John Barrymore’s silent films always seem just a little wanting to me. I’m afraid I miss the voice of “The Great Profile” a little too much to be as satisfied as I should be. But silent Barrymore is better than no Barrymore at all, and Harry Beaumont’s Beau Brummel (1924) offers one of his best silent-screen performances in a movie that’s almost worthy of him. The story of George Bryan Brummel—essentially an elaborate revenge story of an odd kind—was perfectly suited to Barrymore in his matinee idol days. And it allowed the actor to age on-screen, which probably delighted Barrymore, who took pleasure in diminishing his good looks whenever possible.
The story follows the fortunes of Brummel, a man who loses his great love, Margery (Mary Astor), to an arranged marriage engineered by her social-climbing mother. In order to revenge himself on the society that caused this, he uses his natural good looks and charm to ingratiate himself to the Prince of Wales (Willard Louis). Not only does this friendship land him in the society he disdains, but it allows Brummel to set himself up as the arbiter of taste and fashion. In other words, he lives off society’s good graces, using his place to control and mock them—while amusing himself with their women. As he puts it in an intertitle, he captures their attention with his insolence and holds it through scandal.
This, of course, is a tricky position, since he exists at the whim of society and the good will of the prince, and both society and the prince are fickle in the extreme. His status is only secure as long as his antics amuse the prince. This becomes compromised when Brummel becomes attracted to the Duchess of York (Irene Rich), an alliance not looked upon with favor by the prince. Worse, Brummel has never gotten over Margery, who reappears in his life, and who the prince wants for himself. The course for his fall from grace is clearly set.
As a movie, Beau Brummel is lavishly produced (hey, it’s a Warner Bros.’ “Classic of the Screen”). But it’s also very much an American silent movie of the pre-German-film-influenced era—that means the camera is nailed to the floor. (I noticed it move slightly once in the early scenes.) There’s a fair amount of shot breakdown, but the camera is static with characters entering and exiting the frame as if it’s some kind of shifting proscenium arch. It would be easy to blame this on the rather unimaginative work of director Harry Beaumont, since his work remained pretty unimaginative throughout his career. But the truth is that this is just pretty much how films were shot in 1924 Hollywood.
As a John Barrymore vehicle, however, the film still scores high marks. Even granting that Beaumont is so enamored of showing the famous Barrymore profile in all its classically chiseled beauty that Barrymore sometimes seems to be posing for a coin, it’s one of the actor’s finest portrayals. Watch the face and the body language. Most especially, watch the face and note the incredible range of emotions—love, sadness, joy, hate, amusement, disdain, hurt—Barrymore is capable of conveying, and with what economy he does it. This alone would make the film worth seeing.