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Saturday, September 19, 2009

John Barrymore Silents


John Barrymore is generally proclaimed as the greatest American actor of the first half of the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time. However that's tough to support, as much of his great work was done on the stage, and went unrecorded. He did make quite a few films, though, many of them during the silent era. Kino has put out a collection of four of his silent films, and I Netflixed them over the last ten days. They are direct evidence of his abilities as an actor.

To start chronologically, in 1920 he appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson's tale Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The lead role, the bifurcated character of the altruistic Dr. Jekyll and his bestial alter-ego, Mr. Hyde, is catnip to actors, but in this case even more than usual, as Barrymore uses little makeup effects in his transformation from Jekyll to Hyde. Mostly he just contorts his face in a rictus-like grin. I read somewhere that no makeup was used, but this is not true, as Hyde is given a pointy-head and some god-awful fingernails.

The film was directed by John S. Robertson with an appropriate atmosphere of gloom. As with many silent films, the director does manage to use color, even in a black-and-white film, as different scenes are tinted to reflect mood (mostly sepia or a cool blue). Barrymore seems to be having a great deal of fun has Hyde, particularly in the scene where he murders Carew--Barrymore moves about like a marionette, knocking the old man to the ground and beating him with a cane as if he were a pinata. This would be a fun movie to show on Halloween.

Sherlock Holmes, directed by Albert Parker, is from 1922, and for many years was thought to be lost. It was pieced back together and restored (with financial backing of Hugh Hefner, for one). Because of this, the film at times doesn't make sense, as I gather there are missing scenes. But it's a largely enjoyable slice of the immense Holmes filmography.

Barrymore plays the great detective. The film begins with a prologue, when he and Watson (Roland Young, who went on to play Topper) are in school together. Holmes is given to dreamily wandering around, observing things and jotting them down in notebooks (he makes a list of his strengths and weaknesses--for literature he has nil, but chemistry is immense) and meets a young woman (Carol Dempster, a staple in D.W. Griffith films, and also his mistress) with whom he is instantly smitten. He comes to the aid of a fellow student, a prince, and clears him of a robbery charge.

Years later he is the great man of London, and battles with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, who is first shown in the film superimposed over a spider's web (the Professor is played by Gustave von Seyffertitz, which sounds like the name of a Holmes villain). The whole thing involves letters that Dempster has that could ruin the prince, and Holmes wins the day, and in a surprise, ends up engaged to Dempster. In the entire Conan Doyle canon, Holmes never shows romantic interest in a woman, save for the time he is beaten by Irene Adler, whom he forever after refers to as "the woman."

Barrymore is terrific as Holmes, which is saying something, because the character is usually so verbal that for Barrymore to capture the essence of such a well-known character with only facial expression is remarkable. So many people think of silent film-acting as over the top that it's interesting to see how subtle Barrymore was--he could express so much with just a slight change of expression or nod of the head.

A few interesting casting notes: also in the film in supporting roles are Hedda Hopper, who would go on to be a notorious gossip columnist, and the first appearance of William Powell.

The Beloved Rogue, from 1927, is a joyful comedy-adventure, directed by Alan Crosland. Barrymore plays the real-life fifteenth-century poet and vagabond Francois Villon, who was sort of a French Robin Hood. Villon is only interested in writing poems and drunken revels, and the people of Paris love him, crowning him king of fools. He is loyal to King Louis XI (played with arachnoid creepiness by Conrad Veidt), but the king barely tolerates him.

The story has the King involved in a turf war with the Duke of Burgundy. His astrologer (shades of Nancy Reagan) tells him to be friendly toward the Duke. When the Duke comes to Paris, Villon insults him, so the King, to be diplomatic, banishes Villon. Since Paris is everything to him, Villon is crushed, and there's a lovely scene as he weeps, imagining never setting foot in Paris again.

Of course he ends back in Paris, rescuing the King's ward (Marceline Day) from an arranged marriage to the Duke's flunky. There's lots of acrobatic fighting and daring-do, as well as a lot of slapstick comedy, especially with Villon's sidekicks, Slim Summerville, Mack Swain, and a dwarf played by Angelo Rossito. Barrymore shows off his physical skills as an actor, rivalling those of Douglas Fairbanks. The sets, by legendary Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies, are most impressive.

Lastly is Tempest, from 1928, directed by Sam Taylor. This is the most conventionally melodramatic film of the quartet, a historical drama set just before and during the Russian Revolution. Barrymore is a sergeant in the dragoons, a man of peasant stock, who is trying to earn a commission as an officer. This is a rarity, as officers are almost all of noble birth. Through the help of a kindly general, he gets his commission, but he becomes fixated on the general's daughter (Camilla Horn) who is beautiful and cruel. Why this poor sap throws away everything for a woman who won't give him the time of day is a bit perplexing.

Barrymore is sentenced to prison after he passes out drunk in the daughter's bed chamber following a party (watching Barrymore chug a full stoop of wine is interesting, given that the man would die a hopeless alcoholic at the age of sixty). World War I breaks out, but he is left in prison alone. All through the film he is visited by a peddler, who foretells the coming revolution. Finally, the Bolsheviks take over, and Barrymore gets his revenge, but he can't convince himself to harm Hull, who now shares his love (it's about time). The peddler, Boris de Fast, is now a commissar, and Barrymore learns what we know from The Who--the new boss is same as the old boss.

Tempest is a curiosity but not a great movie. The anti-communist propaganda would have pleased Joe McCarthy, as the peddler is given bad grooming habits and no sense of humor. There's much too much cutting between close-ups of characters--the movie is 111 minutes, but could have been twenty minutes less. But Barrymore is once again terrific, as are the sets by Menzies, who would win the first ever Oscar for art direction.

Barrymore would go on to make sound films, most notably Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, but would die in 1942. He may be best known today as being the grandfather of Drew Barrymore, but it's good to remember that he holds a far more important role in the history of American acting.

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