by Robert Short, special guest writer.
DON JUAN (1926) Directed by Alan Crosland. Starring John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Warner Oland, Estelle Taylor, Montagu Love, Helene Costello, Gibson Gowland, Willard Louis. Screenplay by Bess Meredyth. Intertitles by Walter Anthony and Maude Fulton (both uncredited). Silent with Vitaphone musical score and sound effects.
General Abstract: Having settled in Rome after attending the University of Pisa, devil-may-care playboy Don Juan de Marana (John Barrymore) runs afoul of the tyrannical Borgia family, despotic Cesare (Warner Oland), powerful Lucrezia (Estelle Taylor), and the Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love). Juan has his way with, and is pursued by, many women; it is, however, for Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor), the one he could not have, that Juan suffers the wrath of Cesare for ignoring Lucrezia and killing Count Donati in a duel.
“But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think”
– from Canto III, Don Juan, by George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, FRS
Conventional wisdom, and a notification in the October 1926 issue of Photoplay magazine, have indicated that Lord Byron’s epic poem served as the underlying literary source for Bess Meredyth’s original screenplay to the 1926 swashbuckler Don Juan. While Byron’s massive satiric chef-d’oeuvre, begun in 1819 and still unfinished at the time of Byron’s death in 1824, might certainly have played a significant role in the development of Meredyth’s script, there was in reality a myriad of sources from which Meredyth might have drawn her ideas; the opening credits of the film simply stated “Inspired by the Legend.”
Fictional libertine Don Juan, sometimes known as Don Giovanni, the consummate roué who devoted his life to seducing women, has in fact been a staple character in literature and drama for many centuries. The first written version of the Don Juan story, the circa 1630 Spanish play El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra, translated as The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest, by Tirso de Molina, portrayed as Don Juan as an evil seducer owing to his ability to manipulate language and disguise his appearance, a decidedly demonic attribute; subsequent versions of the tale included Molière‘s 1665 drama Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre, Italian playwright Carlo Osvaldo Goldoni’s Don Giovanni Tenorio, written in 1735, José Zorrilla‘s 1844 play Don Juan Tenorio (1844), still performed throughout the Spanish-speaking world on November 2, All Souls Day. Wolfgang Mozart’s highly-praised 1787 opera Don Giovanni later inspired works by Alexander Pushkin, Søren Kierkegaard, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Camus, and German Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffmann.
Although Lord Byron’s lyric narrative has undoubtedly become the most famous presentation of Don Juan in English literatiure, the promiscuous rake was initially introduced to the English-speaking world in Thomas Shadwell’s 1676 drama The Libertine; Don Juans Ende, a play derived from an unfinished 1844 retelling of the tale by Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau, influenced Richard Strauss‘s 1889 orchestral tone poem Don Juan. While Meredyth might have depended more heavily on one literary root over others, or perhaps disregarded all of them, she certainly had a treasure trove of literature and drama from which to create a scripted depiction of the great Renaissance lover.
A Brief History of Vitaphone
“Vitaphone will bring to the audiences in every corner of the world the the music of the greatest symphony orchestras and vocal entertainment of the most popular stars of the operatic, vaudeville and theatrical field.”
– Harry Warner
Undoubtedly the most important and far-reaching cinematic technical innovation of the 1920’s was the introduction of sound; August 6th, 1926, the debut of Warner Bros.’ lavish swashbuckler Don Juan, along with numerous film shorts, proved a pivotal date with the introduction of Vitaphone, a new sound-on-disc process.
Sound itself was not new to motion pictures. The combination of moving images and sound had begun with Thomas A. Edison; as far back as 1894. in the Kinetoscope parlours, customers could, by means of stethoscope-like ear-tubes, hear scratchy, poorly synchronized sound as they watched some fleeting, flickering images. Early sound-on-disc systems included the Chronophone, patented in 1902 by Leon Gaumont, and the Vivaphone, developed and marketed by the British firm Hepworth Film Manufacturing Company circa 1913. Using Photokinema, another sound-on-disc method, legendary director D. W. Griffith, in a filmed prologue to his 1921 feature Dream Street, stepped out in front of a curtain to talk to the audience about the motion picture. On April 15, 1923, in New York City, American inventor Lee De Forest, a pioneer in sound films, premiered eighteen short films produced with Phonofilm, a primitive sound-on-film system.
