Considered one of the great actors — of both stage and screen — of his day, John Barrymore is the subject of an eponymous new box set from Kino, featuring four of the performer’s silent pictures made between 1920 and 1928. Showing off his wide range of skills and charms, the set reminds us why the performer was once so beloved by audiences, and why he deserves to continue to be so. Despite his stage training and theatrical family background (he came from a long line of actors, and his siblings were the equally renowned Lionel and Ethel), John had a natural presence on screen. He may be best remembered for his screwball hamming in Twentieth Century (1934) opposite Carole Lombard, but he is anything but histrionic or over-the-top in these four films. His subtle but communicative control of bodily and facial gestures, debonair persona and iconic good looks make for a commanding screen presence.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), the earliest film in the collection, shows Barrymore’s skill at distorting his posture and movement as he distinguishes the two personalities fighting for control over his body. As the tortured scientist trapped between conflicting desires, Barrymore is perfectly schizophrenic — Jekyll’s moments of calm are infused with anxiety, while Hyde’s outbursts of sexuality and violence are chilling. Sherlock Holmes (1922), the most anticipated release in the collection, is making its home video debut. Filmed two years after the birth of Black Mask magazine (that originator of the American hardboiled detective), the film shows the magazine’s influence in its presentation of Holmes. He’s less a logician with a magnifying glass than he is an action hero dodging bullets and donning disguises. Accompanying the film is Ben Model on his fabulous and innovative Miditzer Virtual Theatrical Organ, which uses sounds from an actual theatrical organ once used for motion picture accompaniment. It’s a real treat to hear Model’s new score as audiences might have heard it 77 years ago.
In The Beloved Rogue (1927), Barrymore tries to mimic Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood but can’t manage to pull off the gymnastics with Fairbanks’ iconic zest and vigor. Still, this swashbuckler about Francois Villon, a rebellious steal-from-the-rich-give-to-the-poor poet and outcast, is plenty entertaining, and benefits from grand sets designed by William Cameron Menzies, a name you might not recognize, but whose work you’ll remember vividly if you’ve ever seen Gone With the Wind (1939). Menzies also served as Art Director on Tempest (1928), a tale of forbidden love between a peasant soldier (Barrymore) and an aristocratic lady (Camilla Horn, recognizable from Murnau’s Faust of 1926), set during the Russian Revolution. Curiously, the Revolution was a big topic at the time, as two other films told similar stories and were all made within a year of each other — Benjamin Christensen’s Mockery (1927) and Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928). All three villainize the aristocracy and the revolutionaries equally, sympathizing only with the lovers caught in between. I suppose that even in the 1920s it was safest not to pledge allegiance to either political group.
Barrymore’s sophistication (and occasional pencil-thin moustache) may remind of William Powell, and the cool gaze and sexual charisma foreshadow Clark Gable, but there’s something distinct that’s hard to put a finger on. His chiseled face is unmistakable, his stride is always confident, yet behind the face is something mysterious and compelling. It’s what brought audiences back to theaters time and again back in the 1920s, and its what continues to draw us to Barrymore today.
Also on DVD this week:
Grave of the Fireflies (1988) (ADV Films, Region 1) – Isao Takahata’s anime classic is a heartfelt, emotionally acute story of two Japanese children left to fend for themselves during the final days of World War II.
Lola Montes (1955) (Second Sight, Region 2 PAL) – Those of you without a region free player will just have to wait for this gorgeous restoration of Ophuls’s final masterpiece to have a domestic release. The rest of us will be basking in Ophuls’ kaleidoscopic vision of the notorious lover (Martine Carol) whose fall from grace landed her as a 19th century circus attraction.
Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936) (Universal, Region 1) – Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray are locked in a bitter feud of Sylvia Sidney in this Technicolor Western, one of the first of its kind to be shot on location. The underappreciated Henry Hathaway, known mainly for his films noir (Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777), handles the directing.