Tuesday, April 5, 2016
John Barrymore, acting as Don Juan in the 1926 film of that name, is a prick. By this I mean, the actor is needle-thin, a spiky syringe of a man in tight trousers that emphasize his dancer's buttocks. Barrymore is like an embodied stiletto, deadly as a dagger thrust in the darkness. (In fact, the film's prologue shows Don Juan's father mortally pierced by courtesan wearing an improbably décolleté gown from which she fishes a thumb-length but deadly lancet.) The other edged or cutting instrument in the film is Barrymore's famous profile -- whenever possible the actor rotates into a position so that the camera can scrutinize his delicately aquiline and intricately serrated silhouette. The movie is opulently produced. No one passes through a door that is not an arched entrance high as a house. There are elaborately detailed Moorish piazzas with cloister-walk colonnades, numerous lofty balconies to which the hero can climb or from which he may swan-dive to evade jealous husbands. One of the pleasures of silent films of this era is that the intertitles describe the upcoming location, generally in bursts of imagistic poetry or fin de siècle epigrams vaguely like those written by Oscar Wilde, and, while we are reading that text, we can enjoy the delicious anticipation of wondering at the appearance of the next set promised by the title: for instance, the title promises us that we will next see Don Juan confined in a "slimy cell in the Castello San Angelo below the level of the River Tiber" -- a fearsome-looking prison with the Tiber river pouring by at eye-level, just as we imagined but, of course, always better. The movie's plot bears no resemblance to either the poem by Lord Byron or Pushkin's verse narrative or Mozart's opera. Rather, the story involves Don Juan's entanglement in a feud between the Borgia family and their aristocratic enemies -- a quarrel that results in a maiden being coerced into nuptials with a brutal and lecherous Borgia henchman. Don Juan rescues the girl (Mary Astor), swooning as her detestable husband ravishes her. An extended duel follows fought from room to room and level to level of the villain's vast palazzo -- this reminds us that films have never improved on the sword fights climaxing silent films: the whole episode is shot with a tracking point-of-view camera interspersed with long and medium distance images, all of them packed with balletic action. When Barrymore's sword deflects his opponent's saber and hurls it into a wall (where it is embedded quivering), the hero pitches away his own blade and plunges headfirst down a long flight of marble steps to engage the bad guy in hand to hand combat, an exhilarating, pointless battle executed for the sheer hell of it. Later, the girl is picturesquely tortured on the rack, her body neatly stretched into a lascivious arc by a vicious executioner. Barrymore disposes of the hooded executioner, dons his costume, and spends a minute or two torturing the girl for our benefit (and ostensibly to persuade observing villains that he is the real McCoy). During this scene, Barrymore leers like Dr. Jekyll suddenly transformed to Mr. Hyde and one senses that he is getting all too much entertainment out of inflicting pain on creamy white flesh of the terrorized heroine. At the climax, Barrymore seizes the girl in his arms, dives out of a window, catching hold a convenient vine, caroms off the wall with real and frighteningly visceral force, the woman half-knocked senseless it seems, as he descends post-haste a cataract of ivy on the ancient turret. Then, throwing the girl across the pommel of his horse, he flees through the night-time terrain of the San Bernadino Mountains, a dozen of the grand inquisitor's men in hot pursuit. After a spectacular chase, Don Juan chivalrously deposits the heroine in a hollow tree and turns on his pursuers, a bit like John Wayne in True Grit -- whirling his poignard around his head, he cuts down the dozen men, leaving them dead in the dark meadow. All of this is filmed with the utmost conviction and spatial logic and the scenes of Don Juan on horseback, shot from only a few feet away, must be managed by rear-projection but are done so skillfully that we have the illusion that we are on horseback as well plunged into the midst the violence. The movie is crammed with horses charging through narrow medieval alleys by torchlight, ballets between satyrs and nymphs performed for the benefit of decadent royalty (in this dance scene the mostly nude female dancers throw themselves with wild abandon from balconies to be caught by the burly fawns), over-the-top mad scenes, and gorgeous women, somehow managing to appear both pristine, even Madonna-like in their virginal innocence and truly alarming in the insinuations of depravity that they suggest. In his bedroom, Don Juan has one of Michelangelo's incomplete marble slaves, a figure seeming to melt into a sort of orgasm, and, in his high-ceilinged banquet hall, there is a conversation nook the size of King Arthur's table equipped with a couple of effete-looking gentlemen and a half-dozen ladies of enormous beauty but dubious respectability. The movie reminds us that the great action heroes of the silent era had a graceful athleticism and elegance that film has completely forgotten -- for worse (not better) modern action heroes are modeled of the stolid, granite immobility of John Wayne and the heavy-set, automaton violence of Arnold Scwartzeneggar's killer robot. The last action hero to embody the virtues of casual strength, gymnastic ability, and elegant ferocity that we behold in actors like the young John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks was Burt Lancaster.