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.
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.
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 ~