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Before movies talked, they clacked with swords, gonged with wedding bells and pulsed with perfectly matched orchestral accompaniment. The process that made it happen was Vitaphone, a sound-on-disk system that made its feature-film debut in this lavish 1926 classic. Starring in this swashbuckling tale of the world's most famed lover is the greatest actor of his day: John Barrymore. As Don Juan, he pursues his conquests with rakish abandon. But one glimpse of exquisite Adriana (Mary Astor) and he finds true love. Alas, the poisonous Borgia clan (including Warner Oland and as a handmaid, Myrna Loy) wants her to wed one of its own. So Don Juan duels (in one of the greatest swordfights ever filmed), carries out a daring dungeon escape and rides like the wind to win her. BEFORE THE FEATURE - THE AUGUST 6, 1926 OPENING NIGHT VITAPHONE SHORTS PROGRAM: Will B. Hays Introduction to Vitaphone, Overture to Tannhauser - New York Philharmonic, Mischa Elman - Humoresque and Gavotte, Roy Smeck in His Pastimes, Marion Talley - Caro Nome, Efrem Zimbalist and Harold Bauer - Theme and Variations from The Kreutzer Sonata, Giovanni Martinelli - Vesti La Giubba, Anna Case - La Fiesta
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Sublimely directed by Alan Crosland from Bess Meredyth's screenplay, DON JUAN stars the Great Profile himself, John Barrymore, in the title role of the legendary Great Lover and doubter of women. Barrymore displays an energetic vigor and nuanced emotion in his portrayal, all expressed with the wonderfully stylized pantomime customary to the silent screen. It's a remarkable performance, actually two performances, since Barrymore also plays Juan's embittered father in the film's prologue. Others in the fine cast who went on to become famous stars include a young and pretty Mary Astor as Adriana, the one woman to whom Juan loses his heart, future Charlie Chan Warner Oland as the evil Cesare Borgia, lovely Estelle Taylor as his scheming sister Lucretia, Myrna Loy as her slinky, exotic handmaid, and sweet June Marlowe, better known as Miss Crabtree of the Little Rascals shorts, in a small role as one of Juan's conquests. The arch villain, Count Donati, is played by veteran heavy Montague Love, and the climactic swordfight between him and Barrymore is still considered one of the best in screen history.
No expense was spared in the production of DON JUAN, as evidenced in part by Ben Carre's sumptuous art direction. The picture's synchronized music score was by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, an important factor in getting the industry sold on the Vitaphone process. In addition, the film's gala premiere included a prologue of special Vitaphone short subjects featuring musical performances by various artists of the day. DON JUAN is remembered today primarily as the film that paved the way for THE JAZZ SINGER and also for having been loosely parodied in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (MGM, 1952). But the film deserves better recognition than being just an historical relic. It's a rousingly romantic, meticulously mounted and well acted swashbuckler, one of the all-time great silents.
The DVD-R of DON JUAN fom the Warner Archives is beautiful, having been transferred from a sharp 35mm print with excellent contrast. This edition also contains the feature introduction by the Board of Censors head William B. Hayes, and the original program of Vitaphone shorts preceding the feature, presented exactly as it was in 1926.
Highly recommended for those with a refined taste.
The Soundtrack was provided on 12" 33 1/3 rpm shellac discs. The ability to show this film was limited to theaters that had the proper associated equipment installed, in short only theaters in major cities with large potential audiences had the financial means to afford this new audio setup. It was up to the people in the projection booth to synchronize the discs to the film.
The problem is that the Vitaphone produced shellac soundtrack discs were "noisy". The producers of this WB dvd chose to have the audio so over-processed with noise reduction that NONE of this noise (and some of the music) is audible. To these ears, it appears that they used some kind of "gating" where sounds that go below a certain threshold level are suppressed. The result is that softer passages in the orchestra accompaniment and, even more so, in the included classical music shorts that preceded the feature, are reduced almost to inaudibility and in some instances, silence. This was not the case with the laser disc version, which was well produced, had great sound, and was accompanied with lavish notes and illustrations.
Sometimes less is more, and this disappointing dvd is a perfect example.
This disc does contain special features. Along with the film, the premiere audience was treated to a series of short films, including a performance of Wagner by the NY Philharmonic. The audio tracks for these shorts are not restored, but are well-presented. As is customary with all Warner Archive Discs, no restoration is done to the film. That being said, it's a good transfer and holds up well despite its age. It's an interesting study of how 1927 dealt with mysogynists, really. But I'll spare you the film class evaluation and simply say, it's worth seeing over and over.
In fact, fans of Barrymore will recognize his facial contortions from his much earlier Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. As I watched this film for the first time, it was a singular treat to watch his face transform in front of the camera in a way it didn't really do in Dr. Jekyll.
A must-have for any collector of classic film, silent or otherwise. Thanks to the Warner Archive for making this available.