Without John Sidney Blyth Barrymore, we wouldn’t have the lovely & talented Drew Barrymore (his granddaughter), nor would we likely have many of the films we have today.
While many ascribe the arrival of the the talkies to The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length film with synchronized sound was Don Juan (1926), a Warner Brother’s production starring John Barrymore as the legendary lothario. (In which Barrymore set a record of 191 kisses in one film production!)
The film wasn’t officially a talkie; it featured no dialog, but via Vitaphone (technology invented by George Robert Groves now owned by the studio) music and sound effects were synchronized to the film’s action.
The New York City premiere of Don Juan was also used by Warner Bros. as the premiere for the new Vitaphone technology, the Vitaphone Prelude, where the technology was presented with various demonstrations — including performances of the New York Philharmonic (they had done the music for the film) and six Vitaphone shorts. Despite the film’s erotic subject and nature, the premiere in New York City had a welcoming speech from Will H. Hays, the censor behind the Production Code.
Much was riding on this film. Sam Warner was a rare and nearly lone voice in Hollywood who stood in support of Vitaphone and talking films in general. His arguments for the use of musical soundtracks really only won for practical business reasons, not for the art of film making, as explained by George Groves tribute website:
It was considered as a cost-effective means of replacing the large symphony orchestras which played in the more luxurious theatres. Plus the masses in the flea-pits who only had a pianist or organist could now enjoy a full orchestral accompaniment to their films. Because of Vitaphone, uniformly good presentations could be made wherever a film was shown.
On September 3rd 1926, less than a month after Don Juan premiered, Jack Warner was quoted as saying that talking films would never be successful because they “…fail to take into account the international language of the silent pictures and the unconscious share of each onlooker in creating…the imagined dialogue for himself.”
But quickly he and the studio would change their minds.
Don Juan had tremendous box office draw, so even though it didn’t recoup all the money put into the film, Warner Brothers saw its success and invested once again in Vitaphone and director Alan Crosland, with The Jazz Singer — a film which would set box office records.
It’s fair to say the novelty of sound synchronized with moving pictures gave Don Juan a huge box office push; but no one should discount the effects of the talented John Barrymore.
Watching the film again last night (on TCM’s Sunday Silents), it’s easy to see Barrymore as charismatic as Don Juan himself. Barrymore is charming & captivating acting in both the betrayed aging father & the bitterly indoctrinated son roles. He performed all his own swashbuckling stunts too.
But it’s his performance in the titular role as the hurt man hiding his wounds behind the mask of handsome heartless rogue which reaches across the decades to pull at this woman’s heart.
No small feat as the actor was reportedly unhappy with playing such “pansy parts” as this romantic role… Yet there he is, the swashbuckling & romantic hero — oh-so swoon-able!
The Jazz Singer may get most of the credit for the technological film advance of sound, but I’m a firm believer that without John Barrymore’s Don Juan, Sam Warner would have lost his battles for sound and Warner Bros. may have taken a very different path. So thanks, John.