None of these motion picture sound experiments achieved sustained success; it was a sound-on-disc synchronization procedure developed by technicians and engineers at Western Electric, working in conjunction with Bell Telephone Laboratories, that caught the interest and attention of Sam Warner in 1925. Harry Warner, at the urging of his brother Sam, agreed to use this method for musical accompaniment to Don Juan. Christened Vitaphone by the Warner brothers, this system recorded the soundtrack on a 16-inch, 3,343-revolution-per-minute wax disc that played from the centre outward; this sound-on-disc method ultimately became the only disc process both widely used and commercially successful. The marriage of Warners and Vitaphone took place on April 26, 1925 with the signing of a contract; the consummation of the relationship, so-to-speak, climaxed a little over fifteen months later with the August 6, 1926 premiere of Don Juan, the first silent film embellished with sound effects and a full background musical score courtesy of Vitaphone.
The Vitaphone sound-on-disc system would subsequently enjoy only a brief period as the main recoring technology for Warner Bros. and First National Pictures, a studio in which Warners held controlling interest. While the sound quality of the phonographic discs produced a richer audio quality than the emerging optical sound, or sound-on-film, processes, the discs were prey to synchronization issues, could not be directly edited, which limited the ability to make alterations in a film after its initial release, and suffered from general wear and tear, degrading after numerous screenings of a film, requiring disc replacements. By 1929, such major studios as Paramount Pictures and M-G-M had abandoned the sound-on-disc system in favour of optical sound for their productions; RKO, which began its film operation in 1929, used only optical sound. However, for a time these studios did continue to reproduce a number of soundtracks on phonographic discs for theatres not equipped for broadcasting optical sound; consequently some soundtracks of otherwise incomplete or lost motion pictures, such as the full roadshow version of RKO’s Rio Rita, and M-G-M’s The Rogue Song, have survived. Among the first twenty-five inductees into the TECnology Hall of Fame upon its establishment in 2004, the Vitaphone sound-on-disc process was discontinued by 1930 in favour of Movietone optical sound, although Warner Bros. retained the Vitaphone trademark for a number of years for its live action and animated short subjects.
The Cinematic “Don Juan”
“‘I made it for money.’” – Response by John Barrymore to an interviewer’s comment “‘I thought you made Don Juan for satire'”
“In ‘Don Juan’ there are moments when I look like a male impersonation of Lilyan Tashman.” – John Barrymore
Originally intended as John Barrymore’s first film under his new Warner Bros. contract, Don Juan was postponed in favour of The Sea Beast, the first screen adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; although he had starred in the 1924 version of Beau Brummel, Barrymore apparently disdained costume films. Quoted as saying “sweet-scented Don Juans affect movie audiences like a rough crossing of the English channel”. Barrymore agreed to the film, provided that a cinematic representation of Moby Dick, evidently one of his favourite novels, take precedence. As expressed by Barrymore:
“It [Moby Dick] appeals to me and always has. It has an especial appeal to me now, for in the last few years, both on the stage and screen, I have played so many scented, be puffed, bewigged and ringletted characters- princes and kings and the like that I revel in the rough and almost demoniacal character such as Captain Ahab”
The Sea Beast was a very loose variation of the Melville classic. Its script also written by Beth Meredyth, The Sea Beast imposed a great deal of licence on Melville’s narrative; Ahab competed with his half-brother Derek, an invented non-Melville character, for the love of Esther, a minister’s daughter; Ahab’s motivation to return to sea was not to pursue the white whale, but rather to try to forget that Esther loved another, and, in true Hollywood fashion, a happy ending was created in place of Melville’s original tragic conclusion. Literary liberties aside, The Sea Beast appeared to have appeased Barrymore; immediately following Don Juan Barrymore undertook more “pansy parts” , as he referred to them, in the 1927 motion pictures When A Man Loves, the third film to include a Vitaphone soundtrack of background music and sound effects, and The Beloved Rogue.
