OK, I admit it, it makes me completely glad they were all guillotined.
This transitional silent is really a visual work of art. I say transitional because it is one of Warner Brothers first Vitaphone films back when Warners was still using sound just to bring sound effects and synchronized music to silents. No talking was going on yet.
The location is 18th century France about 20 years before the French Revolution. Our protagonists are a young man of aristocratic descent who is studying for the priesthood, Chevalier Fabien des Grieux (John Barrymore) and the unfortunate Manon Lescaut (Delores Costello). She's unfortunate because she actually trusts her brother (Warner Oland) who has two alternate plans for her - either sell her to the highest bidder to help him continue his gambling habit, or dispose of her in a nunnery. Fabien overhears the brother's plotting, rescues Manon, and the two flee to Paris. Because the brother found an aristocratic buyer for his sister's companionship he won't give up so easy on retrieving his meal ticket. A week after the young lovers have arrived in Paris, he finds Manon and convinces her that it is best for Fabien if she leaves him so he can return to his studies for the priesthood and regain his father's good graces.
What follows is a remarkable adventure with Fabien first losing and then regaining his faith in Manon, him turning from the studying for the priesthood to gambling as a profession, and a turn of treachery by Manon's discarded former protector/consort that has them both destined for a life of slavery in Louisiana.
The focus and sympathy are kept on the two young lovers for several reasons. For one, the actors themselves have remarkable chemistry - they were actually married for several years - and also, they are the only two members of the cast that don't resemble grotesque gargoyles. The poor of Paris are shown as disheveled, greasy, drunken, and ready to assault any maiden that crosses their paths. The aristocracy of Paris are shown as decadent, perfumed, powdered and rouged to the point of looking like corpses, and also ready to assault any maiden that crosses their paths. Thus even in pre-revolutionary France the poor and rich seem to have at least one thing in common.
The cruel twists of fate could make long stretches of this movie a bit of a downer if it were not for the fun of watching Barrymore in his prime playing - at various times - the protector, the swashbuckler, the broken-hearted when he loses Manon, ecstatic when he gets her back. Plus Barrymore could say more with a roll of his eyes or a gesture than many actors could say with an entire soliloquy. Highly recommended.