With e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Stephen Horne, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 10 Oct 2014
NB. The correct spelling of the name is Brummell.
Catherine A. Surowiec (GCM Catalogue and website): "By early 1923 John Barrymore was at the zenith of his stage career. His Hamlet – legendary to this day – electrified audiences. Brilliant but erratic, he loved creating a role, but was quickly bored by repetition. On 10 February 1923, the morning after his emotional 101st performance broke Edwin Booth’s Broadway record for Hamlet, John sailed for Europe. Seven months later he returned, to start work in Hollywood."
"Signing him was a coup for the recently incorporated Warner Brothers, eager to add culture and prestige to their more popular product. Barrymore was hired for a one-picture deal, including script
and co-star approval, at a reported $100,000. His first Hollywood role would be Beau Brummel, created by the great stage star Richard Mansfield (1857-1907), in the 1890 success by Clyde Fitch (1865-1909). Warners, having bought the screen rights to the play from Mrs. Richard Mansfield, advertised it as a major production in their ambitious programme for 1923-24, promising massive sets, costly costumes, and meticulous period detail. The film would eventually cost $343,000."
"Welcomed in Los Angeles like royalty, Barrymore finally began work in the first week of October. Delays had meant that the intended director Sidney Franklin was replaced by the less gifted Harry
Beaumont. The film was shot quickly on account of John’s looming Hamlet commitments – in New York, on tour, and finally (early 1925) in London. He was a hard worker, but he was also a fast one, even though, true to form, he was at the same time having an affair with his beautiful young leading lady Mary Astor (she was 17, he 41). His insistence that she play the screen Beau’s great love, Lady Margery, ensured her future: she went on to co-star with him in Don Juan, though by that time he had met the great love of his life, Dolores Costello."
"Dorothy Farnum’s script for Brummel was crafted from the Fitch-Mansfield play and “historical data”. The real-life “Beau” Brummel (George Bryan Brummel, 1778-1840) was an English dandy whose exquisite fashions, manners, and wit won the friendship of the Prince Regent, the future George IV, and made him the social lion of London. His clothing set the fashion and promoted English tailoring. Yet living extravagantly beyond his means, and losing the royal favour thanks to his tart tongue, he eventually found himself ruined. He fled to France, was sent to a debtors’ prison, and ended in an asylum. What Brummel apparently never had – an omission corrected in both the play and film, for drama’s sake – was any kind of romance in his life, of either sex; as “the mirror of fashion” he was far too busy being self-centered. The Fitch-Mansfield play begins with the Beau already established as the darling of high society and confidant of the Prince of Wales. He is shown evading creditors by planning marriage to a young heiress, Mariana, with whom, however, he falls truly in love, only to nobly yield her to his nephew Reginald. Brummel’s consequent poverty, exile, and madness were dire, but provided a famously heartbreaking last scene of the bedraggled, crazed Beau entertaining imaginary guests."
"The film script completely discards the characters of Mariana and Reginald and introduces a new heroine, Lady Margery, whose enforced marriage to the rich Lord Alvanley breaks Brummel’s
heart and spurs him to rise to a position from which he can revenge himself upon her parents and society in general. The device of an unrequited romance motivates the Beau’s actions, stirs the audience’s emotions, and moreover elaborates the famous final “imaginary guests” scene to reunite the lovers in spirit via double exposure and superimposition. Farnum added or expanded characters and sequences: the officers’ dinner at the inn provides an effective and entertaining introduction to the Prince Regent – a scene-stealing performance by Willard Louis – as well as showing how the Beau becomes his confidant. Farnum also elaborates a scene only obliquely referred to in the play, when the Prince, now George IV, passes through Caen, where an ageing Brummel stands among the crowd. The fashions of 1923 also intervene in the film version: Carmel Myers is a self-styled “demi-vamp” as predatory Lady Hester Stanhope, in one scene sporting a harem outfit and turban, lounging on her divan in odalisque fashion."
