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John Barrymore stars in the lavish 1924 romantic melodrama Beau Brummel as George Bryon Brummel. "The arbiter of fashion and the social ruler of England during the reign of George III" according to the film's opening title card.
A commoner who became a famous social butterfly and fashion icon, the real Beau Brummel was a fastidious, exceptionally well turned out dandy in Regency England who claimed it took him five hours to dress. He popularized the cravat and beautifully tailored, well-fitting men's fashion, thus creating the progenitor of the modern suit. For a time a royal favorite, Brummel's friendship with the Prince of Wales was famously destroyed when Brummel made a scathing comment about the Prince's weight. Almost instantly, Brummel's rank and fortunes plummeted after years of accruing debt for his lavish lifestyle. He died penniless of syphilis in France.
Director Harry Beaumont's flavorful, romantic version of the Beau Brummel story, drawn from an 1890 production by American playwright Clyde Fitch, opens in 1795. It is the wedding night of beautiful Maid Margery (Mary Astor) who is about to wed Lord Alvanley (William Humphrey). Margery's social climbing parents have arranged to enhance their own position by marrying their daughter off to the lord despite her love of the handsome captain Beau Brummel.
With his bride stolen from him by a cruel class system, Brummel decides to use his charm and wit against the society that has interfered with his happiness. He ingratiates himself to the Prince of Wales (Willard Louis) who follows Brummel's every fashion cue and shares his taste for womanizing. At his London town house Brummel is pursued by ladies and social climbers, but when he falls out of favor with the Prince, his troubles mount until his final, sad days in a prison almshouse.
Another version of the Clyde Fitch play was made into a film in 1954. That M-G-M production starred Elizabeth Taylor and Stewart Granger and was directed by Curtis Bernhardt.
Still, it would be hard for any version to measure up to the chemistry between Mary Astor and John Barrymore, who were engaged in their own tempestuous romance during the film's production.
Astor was just seventeen when she starred in Beau Brummel. But she already had six feature films and many two-reelers under her belt. She had worked with Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish and William Powell but was as yet to meet a presence as memorable and as influential in her young life as Barrymore.
Remembering her first meeting with Barrymore on the Warner Bros. studio in A Life on Film, Astor recalled being "sick with anxiety and nervousness in anticipation of being in the presence of this great man."
Upon meeting Astor, Barrymore noted her parental domination and pulled her away from the radius of her overbearing stage mother. Over time Barrymore would expertly charm Astor's parents in order to spend time with the daughter whose career and life they managed with particular avidity.
Recalled Astor, "In the next three years he would teach me that I was a person, that I was somebody in my own right and not just [a] 'goddamn trained seal.'"
While they embraced so that their on-camera chemistry could be measured during that first meeting and screen test, Barrymore whispered, as the legend goes, "You are so goddamned beautiful, you make me feel faint."
Astor noted upon their first meeting that in real life there was undoubtedly no Lady Margery Alvanley, and Barrymore cracked, "I doubt it. But this is the moo-vies. And there is a Lady Margery, and I think you'll be divine."
In her autobiography Astor remembered being treated wonderfully, as a true star on the Warner Bros. set. She also recalled the hijinks of some of her co-stars.
"Willard Louis as the Prince of Wales and Mr. Barrymore made bawdy jokes during their scenes (it was a silent picture, remember), only occasionally using the lines from the Clyde Fitch play from which the picture was adapted. After the picture was released the following year, there was a great deal of mail from the deaf who were able to read lips: They were very shocked."
Barrymore was 42 when he embarked upon his whirlwind romance with the teenage Astor.
"The world was a lovely place that seventeenth summer of my life," she said. "It never again would be so romantic, so storybook beautiful, or quite so romantically tragic."
Beau Brummel capitalized magnificently on Barrymore and Astor's beauty (and ability to translate their real-life passion to film) and did well at the box-office. The film inspired Warner Brothers to offer Barrymore a generous three-picture contract at $76,250 a picture according to Margot Peters' The House of Barrymore. A Photoplay review from the time called Barrymore's "one of the finest performances of his screen career."
Director: Harry Beaumont
Screenplay: Dorothy Farnum; Clyde Fitch (play)
Cinematography: David Abel
Music: Jimmy Schafer (2007)
Cast: John Barrymore (Gordon Bryon 'Beau' Brummel), Mary Astor (Lady Margery Alvanley), Willard Louis (Princes of Wales), Carmel Myers (Lady Hester Stanhope).
by Felicia Feaster