The Sunday Intertitle: Tempest in a Teacup

TEMPEST, a late-silent John Barrymore pic, is a fine reminder of how handsome, dashing and dumb Hollywood pics could be. Without a brain in its head, but with a simply incredible eye, the movie benefits from the double-whammy of James Wong Howe on camera and William Cameron Menzies on production design. Given Menzies’ maximilist interpretation of the designer’s job, it’s likely he sketched out every camera position for director Sam Taylor, a frequent collaborator and good director with no obvious style of his own. In fact, the IMDb lists two additional, uncredited directors, Lewis Milestone, an arch-stylist if ever there was one, and Viktor Tourjansky, another filmmaker of visual genius. It may be that Menzies’s role involved uniting the various approaches under one stylistic banner, as he did with the patchwork of GONE WITH THE WIND.

Boris has the sort of face that appears at windows.

Barrymore plays a dragoon officer, promoted through hard work, but cashiered and imprisoned after falling for a princess (Camilla Horn, from Murnau’s FAUST). An evil toff in a monocle torments Barrymore on one side, while a red revolutionary (the striking Boris de Fast) tempts him from the other. What with the grinning skull-faced commie, and Louis Wolheim’s Sgt Bulba, with his flattened fizzog (like he’s wearing a tight, invisible stocking on his head), it’s a movie of striking physiognomies, crowned by the Great Profile himself.

Among the film’s visual treats, we get a glimpse of the world as it appears to Barrymore.

The movie condemns the hide-bound class system of Tsarist Russia, while deploring the Revolution also, winding up as a piece of propaganda for the American way despite having no American scenes or characters. It’s not subtle, but Barrymore frequently is, avoiding the ham he was sometimes associated with — although he has some fun with his drinking scenes. A recurring tactic has him make some humorous expression in response to an upcoming situation, then play the situation itself quite straight.

Barrymore’s work towards the end of the film is among his best ever, as he has the opportunity to avenge himself upon the woman who ruined him, but finds he still loves her — and that she loves him. On the one hand, the great actor clearly knew this wasn’t Shakespeare, but he invests totally in it: without losing his distinctive wildness, he manages incredible gradations of emotions, and holds sustained closeups which are simply electrifying. Camilla Horn doesn’t match him for nuance, but still makes an effective foil, dialing the histrionics right down and acting as a kind of mirror for Barrymore.

One sequence, where a distraught and imprisoned JB hallucinates images of the war he’s missing (here, I found sympathy a slight strain) and his lady-love/hate — the visions appear as if projected on the prison wall, like the visions in SUNRISE which are seemingly projected on the sky itself — is both pictorially remarkable and rather frightening: Barrymore’s rather convincing incredulous reactions strongly suggest he’s had pertinent experience of hallucinatory torment.

Thumbprint!

The movie ends up a lot like Benjamin Christensen’s MOCKERY, but Barrymore instead of Lon Chaney makes a considerable difference, as does the incredible talent assembled behind the camera: instead of MOCKERY’s smooth MGM professionalism, we get fireworks of sputtering genius.

The whole movie takes place behind a blizzard of fine white scratches, especially at reel changes, and the climax shows obvious signs of missing footage — it plays like a random sampling of final moments, but fortunately we can follow the course of the action OK. It’s frustrating, but not too destructive. The movie is available here ~

Tempest

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18 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Tempest in a Teacup”

  1. It’s a shame that those today who know Barrymore at all see him only through the image of the drunken wreck that he becamse — and played in such filsm as Dinner at Eight and True Confession. There was so much more to the man.

    William Wyler’s great Counsellor-at-Law is up in its entirety on You Tube . I cannot reccomend it strongly enough. It’s a great film of an Elmer Rice play that should be better known, with an amazing cast (Bebe Daniels, Thelma Todd, Mayo Methot, Vincent Sherman as an anarchist and Richard Quine as Barrymore’s snotty upper-class stepson) But it’s Barrymore who really makes it something special.

  2. Barrymore was struggling with his lines on Counsellor-at-Law, since his memory was failing slightly, which drove the film over schedule because for once he was faced with a director who would not compromise. The end result is possibly Barrymore’s finest talkie, and he’s a powerhouse in it (playing a role Muni rejected because he didn’t want to play Jewish).

  3. Christopher Says:

    love that foto of Barrymore looking thru the drinking glass,how fitting.
    Drunk or sober gimme Barrymore anytime..Hes just fun to watch.
    whether its Sherlock Holmes or Svengali(my favorite)or Councellor at Law or The Invisible Woman…
    I wish they would release WC Fields And Me on dvd,not a great movie but some humorous touches like Steiger as Fields and Jack Cassidy as drinking pal, Barrymore,having a merry round wearing Girdles. :o))

  4. I kind-of liked Fields&Me when I last watched it. I suspect I might like it a bit less now, I hadn’t seen much Fields or Barrymore then. It has that weird look 70s films got when they tried to emulate the 30s… a nasty soft-focus effect. But Billy Barty is a good enough reason for me to watch it.

