Now on demand from Warner Archive are two chances to evaluate John Barrymore, once hailed as a great actor if sometimes a problematic professional. He was called “the Great Profile” for his acquiline proboscis, and continually posed himself in a manner to not let the audience forget it.
In the pre-code drama The Mad Genius, Barrymore’s style is what today looks like high camp as he stumps around the space, raising his caped shoulders and snarling with a single raised eyebrow. It’s a type of “great acting” that hasn’t worn well (except that it looks fun). This vehicle directly followed Svengali and exploits similar themes of an overbearing impressario who controls every aspect of his apprentice’s artistic and sexual life. In the previous film, he mentored a female singer. In The Mad Genius, it’s a male dancer, now allowing a displaced bisexual triangle in which he encourages the boy to sleep around and tell him the details.
It begins with Barrymore as Tsarakov, a literal puppetmaster running a two-bit marionette show in Russia. Then he spots an abused boy (Frankie Darro) running from his whip-wielding father (Boris Karloff!). He conceals the lad and decides to mold him into the great dancer Tsarakov, with his club foot, could never be. To twist his backstory further, Tsarakov was abandoned by his ballerina mother who had him out of wedlock with a royal lover.
Fast-forward to Tsarakov as the successful owner of a dance troupe in Berlin. The dance director (Luis Alberni) is a coke addict whose stuff is supplied by Tsarakov. The sniffs are taken in shadowed silhouette. Michael Curtiz’s direction is even more shadow-happy than usual for him; huge shadows are cast along the walls in every scene. This is possible because, as in Svengali, Anton Grot provides the imposing, ceiling-ed sets; even a poor couple’s garret has acres of space.
Pretty-boy Donald Cook plays the grown-up dancer, Fedor, obviously with a dance double. Marian Marsh, the heroine of Svengali, is his winsome love and lead ballerina until Tsarakov gets wind of it and makes their life hell. Posters identify the troupe as the Ballet Russe, which means we’re supposed to read this as a bizarre retelling of Diaghilev and Nijinksky, who were lovers. Charles Butterworth is John’s comic-relief partner and has one hilarious monologue describing his idea for a Spanish ballet; he also gets the final quiet close-up as the only mourner after the hellish climax. This physically impressive, campy melodrama runs only 80 minutes, and there’s a trailer trumpeting Barrymore’s “amazing” thespic skills.
The Great Man Votes (1939)
Barrymore plays another out-sized figure in The Great Man Votes, this time a comedy in which his character of Gregory Vance is supposed to be funny (and is) with unexpected flashes of feeling as he considers how his descent into alcoholism trashed his prominent academic career after his wife’s death. This element riffs on the actor’s own reputation.
Vance lives in 1923 New York with two precocious children, delightfully played as endearing wise guys by Virginia Weidlin and Peter Holden. One of Vance’s chums is played by Luis Alberni, the coke-sniffing maniac from The Mad Genius, here on the other side of dispensing illegal substances as the “milkman” who delivers bootleg hooch. Although Vance loses his sinecure as the bootleggers’ “night watchman” after his kids fight the arrogant son of the local ward boss (Donald MacBride), a deliberately absurd plot twist finds Vance in sole possession of the deciding 13th precinct vote in the mayor’s re-election campaign; the question is how he will use this to his advantage.
If this 1939 film had been made only a few years later and were a bit louder and more frantic, we’d swear it was a Preston Sturges movie. It’s got his sense of fateful whimsy, his gift for giving wonderful dialogue to all characters (both major and minor), and even William Demarest shouting the plot along as a political consultant. Sturges’ jaundiced eye for political machinery, showcased in The Great McGinty, is here too; as is often the case, the particular party isn’t identified, but the movie implies that it doesn’t matter.
The mastermind here is the great comic writer-director Garson Kanin in the same year he made the equally sparkling Bachelor Mother. The script is credited to John Twist, although a look at his other credits implies that this script’s personality owes more to Kanin’s contributions, as derived from a short story by Gordon Malherbe Hillman. The whole thing is charming and hilarious and, unlike The Mad Genius, doesn’t feel dated at all. The print could do with a restoration, and the only extra is the trailer.