By Dean Thompson

Produced by Warner Brothers
Directed by Harry Beaumont
Cast: John Barrymore (George Bryan Brummel), Mary Astory (Lady Margery Alvaney), Willard Louis (Prince of Wales), Carmel Myers (Lady Hester Stanhope), Irene Rich (Frederica Charlotte, Duchess of York), Alec B. Francis (Mortimer), William Humphreys (Lord Alvaney), Richard Tucker (Lord Stanhope), Andre de Beranger (Lord Byron), James A. Marcus (innkeeper), Betty Brice (innkeeper's wife)

The opening intertitles of Harry Beaumont's Beau Brummel (1924), starring John Barrymore, may give one pause-at least they did me:

Nowhere in all history can be found a more amazing character than George Bryan Brummel, the friend of Princes, the arbiter of fashion, and the social ruler of England during the reign of George III.

And nowhere in all fiction can be found more romance than was crowded into the life of this penniless commoner, whose natural charm and studied insolence made him the greatest dandy of all time-the immortal "Beau" Brummel.

Tall orders, these. So straight to Wikipedia one goes for confirmation, only to be surprised by a certain veracity to these titles: if Brummel was neither the most amazing character in all history nor the greatest lothario, he was indeed a friend of Princes, an arbiter of fashion, and social ruler of Regency England. Perhaps he was the greatest dandy of all time. If not immortal, the Beau certainly was an icon in his own fashion.

And therein lies a problem with this film, taken from an 1890 four-act drama by Clyde Fitch, performed on Broadway (and later revived several times) by the eminent Shakespearean actor Richard Mansfield. Both the play and Mansfield's performance (which Barrymore may well have seen) became stuff of theatrical legend, so much so that when the fledgling Warner Brothers bought the rights to the drama in 1923 in attempting to establish themselves as Hollywood front runners, they poured their coffers and manpower into gilding this lily, hiring Barrymore (himself already the stuff of theatrical legend) for star wattage.

The staid, cautious result, conscientiously quoting the best-known lines from Fitch's script, isn't gilded as much as it's encrusted with reverence, respect, care-you get the idea. One thinks of Gavin Lambert's summation of George Cukor's overblown 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet for MGM: "[T]oo inhibited by the concept at the time of 'cultural prestige' more concerned with [being] a classic than [finding] the essence of a classic." Exactly. In her magisterial The House of Barrymore, for my money the finest theatrical biography ever penned, Margot Peters says that Beau Brummel is "static, with little action between endless dinners and parties." And drawing rooms. And bedrooms. And whatever else fits between proscenium arches, within which our actors enter, stand and deliver, and leave. The lighting, makeup, and staging are all rather flat. We have a filmed stage play, but we don't have a movie.

We don't have crumbs, either, for there's often reason enough to feast. The print offered by Warner Archive Collection is of mostly splendid quality, with a broad range of greytones-sharp enough, in fact, that background mattes sometimes appear more painted on than filmgoers of the time must have discerned (but the same is true of the blu-ray of Gone With the Wind, and who's complaining?). Better still, there's a beautiful orchestral score composed by James Schafer for the 2008 TCM premiere of the film, whisking along the more stately scenes, shoring up the sentiment during the romantic interludes, and unobtrusively tugging the heartstrings during Brummel's exile and pathetic last days. Every silent should be so graced.

And there's a plethora of fine performances. Willard Louis's corpulent Prince of Wales, whose favor Brummel courts and eventually loses, is downright kaleidoscopic: foolish, smarmy, mercurial, and (once in a great while) majestic, he's a most effective foil to Barrymore's impeccably maintained ironic detachment. If you know Carmel Myers only through her pallid Iras in Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ, you'll be surprised by her lush sensuality as Lady Hester Stanhope, another temptress: here is what Iras might have been, were not the vamping sequence in Ben-Hur the weakest in that film. If you know Irene Rich through her Mrs. Erlynne in Lubitsch's adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan (and you should), you won't be surprised at all by her subtle Duchess of York: she barely moves, yet she speaks volumes. Watch her when she tells Brummel that he's throwing his life away, her eyes alone conveying both inducement and censure in equal measure. This is fine acting.

