The INCspotlight: Don Juan (1926) - Swashathon Special
John Barrymore once again returns to the INCspotlight as one of the world's most infamous womanizers in Don Juan, a landmark of the soon-to-no-longer-be-silent cinema.
Note: This review is part of Swashathon, a blogathon focusing on swashbuckling cinema, hosted by Movies Silently. Please be sure to check out the other reviewers participating in this - there are a lot of great films and film reviewers waiting to be discovered! I also want to thank Movies Silently for providing this opportunity (and to point out that a sizable number of the screencaps I'll be using in this review came from said website). And to those reading the INCspotlight for the first time thanks to Swashathon, I've previously reviewed a number of silent films and swashbucklers alike, and I hope you'll peruse some of my older reviews (and return for newer ones to come).
Also, I'm taking the opportunity at the end of this blog to make a very special announcement I've been waiting a long time to make.
The legend of Don Juan (aka Don Giovanni) goes back centuries, inspiring plays, operas, and poems by some of history's greatest artisans. Naturally, the original story differs quite strikingly from the several Hollywood versions. Don Juan is originally depicted as the embodiment of vice and wickedness, a wealthy womanizer and hedonist who kills the father of one of his conquests. Later, he invites a statue of the man he killed to a dinner party he's throwing, and in most versions of the story, said party ends quite badly for our lustful libertine. Famed Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina was the first to put Don Juan's story on paper in 1630 with the play El Burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest), and France's Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known by the pen name of Molière) followed suit with his own production of Dom Juan (no, that's not a typo) in 1655. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put his own take on the legend with his opera Don Giovanni (1787), which is now an opera staple and considered to be one of his greatest works. However, it was Lord Byron's unfinished epic poem Don Juan (1821) that allegedly had the most impact on Hollywood, as it depicted the character in a more romantic, favorable light, while also critiquing sexual double standards. There have been other notable writers and composers who have also been inspired by the Don Juan story, including George Bernard Shaw, Richard Strauss, and Albert Camus, to name but a few. (Even famous fictional characters have gotten in on the Don Juan action - in Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, the titular Phantom has written his own opera about him.) Barrymore's Don Juan, directed by Alan Crosland, isn't even the character's first foray into the big screen. There was a Mexican production as early as 1898 helmed by Salvador Toscano, Mexico's first filmmaker, and another from the Netherlands in 1913.
Playbill from the 1788 Vienna premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni
Crosland's film, however, holds the distinction of being the first to use synchronized sound, including sound effects and a musical score, as opposed to live music. (In the silent era, live performers provided the musical soundtrack - this could range from one guy on a piano to a full orchestra.) Filmmakers had been attempting to combine sound and visuals since the very beginning of the medium, with limited success at best. Thomas Edison attempted using a gramophone that was synched to the film Nursery Favorites (1913), but the film ended up being projected at the wrong speed, throwing off the synch with the sound. D.W. Griffith had some success using it for the opening segment of Dream Street (1921), but abandoned the pursuit of sound pictures, fearing spoken dialogue would turn off international non-English speaking audiences. It was actually the invention of radio that spurred renewed attempts to integrate sound into movies. Warner Bros., only a minor studio at the time, was a major pioneer in the pursuit of sound pictures, although initially, it was only intended to be used for musical accompaniment, not spoken dialogue. At Don Juan's premiere, the movie was preceded by a number of screened musical performances designed to show off this technological innovation, as well as a filmed speech by MPPDA head Will Hays (and yes, you actually hear his voice). Some of the highlights of these musical performances include Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser, which should sound familiar to anyone who's seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon What's Opera, Doc? ("Wetuuurn my wooooove..."), and tenor Giovanni Martinelli performing the famed aria "Vesti la Giubba." (You'd recognize it from countless films and TV shows, trust me.)
