October 19, 2013

The Greatness of Audacity

In answer to the question: What is the greatest American movie performance of the early sound era? Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) or Scarface (1932)? Chaplin in City Lights (1931)? Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)? Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933) or the barely remembered Emma (1932)?

Mesmerizer. Jack Barrymore
John Barrymore (Broadway's Orson Welles) in Svengali (1931) unpacks theatrical traditions and his own sly, self-referential archness into a variety of grand gestures—the sing-song accents, interrogative upturns, and squeaky upper registers of the Eastern European Jew; the static postures and bearing of the angular nobles in the Eisenstein historical epics (Barrymore is made up to resemble Nikolay Cherkasov in Ivan the Terrible); and the tortured self-doubts and sadism of the Shakespearean villains. Barrymore is so audacious that all these styles blend seamlessly—he gets to the essence of the art of acting: creating a character that is both lifelike and larger than life. When his great death scene occurs, you're ready to go to the grave with him because you're sure he's going to spring uncannily back to life. And the special effects in the mesmerism scenes have sensual heat: Svengali's eyes glow like molten metal.

Watching John Barrymore spellbind in Svengali is like watching a fabled stage performance from some long-lost age of theater. He stalks the floorboards in high-heeled boots and overcoat, as gaunt as a vampire. But his voice and mien are so commanding that the gothicism never degenerates into camp. Like Karloff's terrifying, confused monster in Frankenstein or Sam Jaffe's nebbishy Grand Duke Peter in Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), the experience is too appallingly profound for camp.


Anonymous said...

I guess not like-father-like-son.

Son of Svengali sucked at acting.


pain jane said...

What about Wallace Beery for The Chimp?

Harpo Marx for Junkie Business.

Muni in I'm a Fugitive from a Chain Gangbang, which I'd rate higher than his fun but cartoonish performance in Scarfarce.

And Karloff was more interesting as the Dummy than as Frankenberry.

But all said and done, who can beat Joan Crawford in Grand Motel and Sadist McKee?