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March 2, 2008

Silent Reflections – One Month With John Barrymore



February was John Barrymore month at the Silent Movie Theater. Barrymore was a matinee idol of the 1920s (known by the rather odd-sounding appellation “the great profile”) and star of many prestige productions. His reputation as a great dramatic actor had followed him from his early triumphs on the New York stage.

I had never explored his films in depth; the ones I’d seen showcase an acting style that has worn much less well than the work of contemporaries like Fairbanks, Valentino, Chaney, and Gilbert, each of whose cinematic province overlaps in some key respect with Barrymore’s. The Barrymore series reinforced that opinion. It consisted of four films, three of them famous, and two of them not worth watching.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

(Note: I revisited Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in this post after a much more positive second viewing in October, 2009.)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) looked to the past for more than its story with filmmaking in the style of 1917. That may not sound like much of a criticism, but three years of artistic advances in the 1910s is as to three decades in the sound era, and this film is decidedly on the primitive side for its year. The performances across the board are overstated. Barrymore’s five years of film acting experience are belied by his overacting; his Jekyll is as over the top as his Hyde. The simple mise en scene is composed mostly of static shots filmed in medium view. It’s a surprise from a prestige production from a major studio (Paramount) and a director (John Robertson) who would go on to make some wonderful movies in the 1920s.

The movie’s continued fame rests on Jekyll into Hyde transformation scenes that are accomplished almost entirely by performance and makeup. Interesting, but they don’t make the movie more than a curiosity. The film’s most accomplished technical aspect is the effective use of mock-source lighting, particularly in the Hyde scenes. Hyde illuminated only by a flickering candle or weak gas lamp is genuinely creepy.

Don Juan

Don Juan (1926) has a place in the film history books, and it can stay there. It’s significant as the first feature length film with a synchronized recorded score. Like the picture it accompanies, the music is obvious and belabored.

Compounding the stupidity of the scenario is the bad direction by Alan Crosland. The “great lover” scenes are cut-rate imitation Lubitsch; the bacchanalian scenes are cut-rate imitation de Mille; the action is cut-rate imitation Fairbanks. The acting is also bad. The performances in the villains’ parts – a Borgia brother and sister and their henchman – are especially painful. For a purported evil mastermind, Lucrezia Borgia bears an odd likeness to a spiteful and none too bright teenager. Of course, it would take a stupid woman to be captivated by this Don Juan. Only the straitjacket of popular culture’s romantic conventions can explain the heroine’s failure to ditch him after the way he treated her.

Barrymore is twenty years too old for this part and it shows, but to give him his due he does muster a desperate energy that enlivens the action-filled climax. I probably would even have enjoyed Don Juan’s sword fight with the henchman if not for the distracting sound effect meant to mimic steel hitting steel. Those early synchronized scores were consistently enamored of annoying sound effects.

Beau Brummell

Beau Brummel (1924) was easily the highlight of the series, particularly in and for the quality of Barrymore’s performance. Subtly dramatic and with touches of wry humor, this is a performance to justify his stardom and critical reputation. Aside from Barrymore, this is a flawed, but still enjoyable period drama, a fanciful biopic about the famous Regency dandy. The direction is stodgy and the characterizations shallow, even the Beau’s, but his enduring attachment to his first, lost love holds the film together. The scenes of their brief reunions have a delicate poignancy that is very touching and almost entirely due to the performances by Barrymore and Mary Astor.

Though superficially similar with their “great lovers of history” plots, there could hardly be a greater contrast between Beau Brummel and Don Juan. The contrast extends even to the title cards. The titles are profuse and poorly written in Don Juan, while titles in Beau Brummel are used sparingly and are notably clever and well-written.

Beau Brummel is another film that transforms Barrymore’s appearance, as the Beau ages dramatically through the film from young to middle-aged to elderly. The makeup and costuming are mostly convincing, although it could be wished the filmmakers had shown a bit more restraint in the final scene when he has become dramatically enfeebled by age and privation. The exaggeration in the depiction is forgiven in a film that doesn’t bow to the conventions of a Hollywood happy ending. The lovers once separated, are separated forever.