Monday 22 January 2007

When a Man Loves (1927) Alan Crosland

This one ought to be a pretty realistic love story, given that the two leads, John Barrymore and Dolores Costello were busy falling in love when making it. Their son, John Drew Barrymore, is the father of today's star Drew Barrymore, making this a major entry in her family history. It also reteams Barrymore with director Alan Crosland, a year after they made Don Juan together, the first film to synchronise sound with speech, and which was notable for the number of kisses in the movie and for Barrymore's outrageous trousers which left precisely nothing to the imagination.

We're in Amiens, a French town during the reign of Louis XV. Dolores Costello's character is really the lead, because she plays Manon Lescaut, whose name was given to the many ballets and operas based on the original source novel. Manon is a young lady who thinks she's about to go into a convent, but who is really being sold by her greedy brother to some lech from Paris who looks like a scary version of Robin Williams. Meanwhile, the Chevalier Fabien des Grieux, played by John Barrymore, is joining the priesthood. Regardless of their circumstances, the two see each other and obviously fall in love at first sight. As the Chevalier has overheard her brother's plans, he leaps up to her balcony to rescue her. The church is forgotten and they run off to Paris together.

The Chevalier is a little effete and Manon a little useless, as befits the fashions of the times, both the period in which the story was set and the time at which it was made, and needless to say they don't manage to stay together for long. Manon is manipulated away by her brother, played by a twisted Warner Oland, after Don Juan and Tell It to the Marines but before Old San Francisco, The Jazz Singer and lasting fame as Dr Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. They're almost reunited but not quite, and the Chevalier, left with only her kitten for company, must search on. Anyway, they find each other, lose each other, find each other... you can picture the rest.

The film is well done but its fundamental problem is that, a couple of scenes notwithstanding, it's hard to root for Fabien and Manon. It's not how they're played, rather who they are. They were sympathetic for the first twenty minutes but then I began to feel that they deserved all they got, all the way to the end. Sure, they're not despicable like the Comte de Morfontaine, but they ceased to be people I cared about. By the tail end of the movie I was far more interested in catching a glimpse of Myrna Loy as the prisoner behind Manon on her way to deportation. I wonder what Drew thought.

Incidentally the last fifteen or so minutes seems like an entirely different movie. We're on a prison boat bound for Louisiana and suddenly we're out of the period romance and into a pulp swashbuckler. Barrymore demonstrates that he's fully up to any challenge laid down by a Douglas Fairbanks Sr, clad in tattered clothing but leaping around inside cages gesticulating wildly, exhorting his fellows to break out and escaping to save his girl. If only the whole movie could have been a pulp swashbuckler!

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