A Bewhiskered Barrymore In Pre-Code Satire



Though hiding his essential John Barrymore-ness behind a pointy beard, pince-nez, and humble manner, the star appears to admirable advantage in the uncharacteristic role of a principled though inexperienced educator who gets a hard lesson in life. Based on a much-adapted 1928 play by Marcel Pagnol, the French auteur of stage and screen best known for well-observed pastoral dramas like Fanny (1932) and Manon of the Springs (1952), RKO and producer David O. Selznick retain the source material’s Parisian setting but craftily Americanize its more pointed Gallic underpinnings for 78 brisk minutes of light comedy. Replacing the original’s target of public graft with the cynical advertising of a phony “health” beverage, co-credited screenwriter Ben Hecht, with Benn W. Levy, pops the fizz out of high society and big business while still finding the sparkle in scintillating dialogue.

Professor Topaze (Barrymore in the title role) finds himself summarily dismissed from his teaching position after scrupulously failing an unscrupulous little brat named Charlemagne de La Tour-La Tour (Jackie Searle), the spoiled and over-indulged son of the Baroness de La Tour-La Tour (Jobyna Howland). Under the pretense of “making amends”, the boy’s father, the Baron and industrialist La Tour-La Tour (Reginald Mason), offers the loose-ended teacher a position with his firm to design and promote a “sparkling water” concoction named after its scientific sponsor and spokesman. Unbeknownst to the hapless scholar and chemist, La Tour-La Tour replaces Topaze’s self-named tonic with worthless tap water and, selling the bogus bilge at several times its non-existent value, turns pure profit from impure fluids. Discovering the deception too late, the one-time pillar of morality must decide a response appropriate to a new-found world of villainy and corruption.

Released about a year before Hollywood’s Production Code, the powerful governing board that promoted “morality”, censored its opposite, and self-defined both from 1934 until 1968, Topaze finds its own moral framework, simple platitudes like “Virtue Is Its Own Reward” adorning a classroom to the contrary, in the bearing and dignity of its central performance. Barrymore the Great Stage Actor tones down some of his more theatrically impressive gestures and vocal inflections to effectively underplay the worldly education of a onetime innocent. Though given able assistance in this regard in the always delightful romantic form of Myrna Loy, playing La Tour-La Tour’s former mistress Coco, won over not by the professor’s naiveté but rather his adaptability to the fallen world beyond his cloistered classroom, the drama’s true iconic moment comes about an hour into the proceedings when Topaze sheds his whiskers, threadbare wardrobe, and stooped posture and appears tall, erect, and pencil-thin mustachioed in front of a department store mirror as, essentially… John Barrymore.

credit to Pre-Code.com for use of this image

Frequent KL commentator Kat Ellinger returns for another insightful, informative track-length discussion of the history and social context of this fine though often overlooked Classic Hollywood production. In addition to now wanting to search out some headier, more extreme examples of Pre-Code Hollywood, including Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face and Ruth Chatterton in Female (both also 1933), this more overtly male-oriented drama of self-liberation certainly evokes its era of “Man, Woman, and Sin” – the suggestive title of a movie whose premiere Topaze and Coco attend at film’s end; a scene which also prevented the film from being re-exhibited after the Code was fully adopted – in a manner befitting a screen star who was sometimes referred to as Hollywood’s Greatest Sinner. Thanks to a fine Blu-ray release of an entirely worthy though somewhat forgotten screen effort, the John Barrymore of Hollywood legend can full-form emerge victorious in his tarnished virtue once more.

The images used in this review, except where otherwise noted, are credited to DVDBeaver, and are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s March 2018 release of 1933’s Topaze