I knew Alec B. Francis only from a handful of other performances, but as Mortimer, Brummel's devoted valet, he's a revelation: near the end of the film, his pity for the wasted, maddened Brummel brings tears to the eyes. There, he and Barrymore truly connect on an equal plane of great acting. And George Andre Beranger. Oh, that Beranger. If Webmaster Tim would let me put a smiley face here, I'd do it. Beranger's portrayal of the Romantic poet Lord Byron is pale (it's admittedly a nothing role), yet the moment you see his first scene with Barrymore, you remember what he pulled off a year later in Mal St. Clair's delightful Are Parents People? As the lecherous and narcissistic matinee idol Maurice Mansfield, he gives the wickedest, funniest, most devastatingly accurate satire of the Barrymore persona you've ever seen. I remember the screening of Are Parents People? at Cinevent in 2001. A few seconds after Beranger's entrance as Mansfield, there were gasps of recognition before the howls began. And I do mean howls: his faux Barrymore is simply priceless.

But this digression leads to what's now an uncanny part of watching Beau Brummel: its emotional resonance for aficionados of film history. The biographical knowledge and hindsight that we bring to older cinematic works can lift our viewing experience from the ordinary to the profoundly moving. In The Whales of August (1987), Lillian Gish's final film, there's a simple and beautiful scene in which Gish, seated before a mirror, pins up her waist-length hair and powders her face; it's impossible to watch this moment without thinking of her readying herself for the cameras for D. W. Griffith three-quarters of a century earlier. You're likely thinking of other such moments: Spencer Tracy's final speech in Katharine Hepburn's presence in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, say, or John Wayne's doorway tribute to his departed mentor Harry Carey at the end of John Ford's The Searchers.

We know from Peters' biography and Mary Astor's memoir A Life on Film (in its own way nearly as fine as the Peters) that Astor and Barrymore fell in love during the making of Beau Brummel; there is reason to believe, based on Astor's book and recent interviews with Astor's daughter, that Barrymore was in fact the love of Astor's life. Their affair likely was only emotional, given her father's interference, but it was hardly less thunderous for all that. Not only did Barrymore's magnetism and charm sweep the seventeen-year-old off her feet, but he also spent months teaching her acting fundamentals and especially elocution, producing her sable voice that enabled her to vault the transition to talkies a few years later. The lessons obviously took: the role of Lady Margery Alvanley is quite one dimensional, yet Astor brings to it not just her considerable beauty, but an intelligence and especially stillness (she always seems to have underplayed) that remained touchstones of her performances for more than forty years. (Her passionate yet poised Edith Cortwright in William Wyler's Dodsworth, made twelve years later, is the finest thing in an already outstanding film.) And her feeling for Barrymore is palpable. There's nothing like the smoldering sensuality that Greta Garbo and John Gilbert's affair brought to their scenes in Clarence Brown's Flesh and the Devil; Astor did many things, but she didn't smolder. She did something better. Note how Barrymore pitches their early scenes together to her; Astor's close-ups are stunning, her large and dark eyes pools of longing and devotion. I'm not sure that she ever again showed such emotional vulnerability in another film.

We've noted the opening intertitle alluding to Brummel's studied insolence, and I've mentioned the ironic detachment that Barrymore brings to the part. One initially wonders if this role, too, is in danger of remaining in a single dimension. Barrymore poses, wears his costumes as only Brummel could, and relentlessly keeps that chiseled profile front and center. (Was it Heywood Broun who said Barrymore edged into the frame like an exquisite paper knife? Something like that. Makeup cannot hide his looking haggard in some scenes, however: the fast life clearly was taking its toll.) But watch his initial parting from Astor, when she is taken away to wed another man. She throws Barrymore a rose, which he presses to his lips as his eyes fill with tears. All right, it's melodramatic; it's also so direct and lump-in-the-throat that it catches one off guard. I keep returning to eyes, I know; but in this grandiose, expansive film, the players' eyes are what rivet the viewer, as they do in so many silents. Barrymore's best moments during the first three-quarters of Brummel, in truth, are those when he drops the mask of fastidiousness, his eyes revealing the loneliness and pained self-knowledge of an eternal dilettante.

