Sunday 3 February 2008

Beau Brummel (1924)

During the reign of George III lived the man who has been called the greatest dandy of all time, Beau Brummell. While not born to wealth or status, under the protection of the Prince of Wales, he lived as if he had been and became the arbiter of all taste in the regency era. He introduced many costume conventions that still resonate down to us today, most notably the suit and tie. This screen adaptation of his life, bizarrely changes the spelling of his surname and turns the whole dandyism concept into a game, played in revenge against an entire social class.

We begin with the reason with this revenge. It's 1795 and the greatest personages of the era are gathered together for the wedding of a trademan's daughter. They're there for the bridegroom, Lord Alvanley, Colonel of the Tenth Hussars, a man with position and status. The bride to be, however, would rather she wasn't there. She loves another, namely a captain in Alvanley's regiment, George Bryan Brummel, who is a 'man of no importance' so of course he doesn't win the girl. Bitter for revenge, he manages to manoeuvre himself into the graces of the Prince of Wales by virtue of blind cheek and insolence.

Soon he's firmly established in a London residence from which he sets the fashions and trends that everyone else follows, leaving the Prince of Wales to foot the bill. However he still has plenty to juggle: women falling for him, husbands being jealous of him, the capriciousness of the Prince of Wales and his potential replacement, the Duchess of York. Floating behind all this intrigue is his love, now Lady Margery Alvanley.

Brummell, erm Brummel, is John Barrymore, one of the great Barrymore dynasty and one of the biggest names in acting, whether on stage or screen. In fact in many ways it was the Barrymores who helped legitimise screen acting at a time when it was regarded as a lesser companion to the real work being done on the stage. He was known as the Great Profile and indeed the film opens with a portrait of him in profile. He was a young 42 at the time though his leading lady, Mary Astor as Lady Margery, was yet to turn 18.

She looks awesome here: young, beautiful and with highly expressive doe eyes and striking eyebrows. Her facial antics could easily be seen as overacting to a modern palate but it's really superb silent film technique that maybe becomes a little enthusiastic on occasion. It really highlights why she was so important in the silent era and why she would be back playing opposite Barrymore two years later in Don Juan.

It's the earliest I've seen her, though I've seen Barrymore earlier in his notable version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1920. It's a notable downside that she has so little screen time here. Given the melodrama of the story, the pair of them are by far the best reason to watch this. For his part, Barrymore is believable as the dandy Beau Brummell but far better in his later years in a French asylum, where he died insane from syphilis, not that that was specifically mentioned in our movie, naturally! Barrymore was always great at these twisted characters, which is why he was so memorable in things like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Svengali.

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