Don Juan, a Spanish nobleman, settles in Rome after finishing his university studies and begins studying the female population. The charmer soon finds himself falling in love for the very first time.
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The Barrymores are considered one the great American acting families. Patriarch Maurice Barrymore met his future wife Georgina Drew Barrymore while both were theatrical actors making their Broadway debut. They had three very famous children who excelled and eclipsed them in the acting field. They were Lionel Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore and the notorious John Barrymore. John Barrymore has been called the greatest actor of his generation. He first gained fame as an incredible stage actor, lauded for his portrayals of Hamlet and Richard III. He was known as the “Great Profile” due to his distinguished features. His profile was immortalized in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. He is also Drew Barrymore’s paternal grandfather.
Barrymore rose to fame in the theatre and films with his enormous talent and his decline is one of the legendary Hollywood tragedies. Barrymore was handsome, roguish and loved to drink. From the theatre he moved into the new medium of silent films with success. Barrymore enjoyed covering up his striking matinee-idol looks under make up or distorting his face to portray a character. He made an easy transition into sound films due to his theatre training and played many romantic leads. Eventually, his years of drinking, since he was a boy, began to take its toll on his good looks.
Barrymore was married four times and was friends with another famous Lothario, Errol Flynn, who also portrayed Don Juan in a film. In the film My Favorite Year (1982) the Alan Swann character was inspired by John Barrymore and quotes an incident that occurred to him verbatim. One night, while drunk, Barrymore mistakenly entered the ladies room and started to relieve himself in a potted plant. A woman there told him that the room is “exclusively for ladies.” Turning around with his penis exposed he replied “So, Madam, is this. But every now and again, I’m compelled to run a little water through it.”
John Barrymore was perfectly cast as Don Juan. Barrymore was young, attractive, and believable as a womanizer. Our story begins with Don Juan witnessing his mother’s betrayal of his father. Don Jose de Marana (also played by Barrymore) catches his wife Donna Isobel with another man and banishes her from ever seeing her son again. Years later while Don Jose is entertaining a room of approximately 30 women, Donna Elvira, in a jealous rage knife’s Don Jose. As he lies dying, he tells his son that women give you three things – life, disillusionment and death.
Don Juan settles in Rome after attending the University of Piza and woos multiple women. Juan’s valet attempts to bring woman in and out without any of them seeing each other. When they go away Don Juan makes his entrance. All along the scene builds as we wait to catch a glimpse of this man to whom so many women are drawn. The camera keeps cutting back to his closed door as we wonder what goes on behind that door. Barrymore’s entrance does not disappoint. Even wearing silly striped tights Barrymore emanates sexuality. One sees why he was called a great actor. His facial expressions are incredible as is his presence. In a later scene, he impersonates a villainous character, Neri, the Alchemist played by Gustav von Seyffertitz. Barrymore looks nothing like Gustav von Seyffertitz, who specialized in villains, such as in the film Sparrows (1926) with Mary Pickford, but Barrymore distorts his face to pass as this man.
Rome at this time is being run by the Borgia family consisting of Caesar (Warner Oland), Lucrezia (Estelle Taylor) and the Count Donati (Montagu Love, what a great name). Lucrezia decides she must meet Don Juan, the man who is pursued by so many women. Juan arrives at the Borgia’s and is taken with a maid he spots while outside the castle. His valet works overtime to make sure his master isn’t caught by Lucrezia. Juan charms Lucrezia, but then spots Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) and he is smitten. The Borgias conspire to keep them apart. They blackmail Adriana into marrying Count Donati and they let Don Juan believe that Adriana has betrayed him. Barrymore does his own stunts and sword work in the film. The sword fight with Donati is lengthy, acrobatic and realistic. Both actors are terrific.
All will be well, don’t worry, but first there will be a great sword fight, a great horseback chase and our hero will fight off hundreds of soldiers. Then they will ride into the sunset to Spain to live happily ever after. Don Juan has a fun story line, great photography and wonderful acting. This film has historical significance also. George Groves became the first music mixer in film history. Groves designed an innovative, multi microphone technique and performed a live mix of the 107 piece orchestra. The music was played by the New York Philharmonic. Don Juan is the first film with synchronized sound using the Vitaphone that match the sound to the action. Warner Brothers took a big risk in using sound technology. Most studios thought is was a fad. Even Sam Warner’s brothers didn’t think it would amount to anything. But Sam Warner felt the future was in sound. Imagine what the audiences thought when they saw and heard the film. It must have been an incredible event. Warner Brothers then released The Jazz Singer (1927) thirteen months later and it was a huge hit.
Barrymore went on to have a film career when the talkies took over the industry. He had a beautiful stage trained voice that transferred well with sound. He continued to be in successful movies until his health started to fail. His dying words were “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing happen to him.” John Barrymore was a great actor and a movie star. Today the words “movie star” is over-used. John Barrymore was an original rascal who had talent and plenty of demons, but he was a movie star. He is unforgettable. Anyone who knows of Barrymore’s lineage understands why Drew Barrymore had some troubles, but she also has their talent. Treat yourself to this film and others of Barrymore. You won’t regret it.