And speaking of Alan Crosland (1894 - 1936), his bio is also worth taking a look at. Born in New York City and educated as a child in England, Crosland started out as a journalist. He eventually got a gig at the New York Globe, writing articles for movie magazines on the side, as well as some stage acting. He later joined up with the Edison Company as an actor and stage manager, later transitioning to directing - Crosland would end up directing Edison's last movie, The Unbeliever (1918). After this, his filmmaking career was cut short by his getting drafted into World War I, during which he served with the Army Photo Service. He resumed his career after the war ended, working with the independent studio Select until 1922. Over the next several years, he bounced around between studios, including Goldwyn-Cosmopolitan, where he earned wide acclaim as a director for Under the Red Robe (1923), before joining up with Warner Bros. Crosland was on the front lines of Warner's make-or-break transition to sound, directing not only Don Juan, but the following year's The Jazz Singer (1927), the first movie to feature spoken dialogue. Dapper and quick-witted, Crosland's other claim to fame as a director was his ability to get along with just about anybody, even some of the most difficult people in Hollywood to work with - Erich von Stroheim, Al Jolson, and brothers Lionel and John Barrymore (the latter of whom Crosland would direct in three more movies after this one). Crosland kept directing movies throughout the talkies era he helped usher in, until his death in a car accident in 1936.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
We start off with a rather twisted origin story that does a lot to explain how Don Juan turned out the way he did. His father, Don José de Maraña (John Barrymore), was a Spanish nobleman and possessively devoted to his wife, Donna Isobel (Jane Winton). When he learned of her infidelity, he naturally didn't take it well. And by not taking it well, I mean he buried the lover alive, kicked Donna Isobel out of his castle, and vowed to never trust women again - all witnessed by a tearful Juan (Yvonne Day). As the years passed Don José devoted himself to all-out debauchery, romancing numerous women at once, and apparently teaching a pre-teen Juan (Philippe De Lacy) to do the same. Unfortunately for Don José, one of his mistresses was jealous over the lack of attention she was getting, and after snogging young Juan, she stabbed Don José. With his dying words, Don José instructed Juan to take love from women whenever he wanted to, but never love or trust women in return.
The film time jumps to years later, after the now-adult Don Juan (now also played by Barrymore) has completed his studies and set himself up in Rome, dominated by the ruthless Borgia family. Our horndog protagonist has acquired quite the reputation as a lover, to the point where he has to depend on his servant Pedrillo (Willard Louis) to keep his affairs (often literally) in order. Said reputation earns him the attention of none other than Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor), sister to Cesare Borgia (Warner Oland), and she invites him to a party in the hopes of making him one of her conquests. However, Juan is more interested in Adriana della Varnesse (Mary Astor), infuriating the jealous Lucrezia. It doesn't help that Adriana's father, the Duke della Varnesse (Josef Swickard) is a supporter of the Orsinis, enemies of the Borgia family - and Juan thwarts an attempt on the duke's life. Not only that, but Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love), a Borgia loyalist and kinsman, has his eye on Adriana - and her family's fortune. However, such triflings aren't about to get in Don Juan's way, kickstarting his road to redemption and true love, as well as an inevitable clash with the Borgias.
There's a lot to talk about with this particular film, particularly the problematic characterization of its protagonist. The film's depiction of Don Juan, mostly a creation of screenwriter Bess Meredyth (who also worked on the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro), is not your typical Hollywood swashbuckling hero - anti-hero is probably a more appropriate label, and at times, he can be outright villainous. He certainly has his redeeming qualities, such as his saving the life of Adriana's father, and it's certainly entertaining to watch him talk his way out of death at the hands of Duke Margoni - whose wife, niece, and mistress have all enjoyed Don Juan's attention on the same morning. (Pedrillo had the unenviable task of keeping them separate from each other.) However, rather than coming off like a lovable rogue or bewitching romantic, there's something predatory about his womanzing. His pursuit of women is all about self-indulgence (and the influence of his father), rather than a romantic search for the ideal companion. While most of this seems to be consensual, when Adriana promises to reward him for saving her father, he takes as a license to - there's no way to sugar-coat this - attempt to rape her. It's a disturbing scene to watch, and he drives a desperate Adriana to attempt suicide rather than allow Don Juan to have his way with her. This ends up shocking him out of his behavior and leads to his reformation, but does said redemption let him off the hook? Opinions will most likely differ on this. Don Juan's characterization can also be viewed as a cautionary parenting tale - even before Don José's discovered his wife's affair, he frequently referred to her as a prized object, rather than someone he actually loved. (Not to mention the callous way Don José teaches Juan to regard women.)
