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.

Alias The Doctor (1932)

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Doctor Implausible and the Suspension of Disbelief (Now There’s a Band Name)

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Had Alias The Doctor been made in the 1950’s it could likely have been directed by Douglas Sirk with its implausible melodramatic madness. When watching the film for the first time I was unaware of just how improbable the plot was going to be and after several “oh come on!” moments I realised this was a film in which I had to embrace the lack of plausibility rather than fight against it.

A car just happens to crash outside the house of Karl Brenner (Richard Barthelmess) on the night in which he comes home for the first time since being released from prison after taking the heat for his brother Stephan’s  failed and unqualified attempt at surgery when they where students at college only to find out he has since passed away and must perform surgery on the victims of the car crash despite previously being kicked out of medical school for said crime only to impress a local surgeon and have Karl’s mother tell the surgeon that Karl is actually Stephan so Karl masquerades under his dead brother’s name with no further identification than a medical certificate; oh just roll with it. Alias The Doctor is a movie which trades logic for emotion as Karl deals with the dilemma of committing fraud in order to save lives.

This is the perfect example of an hour long movie which packs a lot into that short space of time; quality over quantity. Aside from the story being full of delightfully absurd turns, it’s other great asset are the visuals. You can’t talk about a Michael Curtiz film without talking about the visuals and Alias The Doctor is one of the more visually avant-garde films of the 1930’s with its use of expressionism, shadows, tilted camera angles, high contrast lighting as well as striking set design from Anton Grot (that opening shot of Karl ploughing the field would surely make John Ford jealous). This is Hollywood’s imagining of Europe as seen in may 1930’s films through and through.

Boris Karloff had originally filmed scenes for the film as an autopsy surgeon but was replaced by Nigel De Brulier when he was not available for retakes after British censors objected to the gruesomeness of his scenes. While it’s disappointing that Karloff would be removed from the film, Nigel De Brulier is surprisingly Karloff-like in his creepy demur and even walks just like Karloff. The character of the autopsy surgeon has several brief appearances towards the end of the film and doesn’t affect the story but builds up to one dark, humorous punch line in which he is seen preparing himself for the expected death of Karl’s mother during her surgery. Likewise, Karl is in love with his adopted sister, I know they’re not related by blood but still. Where else but pre-code cinema can you get his kind of unashamed perversion?

Alias The Doctor even has an amusing depiction of a two-tier health care system in which a patient inquiries to Karl on why he is being charged (“Any doctor can serve a broken arm!”) only for Karl to reply, “But that’s the point, you kept me away from patients who needed me, people who couldn’t afford to pay a doctor. That’s our system”.

They save the best for last which Barthelmess’ monologue to the medial committee on why he should be allowed to operate on his mother despite being exposed as a fraud (albeit under highly unusual circumstances). This is storytelling which calls to the viewer’s raw emotion for a rebellious ignorance over rules and regulations; reality need not apply. Being an actor of the silent era, Barthelmess can convey a lot with his face while having a great voice to boot.

There is no record of Alias The Doctor every being released on home video prior to being issued on the Warner Archive Collection in 2010. Shame that such a visual work of art would have been out of reach for decades. I’ll say it now and I’ll it again; the 1930’s is an archaeological treasure chest of obscure gems.