Sunday, April 8, 2012

Silent Sundays: Don Juan (1926)



“This is my legacy to you- beware of giving your love to women”

            Everyone has heard a man described as a “Don Juan”- the kind of guy that is known for having many lovers and is smooth and charming. The film version of Don Juan from 1926 has John Barrymore perfectly cast as the smooth and incredibly charming and handsome titular character.
            The first woman in the young Juan’s life was his cheating mother. His father Don Jose set his wife up to catch her with her lover. She tells her lover to hide in the wall but Jose- as part of his plan- has the wall sealed so he wife will spill that the man is there. Jose banishes his wife away and raises Juan himself. The father is a great lover himself. At a banquet one night Don Jose is killed by a jealous lover. Before he dies he tells his son to “…beware of giving your love to women.”
            Juan heeds his father’s advice and takes up with several lovers. No woman can refuse his love, he knows all the right things to say and do to make women melt in arms. One woman who hears about the infamous Don Juan is Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor). Lucrezia is beautiful a beautiful woman who can get anything and any man she wants. Her brother tells her that Juan has a reputation for not falling in love with any woman. She tells him she can make the great lover fall in love with her.
            Lucrezia invites Juan to a ball. When he arrives he is immediately distracted by a pair of legs from one of the female servants. He climbs up to her and they begin to kiss on the balcony. Mai (Myrna Loy), Lucrezia’s lady in waiting sees Juan with the servant and runs back to report to her lady. If Juan is caught he will surely die. Fortunately for him his friend get to him in time. As Juan and Lucrezia stand on the balcony he notices a beautiful girl in the garden. His face is mischievous and lustful he stares her with genuine infatuation. The girl is Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) and she is loyal to the Borgia’s rival the Orsini.
            When he parts from Lucrezia, Juan sense that the lady is planning something evil against Adriana and her father when he sees her walk through a secret passage. At the ball he takes a cup that was laced with poison intended for the Duke della Varnese and saves his life. He knows the cup has poison in it when Lucrezia comes over to him and keeps him from drinking from the cup.
            Juan is very much in love with Adriana. She is unlike any woman he has ever known and goes so far as to tell her that she has restored his faith in women. Adriana is young and innocent which, besides her great beauty, is one the reasons Juan is so in love with her. Lucrezia and Mai see Juan’s display of affection towards Adriana in the garden one day. She becomes enraged and has her uncle the pope take the rage out on the city and their enemies. The Duke and Adriana are almost killed until she made to marry a swordsman named Donati. Juan believes that Adriana has betrayed him so he goes back to Lucrezia. One night Juan is so upset that he goes to see Adriana in her room. There she tells him that the whole marriage had been plotted it was not real. Juan then challenges Donati to a fight to the death. He kills the man but the crooked Borgias have him arrested and sentenced to death. They also have Adriana arrested as an accomplice and sentenced to death as well.
            Juan manages to escape and save Adriana from the wicked Borgias and escape back to his country of Spain.
            John Barrymore was beyond perfect as Don Juan. If you know your film history you will have undoubtedly heard Barrymore was known for his constant pursuing of women. Poor Mary Astor fell into his trap. She was only seventeen years old when they began seeing each other and Barrymore broke her young heart when he began seeing Dolores Costello. According to Myrna Loy in her autobiography Barrymore even went after her a few times while she was at Warner Bros. As much of a pervert and a snake as he was Barrymore was an excellent actor. There were times especially when he plays Don Jose at the beginning that Barrymore over acts but for the most part he was great. He was so handsome too. If I had been an actress on the Warner Bros. lot when he was with the studio I would most likely have fallen for him haha. Every time I see that great famous profile I am immediately drawn to him.
            The only other films I have ever seen Mary Astor in were Meet Me in St. Louis and The Maltese Falcon (I remember her more in the first the latter I have not seen in ages). Whenever I read about Astor the fact that she was in silent films always comes up. In Don Juan she was only twenty-years old. There were some scenes where she overacted like when Juan has taken her back to her place and he wants to make love to her but she is pure and innocent so she tells Juan that if he comes near her she will kill herself. The whole scene was a bit overdone by both actors. Mary Astor was very good besides some overacted scenes and very pretty. She had that face that was perfect for the role.
            Myrna Loy writes in her autobiography that Warner’s originally wanted her to play Lucrezia Borgia: “ … somebody got the crazy idea of casting me as Lucrezia Borgia to his (John Barrymore) Don Juan. I was a wraith, for God’s sake, a skinny kid without the bust or anything to play that formidable lady.” Loy continues by saying that the costume department padded her up but it was no use there was just nothing to her so Estelle Taylor got the part. While on the set one day Barrymore reamed Loy out after a scene. She tells: “I wasn’t important. They could have replaced me in a minute. But Miss Williams wasn’t having any of that, thank you!” Loy was eventually coaxed back and Barrymore was sorry but she “gave him the nose in the air” and refused to speak to him. Even at twenty-one Myrna Loy had a spunk and take-no-crap attitude. Her part as the Mai is very small, her face is shown for like a few seconds because the title cards come in. I had mixed feelings about the character because Mai is just doing her duty to her lady by telling Lucrezia what she wants to hear but for the main characters who we are supposed to we are meant not to like her. I did not like Mai for the fact that she reported back to Lucrezia. But it is Myrna Loy and if you have been following this blog for the past year you know how much I adore her to no end.
     There are some stunning camera angles and close ups through out the film. The best angles and close up are during the sword fight towards the end. Barrymore walks towards the camera as if from Donati's point of view. That was just an all around excellently filmed scene the sword fight. 
            Don Juan is a great silent film. I found it to be a bit long but the story is very good and the actors were excellently cast. Seeing the film makes me want to read the story, I had thought for the longest time that the book would be outrageously boring. Now I cannot wait to sit down and read it. Don Juan is very entertaining as a great melodrama and also as a great action film.