For the most part, it's John Barrymore's screen presence and charisma, not to mention his considerable acting talents (even if he does tend to ham it up), that make the character compelling, rather than the writing or characterization. I also have to give him props for how convincingly he plays both Don Juan and Don José as completely separate characters. As Don José, he's an imposing, devilish figure, who glowers and rages to such a degree that it's a wonder the sets don't have bite marks all over them. As our protagonist, however, he's much more languid, barely blinking in the face of threats from jealous husbands or the Borgias. (Also, his mustache has an odd tendency to change thickness across scenes and sometimes disappear altogether.) Not that he doesn't have his hammier moments, but for the most part, his portrayal of Don Juan comes over as more of as a dry, sardonic type. Barrymore's also capable of demonstrating remarkable subtleties in his performance at times, particularly in Don Juan's moments of introspection and self-loathing. For all his reputation as a hammy film actor, it's easy to forget how good and versatile he could actually be on screen. I just wish he had a more compelling character to work with in Don Juan. Nothing really seems to drive him except the pursuit of women until he decides to redeem himself, and like I said earlier, said pursuit is more predatory than romantic.
Don Juan also boasts a strong supporting cast giving entertaining (if not exactly restrained) performances. Willard Louis was already a veteran of stage and screen (including playing Friar Tuck in Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s Robin Hood) by the time he was cast in Don Juan, and unfortunately, it turned out to be his last role. He passed away during production of this film, which he was making at the same time as The Honeymoon Express (also 1926). As a final role, Pedrillo provides some comic relief early on in the film as Juan's beleaguered servant. Mary Astor's performance is a complete 180 from the beguiling femme fatale she would later play in The Maltese Falcon (1941) opposite Humphrey Bogart. She's the very picture of youthful innocence and naïveté who recoils in horror at the debauchery she so frequently is forced to behold and smiles tenderly at what may be her first attraction to a man. Nigel de Brulier, who's been in numerous Douglas Fairbanks Sr. films (as well as the serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, portraying the wizard Shazam) has a rather odd role as the Marquis Rinaldo, whose wife kills herself when he discovers her affair with Juan, driving him insane. (And to top it off, Juan callously frames him for his wife's murder. Dick.) His subplot doesn't really go anywhere, aside from a bit of dramatic irony later on, but de Brulier's manic energy keeps these scenes from dragging too badly. It's different from his more subdued, malevolent depiction of Cardinal Richelieu in Fairbanks's The Three Musketeers (1921). Come to think of it, most of the cast seems to be playing against type in this film, even the villains.
And speaking of villains, they deserve a paragraph to themselves as well. Our evil trio is clearly enjoying themselves as hammy, over the top bad guys. Warner Oland, who would later appear in The Jazz Singer and star in a series of Charlie Chan movies, plays Cesare Borgia well enough, although he's somewhat overshadowed by the other two villains. Montagu Love is almost unrecognizable in this movie as Count Donati, and I did one hell of a double-take when I realized it was him. I've seen him various classic swashbucklers - The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Sea Hawk (1940) - usually playing a rather stiff, austere character of cold dignity. Here he plays a classless, leering brute - and quite a formidable one when swords are drawn. (More on that in a bit.) However, it's Estelle Taylor (who previously played Miriam in Cecil B. DeMille's original Ten Commandments from 1923) that provides the bulk of the villainy, as its her jealousy and desire for Juan that most drives the plot. And fortunately, Taylor has the acting chops to make Lucrezia a vibrant, repulsive villain. As an extra bonus, we have future screen legend Myrna Loy as Lucrezia's crafty maid, and an uncredited Gustav von Seyffertitz (who played Professor Moriarty opposite Barrymore in 1922's Sherlock Holmes - which I reviewed a couple of years ago) as Neri, Cesare Borgia's astrologer and torturer.
