Back to the pre-Code period – and back to John Barrymore. I’ve already written about one fine, though little-known, film where he plays a lawyer, State’s Attorney (1932).The following year he starred in this even better legal drama, which must be one of his finest talkies, and is available on DVD from Kino, though in region 1 only. Barrymore gives a restrained but moving performance as a workaholic lawyer, who spends much of the film having two or three phone conversations at once. Sadly there are no courtroom scenes this time – but it’s an utterly compelling film, which repays repeated viewings. Indeed, you’ll need them to catch all the quickfire dialogue, especially in the scenes with Isabel Jewell chattering away irrepressibly as switchboard operator Bessie.
Like many early 1930s films, this drama is based on a stage play, in this case by Elmer Rice. It does betray its stage origins in the way that it is entirely based in one setting, within the Simon and Tedesco suite of legal offices in the Empire State building. However, where some films set in just one location might drag at times, Counsellor at Law, an early success for great director William Wyler, moves at a breathless pace. Rice, who adapted his own play for the screen, had trained and worked as a lawyer, and the legal background feels very authentic as far as I can tell, tackling still-current issues such as insider trading and professional standards.
Since reading Moby Dick a few years ago, I’ve been interested in seeing different film and stage versions of it. I was especially intrigued to see John Barrymore playing Ahab, as sadly only one of his full Shakespearean roles survives on film (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet). It is often said that Ahab is very near to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in his monomania. Barrymore actually played the role in both the first two adaptations, this silent epic and a talkie made in 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon, which I haven’t seen as yet. (I’m hoping this may turn up on Warner Archive before too long – I believe it is occasionally shown on TCM in the US, so there should be a reasonable print around).
I saw The Sea Beast online, at YT, in a very poor quality print, so I can’t really review it properly but just wanted to say something about it while it is fresh in my mind. There was a DVD release in region 1 by Televista, now deleted, but I gather from comments at the imdb that the quality of the DVD is also dire, very pale and washed-out. The film could really do with being restored and released in a double set with the talkie version.
I’m always saying that I plan to write more shorter postings, but now I’m really going to do it, as I’m so busy these days that it’s a choice between writing short postings or not updating this blog at all. Anyway, I will hopefully put a good selection of pictures with each posting, and over the next week or two I’m planning to concentrate on John Barrymore. As I’ve said before, although Barrymore is best-known for his silent films, I have seen more of his talkies and these tend to appeal to me because of his beautiful speaking voice – however, I do want to see more of his silents too.
Topaze is a rather obscure but entertaining comedy-drama from RKO (sadly not on DVD, though it did come out on Laserdisc – but at time of posting it can be found online at YT), adapted from a French play by Marcel Pagnol, which sees Barrymore cast wildly against type. He plays Professor Auguste Topaze, a timid, down-at-heel teacher in a boys’ school who is also a brilliant scientist – and who gets caught up in a scam to sell tap water as a health-giving mineral water. For most of the film his face is concealed by facial hair, and that famous profile is hardly glimpsed, though he does get a chance to look handsome briefly in the final scenes. I think he does a great job of playing a part which at first sounds like a surprising role for him – and it is interesting to see him if anything slightly underplaying rather than hamming it up. The other main star is Myrna Loy, as Coco, the sensible young mistress of a crooked baron played by Reginald Mason.
I’ve been getting increasingly interested in the Barrymores recently and watching a lot of their films, so I want to write about some more of them here. Glossy drama Grand Hotel is one of three films made in 1932 which starred brothers John and Lionel together – the others were Arsene Lupin, which I have seen but only in almost unwatchable bootleg form, and spectacular historical epic Rasputin and the Empress, also starring sister Ethel.
By far the greatest of these three is Grand Hotel, a breathtaking MGM drama – and one of the first films to boast an all-star cast. Greta Garbo got top billing, with her name given in the cast list simply as “Garbo”, while the two Barrymores, Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford were the other big star names. The film had a huge budget for the time, estimated at 700,000 dollars, and was a smash hit – one of the special features on the Warner DVD, which is included in a Joan Crawford box set, shows excited crowds turning up for the premiere and breaking through a police cordon to swarm towards their favourite stars.
I’ll soon be writing about Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1936), but first wanted to post a few thoughts about a couple of earlier movies which have links with it. One, of course, is What Price Hollywood? (1932), George Cukor’s great pre-Code drama which is said to have been the inspiration for Wellman’s film. But there was also a lesser-known movie released just one month before Cukor’s, which also had a plot strand of a younger woman trying to save a talented older man from his drink problem – the courtroom comedy-melodrama State’s Attorney (1932), directed by George Archainbaud and starring John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees. I’ve now seen this twice and really think it deserves to be better-known – both the leads are brilliant, and the dialogue is very sharp and witty. Sadly it isn’t on DVD, though it did get a US release on VHS. I think it does sometimes get shown on TCM in the US, though, and at present it is available for streaming on “YT”, though the picture isn’t that great. (I also found the film stuck in the second “reel”, but was ok if downloaded to view on realplayer).
John Barrymore may be best-known for his work in the theatre and in films of the silent era. But, every time I see him in an early talkie, I’m struck by how great he was in these too – and A Bill of Divorcement (1932), a melodrama directed by George Cukor for RKO Radio Pictures, is no exception. Barrymore gives a heart-rending performance as a father coming home after 15 years in a mental hospital. However, although Barrymore was the star with his name above the title, these days the film is best-remembered (when it is remembered at all, that is!) as the debut role for Katharine Hepburn, playing the daughter whose world is about to be torn apart. She was fourth-billed and her name was actually spelt wrong in the final credits, but, even so, she is really a joint female lead with Billie Burke , and has several scenes where her unique film personality comes across.
The film is adapted from a play by British dramatist Clemence Dane, and set in England, although none of the stars worry too much about doing English accents. As with some other movies from this period, this is very much a filmed version of a stage play, with almost all the scenes taking place on the same set, so at times it gives a feeling of what it might have been like to see Barrymore on stage. I have seen some reviews suggesting that the film feels too static, but this is a movie where I think this works, as with Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930), because again the atmosphere is intended to be claustrophobic and intense.
The last Shakespeare production I wrote about was Orson Welles’ moody take on Macbeth. George Cukor’s movie of Romeo and Juliet was made only 12 years earlier, but seems to belong to another world. Where Welles’ Poverty Row film looks rough around the edges, Cukor’s gives the Bard the full gleaming Hollywood treatment. MGM under Irving Thalberg poured two million dollars into this production, with half of that spent on building an ambitious replica of Verona on a backlot, while the budget also ran to enormous crowds of extras. Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen, which I’m finding invaluable for background on these older adaptations, recounts how the studio did even consider filming in Verona itself before deciding against.
Given the lavish feeling of the whole production, it’s quite surprising MGM didn’t go for Technicolor. Instead, they stuck to black and white, but the emphasis is very much on the white, with many scenes shot in brilliant sunlight, and Norma Shearer as Juliet dressed in a succession of flowing white gowns by Adrian – a long way from Welles’ cardboard crowns. At times I must admit I find the sheer glossiness of it all a bit much, and the opening shot of Shearer feeding a pet deer in a jewelled collar, as orchestral themes from Tchaikovsky swell in the background, reminded me of Disney. (Snow White was released the following year.)