Its production starting on October 18, 1925, Don Juan contained the requisite elements of a swashbuckler spectacle with its inclusion of the hero’s scaling of stone walls, leaping off balconies, swinging on vines with rapier and poignard at the ready, breasting the Tiber River, and duelling enemies; in addition, the film offered the mandatory damsel-in-distress in the personage of Mary Astor as Adriana della Varnese. Astor, with whom Barrymore had been romantically involved when the two were performing several years earlier in Beau Brummel, was not Barrymore’s choice for the role; Barrymore preferred Dolores Costello, his newest paramour who would in 1928 become his third wife. As Astor had already been signed to the part, Warner Bros. was loathe to risk a breach-of-contract lawsuit.
Unlike contemporary actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Barrymore was not generally known for athletic prowess and an ebullient screen personality; Fairbanks had forged his career on such cinematic costume adventures as 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, 1921’s The Three Musketeers, The Thief of Baghdad from 1924, and The Black Pirate, released the same year as Don Juan, whereas Barrymore had initially found his fame on stage, most recently as a Shakespearean actor, and through a very divergent variety of film roles. Nonetheless the October 1926 edition of Photoplay exclaimed:
“Hey Mr. Fairbanks, come home quick! John Barrymore is stealing your stuff. He climbs balconies, he rides horses, he fights duels and he makes hot, hot love. Here is a young feller who is determined to live down his dark past as a Shakespearean actor.”
While in all probability posing no serious competition to any Fairbanks feature as a film of action, Don Juan did surpass Fairbanks’ motion pictures in the element of romance. Certainly a Fairbanks film included an actress, such as beautiful Billie Dove in The Black Pirate, as a leading lady or love interest; the focus, however, in a Fairbanks vehicle centred on the actor’s acrobatic gymnastics, while Don Juan surpassed the swashbuckling component in favour of romance, containing between 127 and 191 kisses, depending on the reference source, bestowed by Barrymore upon a number of actresses, including Astor, Estelle Taylor, Myrna Loy, and others. Submitting himself daily for hours in the make-up and costume departments to transform the forty-three-year-old actor to a more youthful-looking, handsome Don Juan, including the dying of his grey-streaked hair to a shade of blonde, Barrymore seemed a perfect choice for the role of the Great Lover; his own reputation as a philanderer preceded him. While his performance was not met with unrestrained praise, with some critics describing the acting as “the worst they had ever witnessed”, Barrymore’s grace and elegance of bearing, and his steamy, for the era, love-making, captivated audiences. It is now somewhat difficult, and perhaps even unfair, to assess the acting style prevalent in the era of the silent film; without the benefit of spoken dialogue performances may appear florid, exaggerated, or overwrought in their quest for expression.
Warner Bros. most expensive film to date, produced on a reported budget of $546,000 , Don Juan was adorned with lavish period sets and the more fluid and creative camerawork evident in the motion pictures of the late 1920’s. No longer in its infancy, the silent cinema had artistically developed beyond the mere capturing of moving images; ironically the advent of sound would initially return the early “talkies” to a more stagnant state. While some sources have criticized Meredyth’s screenplay for the introduction and consequent abandonment of a number of characters, chiefly Adriana’s father and Don Juan’s sidekick Petrillo, and the historic licence taken with Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, such objections may be viewed as petty in nature; many motion picture scenarios, both before and since, have followed a similar pattern as the narrative progresses. Any shortcomings in the screenplay notwithstanding, and marketed with such hyperbolic taglines as “The greatest adventure picture ever produced” and “It Thrilled the World!”, the latter catchphrase admittedly more in reference to Vitaphone than the film itself, Don Juan found favour with movie audience, earning a purported $1,693,000 in worldwide rentals.
