DON JUAN – 85th Anniversary of World Premiere – August 6, 1926

The Dawn of Sound Films arrived, oddly enough, with a silent film on the evening of August 6, 1926, in New York City at the Warner Theater. Musical accompaniment was provided by the 107 members of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra – via recording heard over the theater’s public address system. But a series of short films preceded the main feature in which various performers from the opera, theater, and vaudville spoke, sang, and played instruments. The main feature was DON JUAN, starring a real-life Don Juan – John Barrymore, who had just taken two continents by storm with his modernized version of HAMLET on the stage. The Great Profile, as Barrymore was nicknamed, spoke not an audible word but the audience was captivated by the unerring synchronization of music and action (plus a few sound effects like church bells) through a system called Vitaphone. Nobody suspected it on that night, but the tolling of those church bells turned out to be a funeral dirge for silent film (a beautiful artform, by the way):

It comes as a surprise to 21st century audiences that DON JUAN is one of the best swashbuckler action films EVER – quite apart from its position in film history. In case you’re wondering, DON JUAN can be seen on Turner Classic Movies several times a year and Warners Archives recently issued this film on dvd with all of the Vitaphone shorts from the program on that August 6th, 85 years ago:

In Germany, this film was known as Don Juan – Der gro├če Liebhaber, and here is the complete German souvenir program as restored by your blogmeister (from a bile green back to cool blue):


Montagu Love, seen below on the upper left, played the villain Count Donati. Love specialized in screen villainy and continued his nefarious schemes well into the sound era as the corrupt Bishop of the Black Cannons in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938) and King Phillip of Spain in THE SEA HAWK (1940), among many other films:

Count Donati was a fictional villain but DON JUAN also featured two historical villains that made Donati look almost like a good guy – Cesare and Lucretia Borgia. Estelle Taylor on the left below played Lucretia and at the time was the wife of boxing champ Jack Dempsey. Warner Oland on the right below played Cesare Borgia but his most enduring role was ahead in the 1930s starring in the popular Charlie Chan detective films:

The film was climaxed by a rousing sword duel between Don Juan and Count Donati. But instead of providing the film’s ending as all Errol Flynn fans would later expect, the sword fight triggers a series of action sequences that have never been equaled these many years:


The back cover of the souvenir program features this rather seductive portrait of Mary Astor, the film’s heroine. Astor and Barrymore had enjoyed, uh, a relationship prior to making DON JUAN that had ended some time earlier. Their pairing in this film proved awkward for both of them. They would not be reteamed until 1939 in the classic romantic comedy, MIDNIGHT – but that’s another story:

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