Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) is in the unique position of being one of the most-seen (at least in bits and pieces) and little-known films of its era, due to the inclusion of clips from it playing on TV in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005). (Indeed, the film even has bearing on the actions of Bill Murray’s Don Johnston in the Jarmusch film.) For cineastes, Don Juan is mostly notable as the final film of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.—his last attempt at making it in the talkies, a medium that was somehow ill-suited to his hyperactive screen persona. In a just world, the film would have reignited his career, but that obviously didn’t happen. As much as the public had tired of his athletic high jinks, they were even less interested in a comedic version of him as a man coming to terms with advancing years and living off his legend. The pity is that it’s one of Fairbanks’ better performances.
The film—which works on the concept of a Don Juan past his prime discovering he was always more a brand name than anything else—perhaps got lost in the flood of historical romps that strangely cropped up in 1934. Don Juan had to share screen space with Gregory La Cava’s The Affairs of Cellini, William Dieterle’s Madame DuBarry and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, all of which boasted bigger talkie stars than Fairbanks. Looked at today, Don Juan may be the least of those films, but it’s certainly interesting in that it not only presents history as bedroom farce, but actually sets out to debunk the Don Juan myth, and by extension, Fairbanks’ own. But it does so rather kindly (even if it strongly hints that Don Juan is in dire need of some Viagra) and with good humor. And it really is a nice change to see Fairbanks in a movie where his activities don’t resemble those of a hopped-up cokehead.