The addition of the Vitaphone soundtrack, with its orchestral score played by the New York Philharmonic, distinguished Don Juan immeasurably, an aspect possibly more evident when compared to the all-silent version prepared for theatres not equipped for sound reproduction; while enjoyable and entertaining, the film alone was not markedly or especially superior to other contemporary features, either those in the swashbuckling genre or otherwise. Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate, presented in early two-strip Technicolor, made up for a thin plot with its action and technical polish; other 1926 offerings, such as Beau Geste and Old Ironsides, with its use of Magnascope, an early wide-screen process, provided similar adventure, sweep, and spectacle. Ultimately Don Juan was what it set out to be, no more and no less, namely a showcase for Barrymore, who was, at times, photographed in his famous profile and clothed in progressively tighter costumes; acting with “an abandon that will arouse the disapproval of the School of Eyebrow Lifters” the actor added another memorable, if melodramatic, character to his ever imposing curriculum vitae.
Legacy and Conclusion
“Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothing yet.” – first words of screen dialogue spoken by Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer
Its programme supplemented with eight short features that demonstrated the wonders of Vitaphone, including the Honorable Will Hayes, President of the Motion Picture Producers of America, directly addressing the audience, the New York Philharmonic playing the overture to Tannhäuser, and coloratura soprano Marian Talley singing Caro Nome from the Giuseppi Verdi opera Rigoletto, the world premiere of Don Juan was held on August 6, 1926 at the Warner Theatre in New York City, having been previewed two days earlier on an invitation basis; for the princely cost of $25 per ticket, first-night audiences were witness to an enormous milestone in the history of cinema. Interestingly, the audience responded to the arrival of this landmark innovation generally “warmly rather than wildly”.
“The natural reproduction of voices, the tonal qualities of musical instruments and the timing of the sound to the movements of the lips of singers and the actions of musicians was almost uncanny”.
Hall’s review effusively continued:
“The future of this new contrivance is boundless [. . .] the vitaphone [italics mine] will give its patrons an excellent idea of a singer’s acting and an intelligent conception of the efforts of musicians and their instruments. Operatic favorites will be able to be seen and heard, and the genius of singers and musicians who have passed will still live”.
Photoplay echoed Hall’s thoughts, declaring in its October 1926 issue:
“The executives of Warner Brothers, the Bell Telephone Company and the Western Electric Company believe that the Vitaphone [italics mine] will revolutionize the presentation of motion pictures. It will bring famous singers and orchestras to the smallest theaters. [. . .] Perhaps, back in their minds, these experts believe that the Vitaphone [italics mine] eventually will make possible a genuine talking picture. However, no definite plans have been made along this line. So far they are confining their activities to an invention which bids fair to transform the exhibition of pictures.”
Albeit unknowingly at the time, the latter thoughts in the Photoplay article were very prophetic; on October 6, 1927, fourteen months after the premiere of Don Juan, Warner Bros. elevated Vitaphone to a new level with its release of The Jazz Singer. Although still often considered the first talking film, The Jazz Singer was in reality essentially a silent film with a synchronized Vitaphone soundtrack; it did, however, contain several scenes with recorded songs and dialogue, not a great deal of spoken content overall, but sufficient to change forever cinema development. Safely finding its standing in cinema history, The Jazz Singer has rather unfairly overshadowed the historical importance of Don Juan. In the interim months between the debuts of the two films, Warner Bros. had released six more silent features with a Vitaphonesoundtrack, rendering the technology still enjoyable but less wondrous; the importance of Don Juan has over time been relegated to the back burner. As time has passed, The Jazz Singer has continued to enjoy its reputation as a cinematic milestone; Don Juan has been diminished to a pebble in the course of motion picture evolution.
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It has been a pleasure and a privilege to have Robert Short as a guest writer for the 2021 Swashbucklathon.