I've sung the praises of the Warner Archive program before, and I'll be doing it again in this review. It is a great concept where the studio is able to sell genre and niche movies direct to the consumer on DVD-Rs. It's given fans a chance to own hard to track down movies that would never sell enough copies to justify a wide release. Case in point: 1926's Don Juan staring John Barrymore. Not only is it a very good movie, but it's historically important too: It was the first feature movie with a pre-recorded synchronized soundtrack. Made with the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system (Warner's had purchased the company the year before) this release was an important step along the road to talking pictures. In addition the disc includes six Vitaphone shorts that were created just for the film's release. Running nearly three hours all told, it's a fantastic package that reproduces what it was like to go to the movies nearly a century ago.
Don Juan (John Barrymore) was the only son of a wealthy Spanish aristocrat, Don Jose de Marana (also played by John Barrymore). As a child he witnesses his mother's betrayal of his father, taking a lover while he's away, and her banishment because of it as well as his father's assassination by a spurned lover. From these events he concludes that women are not to be trusted and only used for pleasure.
As an adult he travels to Rome where he has a wonderful time seducing all of the beautiful Montagu Love - Count Giano Donati the attention of Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor), her brother, Cesare (Warner Oland who is best remembers for playing Charlie Chan) and their partner Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love). The three of them rule
At the gathering things don't go as Lucrezia planned. First Juan seduces her maid (before he even gets into the castle) and then he falls for the gorgeous Adriana della Varnese (Mary Astor) once inside. Unfortunately Count Donati has also set his eyes on the fair Adriana. He plans to marry her and then kill her father so that he'll inherit the elder Duke's fortune. And since Donati is the best swordsman in
For their first Vitaphone feature, the brothers Warner wanted a top-notch film to draw in the crowds. For the leading man they selected John Barrymore who gained fame for his portrayals of Richard III and Hamlet on Broadway. They had recently signed the actor and paid a premium to have him in their stable.
For the music accompaniment they hired the 107-piece New York Philharmonic Orchestra to record the score. The Vitaphone audio engineer George Groves, insisted on using an unheard of six microphones to record the performance, and then mixed the feeds live. The engineers working with him from Victor though he was crazy... they suggested just hanging a single microphone above the orchestra.
The also created a slate of opening shorts to run before the feature, all showcasing the Vitaphone sound system. These were classical music and opera selections from big names in the music world, and it was all stated off with a filmed introduction of Will Hayes, President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and future enforcer of the infamous Hays Code, talking and welcoming the audience to the special event.
The Warners managed to create a wonderful feature too. This is an incredibly fun movie filled with action, humor, adventure, and some great drama. It's fairly amazing how they were able to fit so much into the film without it turning into a jumbled mess. At the beginning there's a very tense and suspenseful scene where Don Jose orders that a hole in a wall be bricked up, knowing that he will be sealing his wife's lover in, while she watches. There's several very funny segments too, including Don Juan having to juggle three lovers who all show up within moments of each other, followed by the husband of one of his conquests. The way that Juan gets out of that scrape was both hilarious and ingenious. The sword fight at the end is harrowing and well filmed, and watching Barrymore scamper up the sides of buildings to reach a woman's bedroom is very reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks. When all is said and done, this is an excellent movie.
This film paved the way for talking pictures. Audiences loved the added dimension of sound and this release proved that there was a market for movies that could speak. It was only a couple of years later that Warners would change the face of
This film and the copious shorts arrive on a single DVD-R in a keepcase.
The audio is limited to the technology of the time... but it still sounds pretty good. The sound track was recorded on soft wax discs that were 16" in diameter and an inch thick, which turned at 33 1/3 RPM, much slower than the standard 78 RPM at the time. The reduced speed was so that the length of the records would match the running time of a reel of film, and the upshot was that the signal was compressed into a smaller space. Not only that, but the recording wore out quickly. Each disc could only be played 20 times before it had to be retired. Even so the sound is very decent. The score, preformed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, comes through well and adds a lot to the film. There is some surface noise in the background but I soon got used to that. The audio effects, a knock on a door and the clang of swords during the duel near the end, are strong and clear. I'm sure this disc accurately reproduces what audiences heard on the initial release.
The picture looks very good for an unrestored film that's nearly 90 years old. There is some dirt and spots, but that's a minor problem. The contrast is excellent and the level of detail and image clarity is very good too.
Usually Warner Archive titles are bare-bones releases but they went all out for this movie. Included on the disc are the six Vitaphone shorts that accompanied the movie on its premier. These are:
It's interesting to note that the staples of the many Vitaphone shorts that would soon be produced, vaudeville acts, jazz combos, and popular songs, aren't included here. This was high brow entertainment for the elite.
Including these is was an excellent choice. It really adds a lot to have the whole package, reproducing the gala opening in
This is an excellent film and a great package. The inclusion of the six shorts that were originally show with Don Juan is a great bonus and makes this a must-buy disc. Highly Recommended.