The Sunday Intertitle: Balcony scenes

Alan Crosland’s DON JUAN is a fabulous confection of clashing tones — a tragic prologue in which infidelity ruins the family of Don’s dad; a bedroom farce introduction to Don as a young man in Rome; a melodramatic second act as Lucrezia Borgia plots his downfall; an action movie climax where our hero becomes a virtual superman, slaying armies of opponents with a single swordthrust (OK, I exaggerate, but the movie started it).

Subjective camera duel scene!

Thrillingly, this is a soundie — so we get an excellent Vitaphonic synch score, and “realistic” clacking swords during the duels. Of course, the public wants to hear swords, and of course they have no interest in hearing the World’s Greatest Actor actually speak. In fairness, this decision allows the film to enjoy the fluidity of late silent Hollywood filmmaking, rather than suffer the longeurs of early talkiedom.

Barrymore is quite the dude in this, ably adapting to each of the story’s wildly veering mood swings. His comedy is ebullient, he suffers majestically, and you’ll never see a buckle swashed with such furious abandon. With Barrymore, the athleticism of Fairbanks and the masochism of Brando, are combined, with plenty of wit and the excitement of the perpetual danger that he’s going to go completely over the top and actually savage the furniture with his splendid teeth.

Mwahahahaha — Barrymore as Don’s dad.

Down the cast lurk Hedda Hopper (!), Mary Astor and, most alluring of all, Myrna Loy, here captured in the act of cradling a whippet.

All strikingly costumed by some uncredited genius… who is responsible?

8 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Balcony scenes”

  1. This is a really lovely silent-on-the-edge-of-sound. Barrymore is dashing and romantic and the Astor and Loy are truly special — as always.

  2. Christopher Says:

    “its the public! God love ’em!…they HAVE to hear their clanking swords!”

  3. It’s a slippery slope… clanking swords one week, El Brendel the next.

  4. Christopher Says:

    a swedish accent!.how quaint..just one of the new wonders of TAWLking PICtures!

  5. I’ve not seen Don Juan but I have just watched Beloved Rogue, made the following year, in which Barrymore is again dashing and romantic, this time as Francois Villon. You have to remind yourself that he was in his mid-forties by then but still, as you say, swashbuckling with furious abandon. But he’s almost upstaged by Conrad Veidt turning in a fantastic performance as Louis XI. It’s said that when Barrrymore went to the train station to meet Veidt on his arrival in Hollywood, Veidt knelt and kissed his hand. Not sure I entirely believe that, but what a nice story.

  6. You can see Veidt’s thinking: no point trying to compete with Barrymore in terms of dignity and stature, since that’s the hero’s function and you know Barrymore will ace it. So Veidt plays the king as sort of withered and creepy, far more than the story demands, because that allows him to stake out territory that there’s no competition over.

    In Don Juan there’s a nice bit where Barrymore clobbers the sinister torturer/poisonmaker, and takes his place by donning a cowl and assuming his Mr Hyde face. So what was already a dual role of father and son becomes very nearly a triple one.

  7. david wingrove Says:

    John Barrymore and Conrad Veidt on screen together? Two profiles so sensationally chiselled, they could fight a duel without picking up swords. Everyone else, alas, would look like Mr Potatohead in contrast.

  8. Oh, they solve that by filling the cast out with dwarfs, fat men and living skeletons. It’s like a cartoonist’s sketchbook come to life.

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