Which brings us to the last fifteen minutes of the film, when the penniless Brummel is living in disgrace in Calais. After decades of separation, Barrymore and Astor are reunited (never mind why-you know how deus ex machinas work). Now a middle-aged widow, she asks him to marry her. Filled with longing, self-loathing, and loving sacrifice, he gently pats her away: it's too late, and he must play out his tragedy. I can't even begin to do justice to the immediacy of this scene, when the staginess and artifice of the film fall away to reveal the human heart in conflict with itself. One doesn't regret a single minute of slogging through earlier parts of the film to reach this sublime moment of truth. The compassion on Astor's face is grace enough, but here Barrymore shows fully why his name is magic even now.

One wonders what stygian depths Barrymore plumbed during this scene, if only because of an inexorably moving passage in A Life on Film, in which Astor recounts her meeting with Barrymore fifteen years later, when they acted together in Mitchell Leisen's Midnight. Barrymore, ill and old beyond his years, was "vague and quiet," as Astor notes:

I played his wife in the picture and we had a few scenes together. It was all very strange. He hardly spoke to me off the set-politely, impersonally. Once we were sitting off-camera in the usual canvas chairs waiting to be called. Saying nothing. I reached over and touched his hand, gently, because I was remembering another time, so very long ago. He snatched his hand away as though it had been burned and he glared at me and said, "Don't." Tears came weakly to his eyes and he fisted them away and laughed and said, "My wife-ah-Miss Barrie-is very jealous."

I saw him only once again. A few years when he was doing a weekly radio show in which he permitted Rudy Vallee to make a clown of him. I was doing something that immediately followed his show. I was on the second floor of the building where the dressing rooms were. A long bleak fluorescent lighted hall: There was no one else around and I saw him walking alone down the hall ahead of me. I wanted to catch up and say hello, but I didn't. He had stopped, like someone who just couldn't walk another step; he leaned against the wall in sheer fatigue, his body sagged. It was no time to intrude, so I retraced my steps. I couldn't help thinking: Where was everybody? Where were the valets, the little train of admiring hangers-on, the designers with drawings to be approved, secretaries with a sheaf of letters to be signed? I hated all the Barrymore jokes-the sick ones, the dirty ones. I hated the people who said, "I was with Jack at a bar one night" ready to recount a wild story. This was a giant of a man, one of the few greats of our time. He was a man with enormous dignity, and he never lost it. He occasionally threw it away-for his own reasons. But that was his business. And now, in that long bleak hall, I saw a man who was catching his breath before doing battle, and quite a battle it was, with death.

One hesitates to reference this passage to the final scenes of Beau Brummel: there's always the danger of overanalysis. Yet Peters' biography makes clear that Barrymore's alcoholism was already quite pronounced in the early twenties (he admitted to a friend that he drank because "it helps me not to worry so much") and that he was struggling with memory lapses. Too, there seems to have been in this extraordinarily sensitive man an unusual degree of self-contempt, especially after he abandoned the stage for movies and a life that eventually became a nationwide joke. In The Stars, Richard Schickel sees his life in Sophoclean terms: "One thing is certain: never has our insistence on seizing hold of one aspect of a man's character and creating from it an immutable screen personality had more tragic results. Barrymore [was] a talented man forced into one of the most devastating self-exposures in the history of an art based on the display of the self."

There's finally the question, then, of the power behind the concluding reel of Beau Brummel: are we witnessing great acting, or a man's shedding his mask and confronting the fears, insecurities, and demons within? One thinks here of Emily Dickinson:

One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

Far safer, of a midnight meeting
External ghost,
Than an interior confronting
The whiter host.

It's impossible to know, from the distance of nearly ninety years, what Barrymore sought within when the camera rolled for these scenes; what's left-rather, imprinted on the film-is astonishing, one of those suspended and privileged moments that we moviegoers hope for. The name had magic because of the bounty of talent. The magic is there still.

Copyright 2013 by Dean Thompson. All rights reserved

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