John Barrymore: A Lesson For Topaze

jack barrymore ,john barrymore movies .john blyth barrymore
Twilight closing in. John Barrymore

While there would be sporadic moments of genius, the year 1933 would in essence mark the last great period in film for John Sidney Blyth better known as John Barrymore.

This once larger than life talent would ultimately lose the battle against the many demons (chief among them alcoholism) that haunted him from an early age.

His latter day performances are not always for the squeamish.

For every film such as the Howard Hawks classic Twentieth Century with the up and coming Carol Lombard there was Spawn of the North or Hold That Coed.

Even when he did get the occasional solid film like Marie Antoinette with Norma Shearer, the erosion of his talent is on painful display.

Self parody became the order of the day and more often than not Hollywood obliged him casting Barrymore as the drunken has been.  No way to treat a man once hailed as the “greatest living American tragedian” but unfortunately Barrymore was his own producer in this sad real life melodrama.

But 1933 showed this great artist was not yet ready to bring the curtain down on his own brilliance.  In fact it capped a remarkable run in Barrymore’s career.

From Grand Hotel as the ill-fated jewel thief falling in love with Greta Garbo to Counselor at Law as a high powered lawyer fighting for justice but far from perfect himself, Barrymore with his great voice and incredible acting chops was well within his element during this period of his career.

With Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel (1932)

One of his minor gems around from 1933 was the role of a man who gets a hard lesson in real world corruption.

Topaze is the story of a naive school teacher who by and large has been isolated from the outside world.

Barrymore as Topaze has always prided himself on honesty, strong principles and a passion for nurturing young minds. His reputation is sterling, no one can question that.

Yet it is that strict adherence to principle that gets him in trouble. A Baroness shows up at the school to complain about the failing grade Topaze has given to her son.

The kid deserves it of course but that’s not the answer she wants to here. The dean of the school played by the underrated Frank Reicher is only too eager to appease the Baroness so without a second thought he fires Topaze on the spot.

With Myrna Loy in a scene from Topaze (1933)

Unfortunately for Topaze his education into humanity’s dark side  is only beginning when he runs afoul of The Baroness’ husband and his mistress as they use Topaze’s good name and gullible nature to run a scam on their fellow countrymen.

When he finally realizes he’s been played for a chump Topaze decides to turn the tables. The hucksters realize too late that is was better to leave well enough alone than to raise the ire of a brilliant teacher who proceeds to show exactly how it’s done.

Even the paramour Topaze falls in love with (played by Myna Loy) gets a lesson. While she does get spared she still gets used to drive home Topaze’s point.

This movie is one of the many gems from the Pre-Code era. Adult, frank and smart. Neatly directed by Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast  with a wonderful supporting cast including a special shout out to Reginald Mason as the Baron.

Actors like Mason are fascinating to watch. He began his acting career circa 1903. Mason and many others of his generation are supposed to be the old school style of actors who couldn’t quite shake their theatrical roots with it’s touches of melodrama.

In someone like John Barrymore you do see that but with others like Mason there is a wonderful naturalistic quality to what they’re doing.

Reginald Mason as the Baron. Often unbilled and sorely underrated Mason could hold his own with anyone whether on stage or screen

It’s like the medium of film holds no mystery for them. Act and make it believable regardless of whether they’re on stage or in front of a camera. Mason does it beautifully.

But this is John Barrymore’s vehicle and he makes the most of it. There are flashes of the not so good future on occasion yet thankfully they’re few and far between.

What Topaze shows is an artist not at the peak of his greatness but still with enough skill and power to turn in a strong performance. Just like there are flashes of decline there are moments when Barrymore shows you why he was considered the greatest living American tragedian.

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