  5. Billy Barty’s greatest performance is in The Day of The Locust

  6. Christopher Says:

    I saw WC Fields and Me when it came out..and quite a few times on TV shortly after..then.. it seemed to up and disappear for ever
    .Steiger was great and Valerie Perrine was all over the place then..whatever happened to her??
    Carlotta Monti got a bit of reconize with her book..and it was fun to try and spot her in the Field’s films sprouting on the telly..

  7. When I saw it, the movie was on Carlton TV, a now-defunct cable channel that seemed to have access to an under-exploited library of rare titles including such obscurities as Leo the Last and The Sailor from Gibraltar.

  8. Tempest has to be my favorite of all Barrymore’s silent films. Just one of his looks sometimes, with those deep penetrating eyes, can say more than any subtitle. Take for instance the party scene dance and when he gets arrested in the princess’ bedroom! Barrymore was an expert of showing facial emotions!

  9. Agreed — the story is simple, and the emotions laid down in it aren’t too complex, but he brings a great depth of feeling to it, and his subtleties of expression enrich the whole film.

  10. I’ve never seen this film but it looks intriguing. Are we in the audience meant to fancy Barrymore rather than the dark and devastating Boris de Fast? (His name alone gives me goose bumps!)

    If so, it’s as bizarre a choice as ANNA KARENINA, where Garbo leaves Basil Rathbone for Fredric March. There must be something odd in the Russian climate…

  11. Well, they sabotage Boris by blacking out all his front teeth, so Barrymore tends to have the edge. Boris still has amazing bone structure though. He more or less IS bone structure, in fact.

    Trading Rathbone for March? Well, some women I know would go along with that choice.

  12. Strange…for me Basil Rathbone is the official Sexiest Man in Screen History, with the possible exception of Christopher Lee.

  13. But the woman who called him “two profiles pasted together” probably didn’t agree.

  14. If author Larry Swindell is to be believed, the female lead in “Tempest” might well have been played by a teenaged Carol (no “e” yet) Lombard. In “Screwball,” his biography of the actress, Swindell states that Carol — then a Fox starlet — auditioned with Barrymore for this Warners film in late 1925 or early ’26 and was cast, with Fox agreeing to loan her out. However, production was delayed for some reason, so Fox planned to put her into a Frank Borzage film called “Easy To Wed.” But before either began shooting, Carol was a passenger in an automobile accident that caused several noticeable scars on her face, requiring plastic surgery and several months of healing. The roles went to other actresses, and Fox dropped Lombard from its roster. (She made about half a dozen films for Fox, all of which are presumed lost.)

    It’s interesting to ponder how Carole’s career might have changed had the accident not occurred. On one hand, Barrymore would help her development as an actress some eight years later in “Twentieth Century”; might he have done that earlier? On the other hand, Lombard’s early career rode almost entirely on her looks, not on any acting skill. Without the auto accident, she probably never hooks up with Mack Sennett, whose comedic training ultimately proved invaluable. She would not have had to learn the ins and outs of cinematography and lighting (which, once she returned to the industry, was a prerequisite in order for her to hide her scar).

    While her voice was found suitable for talkies and she certainly remained beautiful, it’s possible her other skills might not have been sufficiently developed to enable her to have had a substantial career. And if she’d stayed at Fox, her career might have tumbled once that studio fell into decline in the early ’30s.

  15. Borzage would certainly have used Lombard well, and he was a filmmaker who always worked with an actor’s talent, not just their looks. And I’m sure Barrymore would have been a big influence if she’d been able to work with him then.

    Do you think Sennett really taught her much? I don’t find his work too subtle…

  16. As a woman myself – well the last time I looked I was – I don’t particularly think of Carole Lombard as a very beautiful woman. Obviously she had something pyhsically about her but I just can’t see it myself. Jack ceertainly found Carole attractive though. I believe Shelly Winters wrote in her autobio that Hedda Hopper once got off with Jack at one of his parties on his boat as he was so drunk he thought Hedda was Carole!!
    I would’ve loved to have seen what Carole would have done with the role of the spoilt Princess. A bit of chemistry between the stars always help and there certainly is none there between Jack and Camilla. Although I suppose Jack was trying to be a good boy at the time so he could marry Dolores!

  17. How odd. I can’t see anything about Lombard that could conceivably disqualify her from being considered beautiful. Her little scar just enhances her allure, and while her face is distinctive enough to be recognizable, it’s by no means quirky — it conforms pretty well to what’s usually considered the standard for these things.

    Chemistry’s a strange thing: some couples don’t have it onscreen even if they’re having a great time in real life. Since Barrymore and Horn don’t spend much time getting along well in the film, it didn’t bother me that there wasn’t much heat between them. We just have to believe his devotion to her, and her frostiness was quite convincing.

  18. [...] you’ve seen RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS or Barrymore’s earlier TEMPEST, or MOCKERY, you can probably predict the ending — disillusioned with both monarchy and [...]

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