Don Juan

Don Juan is a masterpiece of the silent cinema in which the hero is neither damned as in Mozart’s opera nor innocent as in Byron’s poem, but redeemed by his love for a Roman maiden.

The main action takes place in Rome at the time of the Borgias (the girl is a rival Orsini), but first a prelude shows Juan’s father, Don José, cuckolded by his wife and avenged most terribly on her lover à la “The Cask of Amontillado”. Don José holds an unforgettable banquet of women, at which he is jealously stabbed by an admirer, and dies adjuring his son to give his heart to no woman.

In Rome, Don Juan finds himself simultaneously entertaining the Duke of Margoni’s niece, mistress and wife. Lucrezia Borgia wagers her brother Cesare that she can bring the rake to heel.

The Orsini and her father fall into the clutches of their enemies, and she is tortured on the wheel. Don Juan shakes off the trammels of Lucrezia, rescues the girl after a swordfight and carries her off on his horse over the hills and far away in a brilliant sunrise.

This was the first feature-length Vitaphone sound film. The orchestral score was recorded on discs, with various sound effects (bells, door knocks, swordplay), exactly as it would be played in a city theater, except that here the orchestra is the New York Philharmonic conducted by Henry Hadley. The score is sumptuous and well-played.

Crosland’s editing is very rapid, his shots last a second or two as a rule, with a great variety of rhythm that’s as much an element of composition as the great sets, costumes and decoration. The acting is first-rate everywhere, but the women take precedence in flair and nuance. John Barrymore as Don Juan (and Don José) combines pantomime and realism to sum up silent film acting for all time in the greatest performance imaginable. An arched eyebrow is a statuary effect or overpowers the scene’s considerable force so that the rest of the cast are free to rise to the occasion.

The 1946 Warner Brothers optical transfer inexplicably speeds up all the action sequences so that they are a nonsense of herky-jerkiness.


The Beloved Rogue

After Joan of Arc, Burgundy moves on Paris. A marriage with Vauxcelles will secure a southern gateway. Villon is King of Fools, happy Paris, elsewhere fools reign all year long.

A gibe wins him exile. He feeds the populace with the King’s catapult. Burgundy tortures him and declares his own intentions, the next King of France. Welles borrowed Burgundy’s elevated cage for Iago.

As marvelous a comedy as just about any in the period, and Barrymore mimes a poem. William P. Perry’s conscientious, inspired score is meritorious.

The Devils is indicated in a prelude, the poet’s childhood anticipates 8½. The Hunchback of Notre Dame flits about the scenes as a conscious harmonic. The Music Lovers remembers the snow festival.

Barrymore’s genius is beginning to be appreciated. The critic views a film as curate’s egg or (rare commodity!) goose-lain gold.


The Jazz Singer

In spite of its theatrical success, mentioned in Time’s review, Raphaelson’s play was beyond film critics, as their remarks have shown.

Crosland’s masterpiece, and that’s what it is, has no rival for dramatic conflict, and it’s only a question of singing Kol Nidre or appearing in April Follies on opening night to a Broadway audience.

This was when Schönberg was chastising Hindemith for writing foxtrots and ragtimes, Schönberg who wrote cabaret songs but later a Kol Nidre, and before Goebbels berated Hindemith as an “atonal noisemaker”.

The conscientious, melodious score is already the sound age, then there is speech and song exactly like the movies that follow.

The beautiful accuracy of the drama, and the brilliance of the comedy (dancer at the barre kicks her own head from behind, Yudleson invents The Three Stooges), make a great film and a great understanding, the terms of which have no meaning to critics as neither fish nor fowl.


The Case of the Howling Dog

Address, “Mr. Perry Mason, Atty, Metropolitan Bldg, Los Angeles, Calif.”

Thriving practice, new staff (cf. Wyler’s Counsellor at Law).

Client is perturbed by the title character next door, set on by its owner, he wants a will drawn up to benefit the lady of the house, not he says the wife (his own is elsewhere).

Mason has a psychiatrist look at this bird in his office, saying it’s a portent of “death in the neighborhood.”

The pure Mason mystery rolls up its sleeves for a rabbit in a gibus, and then it goes to work.

Mrs. C.M. Dangerfield, Fremont Hotel, 9th and Olive, is Mary Astor. Warren William is the atty, Grant Mitchell D.A. Drumm, Allen Jenkins Sgt. Holcomb, “you bet your neck”.

You can’t put just anything in Mason’s pipe, “I never believe anything I can’t make a jury believe.”

F.S.N. of the New York Times took note of its virtues, a certain kind of accuracy, a great deal of skill, “a welcome contribution”.

Mason notes, “a girl can do a lot of writing for ten thousand dollars.”

“Go on, bite him, Drumm.”

“Give me a ring if you ever get picked up for murder.”

The anxious man with a pair of binoculars and a housekeeper “deaf as a post” figures in Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock).

Halliwell’s Film Guide, “adequate”.

A perfect rhyme ends Crosland’s perfect masterpiece, “how do you like it?”