Like many silent epics, Don Juan is a lavish spectacle, stuffed to the gills with opulent sets and costumes, and cinematographer Byron Haskin uses plenty of wide-angle shots to show their scope and scale. (Barrymore's wardrobe - and more disturbingly, Philippe de Lacy's as the 10-year-old Juan - would make Jareth from Labyrinth jealous.) In addition to the visual appeal, Crosland and art director Ben Carré clearly understood how to use set design to establish characterization - compare the grotesque ostentation of the Borgia's palatial home to the simple elegance of Adriana's quarters. While the film has its issues when it comes to Don Juan's characterization, the title cards have some clever lines, and it's mostly well-paced, the subplot with the Marquis Rinaldo aside. One thing that may surprise today's audiences is how risqué it is - way the hell tame by modern standards, true, but far bawdier than perhaps most people realized films from the 1920s could get away with. Besides Juan's sleeping around, there's a lot of fanservice provided by numerous dancing girls (one of whom strokes 10-year-old Juan's leg, which is kinda creepy), and Lucrezia even has a line overtly mocking Adriana for being flat-chested. The musical score, performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is nothing special, although to be fair, music as part of storytelling in a film wasn't really a thing yet. The music was there to show that it could be done, and that's about it. The same applies to the few instances of sound effects within the film - a hand knocking heavily on a door or the click of blades during the climactic duel (not always perfectly synched).
Now let's get to talking about the swordplay, which was choreographed by the legendary Fred Cavens. If you're looking for swashbuckling thrills, those don't come until the third act of the movie, and even those defy the typical swashbuckling tropes. When Don Juan crosses swords with Count Donati, it's not a heroic attempt to save Adriana from being married to Donati against her will. The wedding has already taken place, and Don Juan, driven mad by the ringing of the church bells, gate-crashes Donati's bawdy wedding celebration to murder his ass. The sword fight that follows, for all of its grace and flair, is a vicious one, with both Barrymore and Love selling that they're out for blood - and there's quite a bit of it, as both of their characters get cut up before the delivery of the coup de grace. The cinematography, which includes panning shots of the combatants circling each other as they slash and parry, adds to the frenetic energy of the duel. It's a great fight, one that made it onto my top 10 list of favorite movie sword fights back in the early days of the INCspotlight. There's some more swordplay at the end when Juan crosses blades with a number of Borgia henchmen on horseback, but it's the duel with Count Donati that's the swashbuckling highlight.
Between the production values and the sound synchronization, Don Juan was the most expensive film Warner Bros. had ever produced at the time. While it was a huge box office hit, and the critical praise was favorable, it was only a moderate financial success in the end on account of how much it had cost to make. Don Juan's technical accomplishments were quickly upstaged by The Jazz Singer, and Errol Flynn's Adventures of Don Juan (1948) would also end up overshadowing Barrymore's, as would Johnny Depp's Don Juan deMarco. Fortunately, Don Juan was one of the first films made available by Warner Archives on DVD, and if you're into silent cinema, it's well worth snagging. In addition to the film itself, the DVD also includes all of the musical shorts and Hays's speech that preceded the film when it was theatrically released. (While the sound quality isn't anything spectacular, it's still good music, and it's fun to imagine people seeing and hearing this technical innovation for the first time in their lives.) As for me, while acknowledging its troublesome main character, I still enjoy this film, mostly on account of its witty script, entertaining performances, and the sheer spectacle of it.
For all its faults, particularly by modern standards, Don Juan is an entertaining part of film history that has a lot to offer, particularly for classic swashbuckler fans.
And while we're on the subject of swashbucklers...
On September 19th, I will finally be making my literary debut with my novel The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, set during the Golden Age of Piracy. (And no, it's not a coincidence that September 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.) It is currently available for pre-order as an ebook through Amazon.com, and I'm working on making it available in other formats (NOOK, etc.) as well as a paperback version. For updates as they come, please like and subscribe to my Facebook Author's Page, or follow me on Twitter.
A lot of work has gone into making this book possible, and I'm truly grateful to the many, many people who have supported me in this effort - from my beta readers, editor, and cover artist to friends and family who have provided moral support - in the dozen years it's taken me to get this thing ready for publication.
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