Don Juan (1926)

The OG Playboy

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The opening credits of Don Juan self proclaim the film to be “A Warner Brothers Classic of the Screen”. Well, this self-gratification didn’t aid the film over time as Don Juan has gone down in history more so for its technical achievements over artistic merit, being the first film with a synchronized pre-recorded soundtrack with additional sound effects using the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system (likewise some film fans might recognize Don Juan for footage used in the opening credits of Start the Revolution Without Me from 1970). As a result, viewers can watch the film with the same soundtrack as heard by audiences back in 1926 – not a new score or modern re-recording of the original. The synchronized sound effects themselves don’t add much to the film, nor are they well synced although this was new technology in 1926 so I can’t blame them.

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Don Juan is, however, a good swashbuckling romp in John Barrymore’s attempt to out-Fairbanks Fairbanks. Barrymore is a magnificent figure of a man, pausing every now and then to let everyone get a good look at his iconic profile. Contrary to the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, the titular character is less of an escapist fantasy but more of a tragedy in the classic tale of a man whose lust for women is his undoing; arousing from his own mother’s infidelity and his father’s response to such – there’s more implied sex than you can shake a stick at. But this is still a romantic swashbuckler at the end of the day (reportedly with the highest kiss count in film history at a whopping 127), and the film ends with the most classic of romantic images, the man and woman riding off into the sunset, perhaps not as cliché or worn out in 1926?

In classic Cecil B DeMille style, Don Juan is a film of biblical morality but is never a preachy one at that. At the beginning of the film, Juan is courted by sultry women amongst displays of decadence when he is still a child. However, in adulthood, Juan eventually comes to find redemption in Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) as the first woman he legitimately falls in love with and must rescue from the clutches of history’s infamous, sadistic Borgia family. The wide-eyed Mary Astor is the face of innocence and virginal purity if there ever was one, as we even see her unconscious body laid down next to a statue of the Virgin Mary just to hammer the point home.

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Among the film’s supporting players includes Willard Louis as Juan’s amusingly effeminate and theatrical attendant Pedrillo. It would make sense to have a gay attendant guide his many affairs when they arrive at Juan’s residence and reassuring each one that she is “the love of his life”. Don Juan also features Myrna Loy in one of her earliest screen appearances. There’s no real meat to her role as Mai, Lady In Waiting as she part takes in background scheming, but it’s great to see her at such an early stage in her career in a number of close-ups and lingering shots as well as many costume changes.

My one major downside to Don Juan is that I’m left wishing for more action, only getting some in the final 20 minutes with a sword duel and a Conte of Monte Cristo style prison escape. At least the film’s money shot does not disappoint, Don Juan’s dive on top of the stairs and onto his foe. It’s filmed in one take with no editing trickery nor does a stunt double appear to be used.

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Don Juan is an example of the excess and opulence present in many silent-era films from the grandiose sets to the never-ending wardrobe of costumes (even all the women still have contemporary 1920’s makeup despite its 15th-century setting). In the words of John Hammond – “We spared no expense”. Watching these movies on a TV at home (or dare I say from a dodgy corner of the internet) really doesn’t do them justice.

Adventures of Don Juan (1948)

Juan But Not Forgotten

You could look at it cynically and view Adventures of Don Juan as a career life support, seeing Errol Flynn going to back to doing what made him famous in the first place after a string of unsuccessful pictures at the box office but it is none the less Errol Flynn returning to do what he does best. Despite not having done a swashbuckler since The Sea Hawk in 1940, Adventures of Don Juan manages to recapture the magic of his earlier days in this very dialogue driven swashbuckler. Flynn’s signs of ageing are increasingly apparent but considering his health and status as a star this would have been the final time Flynn could have headlined a big budget production such as this.

The Technicolor here doesn’t have the striking vibrancy of The Adventures of Robin Hood but the beautiful, detailed backdrops and very large scale sets with immaculate attention to detail are superb. The only complaint I have production wise is the very obvious use of footage taken from The Adventures of Robin Hood which sticks out from the rest of a movie which was filmed a decade later. It’s a shame they couldn’t get Michael Curtiz to direct for one last Flynn adventure or Erich Wolfgang Korngold to do the music score, none the less Max Steiner’s score does the job. I also previously knew Viveca Lindfors as the teacher from the 1985 comedy The Sure Thing. To see her 37 years earlier play a Spanish queen in the 17th century was such a contrasting role.

Unlike John Barrymore’s take on Don Juan in 1926, Flynn’s Don Juan uses the character’s insatiable lust for woman for laughs rather than for tragedy (I doubt a film in the tone of the Barrymore Don Juan could be made during the code era). Flynn’s Don Juan is a charmer but with a tad buffoonery to him, who’s lovemaking antics threaten relations between England and Spain. However, Flynn injects some John Barrymore into his performance with his manner of speaking, which it should then come as no surprise that Flynn would later portray Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon. What is also taken over from the Barrymore Don Juan is the famous breathtaking epic dive down the stairs, and it does not disappoint.

The two villains in Adventures of Don Juan, the King of Spain (Romney Brent) and the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas) attempt to hatch a plan to build an armada in secret for world conquest and use shady tactics along the way such as abducting subjects by force for the navy. This was only a few years after the Second World War had ended and the memories of Hitler were still vivid in people’s minds. Robert Douglas channels a bit of Basil Rathbone in his performance while the partnership between these two villains is the classic Emperor/Darth Vader set up; with one figure taking the public limelight and the other pulling the strings behind the scenes; as the Duke de Lorca puts it, “I have no desire to sit on a throne, I much prefer to stand behind it”.