is that Giano is determined to marry Adriana, daughter of the Duke of Varnese (Josef Swickard), who as a member of the Orsini clan is one of the Borgias’ bitterest enemies. The Borgias have the Duke arrested and tell Adriana they’ll execute him unless she agrees to marry Giano, which she does. After a brief dalliance with Lucrezia’s maid (a short but indelible performance by the young Myrna Loy) Don Juan gets unexpectedly serious with Adriana, disrupts the wedding, ends up dispatching Giano in a swordfight (I joked, “I’m not worried about him — my stunt double can take his stunt double any day!”), for which he’s arrested and imprisoned in the dungeon under the Castel Sant’ Angelo (opera fans will remember this as the setting for the last act of Tosca), but he’s rescued with the help of a fellow prisoner and the last shot is of him and Adriana fleeing the Borgias’ Italy for Don Juan’s native Spain and literally riding into the sunset — represented by a ridiculously phony backdrop of a painted sun that’s startling in a movie that has previously been so handsomely produced.

If nothing else, the 1926 Don Juan gives the lie to the oft-repeated myth that Warners was a teeny-tiny studio about to go under when the Warner brothers signed on to introduce sound films as a last-ditch attempt to save their business; with a male lead who was already a major star and two women who would become major stars, a sumptuous production budget, lavish sets, lots of extras and a director, Alan Crosland, who knew what to do with them all, Don Juan is an A-list production for the period and easily on a par for sheer production values with the spectacles Douglas Fairbanks was making for United Artists at the time. What it’s missing is the sheer panache of the Fairbanks films; it’s workmanlike entertainment but Barrymore, though still good-looking enough to be credible as a romantic hero, was beginning to show signs of alcoholic deterioration (his close-ups show tell-tale lines in that once ethereally pretty face that had mesmerized Broadway audiences in his star-making stage role, Peter Ibbetson, a decade earlier), and — as with John Gilbert in the contemporary Bardelys the Magnificent — it’s clear Barrymore is being stunt-doubled in scenes Fairbanks could easily have done himself. Still, Don Juan is a first-rate silent film — and, ironically, an example of the kind of moviemaking the Vitaphone contraption and its more practical sound-on-film competitors (Movietone at Fox and the one that ultimately became standard, RCA’s Photophone) were about to render obsolete: lush, romantic, exotic, relying more on sweeping spectacle than the sort of intimate human drama to which the sound film, as it developed, lent itself and rendered the whole Great Lover schtick obsolete for about a decade or so. — 3/6/14