Figuring out what side of the Russian Revolution to root for twisted Hollywood story conventions into knots. The old ruling class had the manners, the balls, the clothes & the palaces, but they were the bad guys; right? Ipso facto, the unwashed proletariat, those revolting communists were the good guys; da? In theory, the strain of figuring out where our ideas & ideals might fit into the Soviet social equation could have heightened the drama, but the favored stories tended to fudge the issues, running from complications of class & ideology. Literally so here, as John Barrymore’s commoner gets a rare officer’s commission, but finds no welcome from his ‘betters’ in his new station. Worse, he falls hard for the Commandant’s haughty daughter, a chilly Camilla Horn, bringing disgrace on all sides. Stuck in solitary as WWI plays out, he reemerges to a New World Order where peasants rule and the old guard face mass executions. That’s when he spots Horn, still beloved, amongst the condemned. The story never quite takes off, Barrymore & Horn would generate more heat under Ernst Lubitsch in their next collaboration, ETERNAL LOVE/’29. Fortunately, the film has more than enough style to make up for it. Sam Taylor helms with plenty of pace, but the real stand out efforts come from William Cameron Menzies art direction, Charles Rosher’s stunning cinematography (he does wonders for the 45 yr-old Barrymore) and from the tasty perfs of the mostly male cast. There’s great support on the left from Boris de Fast’s proto-revolutionary, on the right from Ullrich Haupt’s cruelly sadistic Captain and below from Louis Wolheim as Barrymore’s unlikely BFF, the real love match in the pic.
DOUBLE-BILL: In THE LAST COMMAND/’28, Josef von Sternberg used similar story elements, along with Emil Jannings, William Powell & Evelyn Brent, to create a masterpiece.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: A famous Barrymore story has him betting a cameraman that he could well up in both eyes and then produce one perfect tear right on cue. This must be the film. Look closely as he’s being degraded from Officer to Private. Collecting on the bet, Barrymore refused all kudos on his acting. ‘That’s not acting, you fool. That’s crying.’ And he knew the difference. Watch him in the films he made after the one-two punch of playing off Garbo & Kate Hepburn in 1932 . . . and over the next two years until his memory began to give out in 1935. That's acting.