"Farnum’s script was crafted first and foremost to showcase Barrymore as Great Lover, Great Profile, and also “America’s Greatest Living Actor”. The camera’s loving record of the famous profile and the glamour of the Beau combined with Barrymore’s nuanced acting are reflected in two unforgettable mirror sequences. In the first, Brummel in his glory examines himself in a full-length mirror and assesses his assets; in the second, years later, Brummel, shabby and ravaged by time, tries to wipe away the image of himself in a dusty glass. Archivist James Card wrote of Barrymore as “a living synthesis of Lord Byron and Dorian Gray”. As a lover of the gothic and macabre, the scene he obviously most enjoyed playing was as the old Brummel, broken, mad, in a frayed dressing gown, entertaining his imaginary guests. This is the Barrymore of Jekyll and Hyde, doubtless summoning the demons of his father’s own final years of madness; the Barrymore, too, who revelled in creating characterizations through make-up, posture, and gesture. John was fascinated by portraying man’s dual nature, and harboured elements of a dual personality himself. Handsome as he was, he perversely loved nothing better than to transform himself and “play ugly”, something continued in his next film, the Moby Dick adaptation The Sea Beast."
"The finished film was widely praised by highbrow critics for Barrymore’s artistry, the romance, the lavish sets and costumes, and the beautiful photography by David Abel. But the critics were not
unanimous. Variety described Beaumont’s direction as “not what it might have been”, and thought Barrymore’s brilliance came only in patches. The reviewer also pondered on the film’s fortunes in
America’s smaller towns, away from the great actor’s metropolitan fan base. The underlying problems – static delivery, shortage of action, too many long and medium shots, the narrative’s downbeat finale, having to imagine the repartee without Barrymore’s mellifluous vocal delivery – were further compounded by its length. According to Variety, its original 14 reels were cut down to 12, then to 10 for its presentation in New York. Barrymore strenuously protested against further reduction to 8 reels. For years the film has been known only in a 75-minute 16 mm Kodascope version. Pordenone audiences will however see the longest 35 mm version currently known, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York."
"Despite an enthusiastic preview in Los Angeles in January 1924, the film did not enjoy a gala premiere. By that time the star was back in Europe, and in New York Warners were locked into a block booking agreement with the Strand Theatre. Eventually it was released as a roadshow, without fanfare in March 1924. When it finally opened in New York, it was no longer news, and eclipsed by Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle and Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad. Nevertheless, Beau Brummel joined both films on the New York Times’ Ten Best List for 1924."
"Warners were satisfied enough to sign the maverick Barrymore to a contract for three more pictures, which would be The Sea Beast, Don Juan, and When a Man Loves. The terms were exceptionally
generous, and by April 1926, having once privately styled Hollywood as “Bridgeport with palms”, Barrymore could tell Motion Picture Classic: “The pictures are not inferior to the stage, they are
different … This mighty field is just beginning to be explored. The possibilities are limitless.” Critics who idolized his stage work accused him of selling out; but for Arthur Hopkins, who directed him in Hamlet, Hollywood’s lure for Barrymore wasn’t the money; it was the freedom from the daily grind, playing the same role night after night. Once a film performance was fixed on celluloid, the cinema projectors repeated it for you. This gave this most quixotic of the Barrymores a genuine feeling of creative freedom, to be used or abused as he chose. Had John Barrymore not gone to Hollywood, we would only be able to read about him as a great stage star of the past, and marvel at his looks in photographs. Thanks to his films, Beau Brummel included, we can still see him in action, displaying the famous profile, delving deep into his characters, electrifying with a gesture, and flashing his incandescent eyes." Catherine A. Surowiec
A longer, more detailed version of this note is available on the Giornate’s website.
AA: Beau Brummel is the most profound and moving John Barrymore vehicle I saw in the Barrymore retrospective in Pordenone. The director's touch is conventional and uninspired, but John Barrymore here finds the right voltage of projection. He seems a real and complex personality.
We can understand how an early wound turns him into the greatest dandy, cultivating his studied insolence. The mirror scene is an anthology piece. There is real wit, charm, and irony in his presence.
There is a poignant later parallel scene where the old Beau sees his reflection in a dirty mirror.
Like The Beloved Rogue, Beau Brummel is the story of "two kings", one an official monarch, the other a king of fools. Beau Brummel becomes the king of style and fashion, followed by all, including royalty.
Beau becomes the victim of his hubris. He treats the monarch like a servant. There is the last straw, and Beau falls out of grace.
Like certain great actors from Emil Jannings to Orson Welles, John Barrymore relishes in portraying his character at the height of his might and at the bottom of degradation, forgotten and disfigured. I am not a fan of Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which I however perhaps should not have failed to revisit in Pordenone. But here Barrymore's double role performance is shattering as the old, ruined, ugly Brummel who meets his old friends as ghosts at the madhouse.
An at times low contrast print of a magnificent production.
|John Barrymore and Mary Astor. Photos: Courtesy of the films stills collection at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Click to enlarge.|