(American, 1926, 126 minutes, b&w, 16mm)
following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers
Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies
at Pennsylvania State University:
Sound was a foregone conclusion. The real question for producers was, how to make it happen? The Warner brothers invested a good deal of money in the Vitaphone process, which used an extremely cumbersome sound-on-disk device. The William Fox interests had control over the Photophone process, in which the soundtrack was printed directly on the film. In both cases, theaters would have to be extensively rewired, at huge inconvenience and cost to someone. (Eventually, costs were borne by both the producers and the theater owners.)
The Warner brothers set out to make sound so newsworthy and so irresistible to movie patrons that theater owners would have to add the expensive technology. But what, exactly, did audiences want to hear?
The Warner brothers bet that they knew. The Warners—Al, Harry, Jack, and Sam—were part of a family of twelve children of Russian Jewish immigrants. They had been in the industry since their hardscrabble nickelodeon days in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. The Warners believed that their critical audience was an urban one, composed of millions of lower middle class, ethnic working people and their families. These were America’s great strivers; their families had come to the United States seeking a better life, and their energy in finding that life was unflagging. These audiences, believed the Warners, wanted access to high culture, for, in America, if a poor man could go from being a subway motorman or a steelworker to being a millionaire, was he also not entitled to the same diversions as the rich? And what if such entertainments could be had for the price of a movie ticket?
So the Warners set out to endear their new sound apparatus to the movie-going millions. They would produce part-sound features, including IN OLD SAN FRANCISCO, but as a setting for these films, they had in mind a presentation that showed off not merely the fidelity, but the elegance, of their new technology. At their New York Vitaphone studios, Warners shot several "short subjects" with sound. When DON JUAN opened at the Warner Theater in the Times Square district on August 5, 1926, the brothers Warners had put together a lavish program to precede the film: The New York Philharmonic playing Tannhauser, Jascha Heifetz playing Dvorak’s "Humoresque," opera singer Marion Tally performing an aria from Rigoletto, violinist Efrem Zimbalist playing the Kreutzer Sonata, and another opera star, Giovanni Martinelli, singing "Vesti la Giubba" from Pagliacci. The program ended with real fireworks: singer Anna Case with the dancing Cansinos performing in the background, the whole thing accompanied by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Herman Heller’s Orchestra. Nowhere on the bill was to be found the raucous comedy of vaudeville and the low-rent sentimental ballads and jazz rags of Tin Pan Alley. This was music for the tuxedo-and-pearls crowd, music for ‘real’ Americans—Americans who had arrived.
After a short speech from the screen by Will Hays, the director of the movies’ trade organization, the evening’s feature began. DON JUAN was allegedly based on the long poem by Lord Byron, whose name on the screen gave the evening its last great imprimatur of importance. DON JUAN starred John Barrymore, and in the 1920s, he was high culture’s handsome, sonorous protagonist.
John Barrymore was the scion of the nation’s only real theatrical dynasty. He had played Richard III in 1920, and Hamlet in 1922, and his fiery interpretations of Shakespeare were matched by success in comedies and dramas like "The Affairs of Anatole," "Peter Ibbetson," and "Redemption." Barrymore toured the provinces regularly, and had been on the screen since 1913, but he arrived on the screen in DON JUAN with all the cachet of first-run live theater. To the audiences of the big cities that also got a chance to see DON JUAN, Barrymore triumphantly brought Broadway to Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, and points west.
The film was largely the creation of screenwriter Bess Meredyth, who retooled the story considerably to fit Barrymore’s virile screen personality. (A Warner’s publicist claimed that Barrymore, in the dual role of "Don Juan" and "Don Jose" was on one end of 191 kisses during the picture.) In every respect, however, DON JUAN was a prestige production. Ben Carre’s sets were as handsome as Barrymore, the cast was first-rate, and Byron Haskin’s cinematography subtle and stylish. The sound that accompanied segments of the film was recorded on disc by the New York Philharmonic, and the film’s action scenes were as fluid and suspenseful as anything the movies had seen.
Romance, action, music. DON JUAN had everything audiences wanted, and now, they wanted more, just as the Warner brothers had hoped. THE JAZZ SINGER, directed by DON JUAN’s Alan Crosland, was just around the corner, and dozens more Vitaphone shorts followed. Eventually, sound technology was standardized. (The version of DON JUAN you see tonight has its sound sequences printed directly on the film itself.) But DON JUAN remains a brilliant hybrid, with all the wordless grace of the silent screen, and the power of amplified sound.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.