5 April 2006 | zpzjones
Fine silent in it's ownright
There's been a lot written about Don Juan in film books about the beginning of pre-recorded sound. First off to respond to an earlier poster who wanted to know how the soundtrack was recorded. It was recorded by the New York Philharmonic w/100 piece orchestra in a non-soundproof theater in New York. This theater unfortunately was situated near an overland subway track and vibration from passing subway trains just could not be tolerated. So the recording was done in the middle of the night when no trains were running. It was that simple.
It's amazing that this film not only survives intact but with it's actual pre-recorded scored track, the way 1926 audiences saw & heard it. No new score or modern re-recording of the original. This track is sort of an original sound film heirloom and we're lucky to have it today for posterity's sake. This is the way silent films should be seen music wise anyway. This was the original intention of pre-recorded sound to present to audiences, full orchestral music where they weren't able to listen to it. If you can forgive the primitive process of Vitaphone and appreciate the marvelous sync score for what it is, you can enjoy this sumptuous picture immensely. The 100 piece orchestra really makes it's presence felt. I'm sure the actual score could be re-recorded with modern technology and would be beautiful.
John Barrymore follows in the swashbuckling tradition of his then film contemporaries, Douglas Fairbanks & Rudolph Valentino. It's a great legendary figure for the Great Profile to play, and he and the cast seem to have the time of their lives acting through their scenes. Without giving spoiler away, I think the man sealed in the wall is one of the best scenes in the pic.
A curious thing about Don Juan's production. Warner Brothers then a fledgling newbie studio had just signed Barrymore to a three picture deal and wanted to get Don Juan into production as soon as possible after their winning success with Barrymore in Beau Brummel(1924). However Barrymore, who had some serious clout at the time, wanted to film what would become a bastardized though picturesque version of Moby Dick called The Sea Beast(1926). Thus Don Juan's production schedule got pushed back in order for the Sea Beast to come first. Fortunately for sound film history & Don Juan, this gave the four Warner Brothers time enough to experiment and increase their interest in Vitaphone. The idea then came up to release one of the new feature pictures with an orchestral score in the new Vitaphone process. Don Juan happened to be completed and ready for release in mid-1926 and it was chosen for Vitaphone. One tends to wonder if Sea Beast had been made after Don Juan, that it would have been the one chosen for Vitaphone and we might be listening to a totally different score. It really came down to what film was being released at the time the decision was made to go with Vitaphone.
Alan Crosland proved a very intuitive & inventive director and formed a great professional working relationship with the irrascible Barrymore. Under Crosland's direction Don Juan moves swiftly and is cut, photographed & edited to form a wonderful finished product. Director & Star made three or four long films together and Don Juan is Crosland's prelude to his better remembered though inferior Jazz Singer(1927). Don Juan is quite possibly Crosland's silent masterpiece IMHO.
The only inconsistency in the film is that Pedrillo, Don Juan's trusted assistant, disappears halfway through the film with no explanation. This because actor Willard Louis, who played Pedrillo, dropped dead before the production was finished. But enough of his scenes were completed to include him in the first half of the movie with continuity and without a stand in.
It was great of Turner to release this movie on video in the early 90s but with the recent release of Greed(1923) on DVD, it would be nice if a DVD of Don Juan could be fixed up with some bonus material explaining the making of as well as the historical significance of the movie. Such a film as this deserves that