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When a Man Loves

When a Man Loves(1927)

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Synopsis: In eighteenth century France, the innocent young Manon Lescaut, who is planning to enter a convent, remains unaware that her dissolute card-sharp brother Andre has sold her to the Comte de Morfontaine. The Chevalier Fabien des Grieux, a young seminary student, overhears the conversation and steals Manon away to Paris. The couple lives in poverty until Manon's brother finds her and blackmails her into leaving de Grieux for Morfontaine. When the heartbroken de Grieux hears word of Manon's life with the old Morfontaine in his gambling establishment and house of ill repute, he pays a visit to see the truth for himself, eventually sparking a fateful confrontation between himself, Morfontaine, and even King Louis XV.

When a Man Loves (1927) was the third installment of John Barrymore's major three-picture contract with Warner Brothers. Fresh from his controversial, but largely well-reviewed stage production of Hamlet, he starred in Warner's film adaptation of Beau Brummel (1924) before his three big pictures with the studio: a Hollywoodized version of Moby Dick (1926) entitled The Sea Beast (1926), Don Juan (1926) and, lastly, When a Man Loves. He discovered the 20 year-old Pittsburgh-born actress Dolores Costello while reviewing the screen tests for The Sea Beast, was immediately attracted to her, and the couple later married. While her two John Barrymore vehicles (The Sea Beast and When a Man Loves) were not her first major roles, they did help propel her to stardom.

The source material for When a Man Loves was The Story of Chevalier des Greiux and Manon Lescaut, the 1731 novel by the Abbe Antoine Francois Prevost. Its melodramatic storyline makes it well-suited for opera, and it, in fact, has been adapted no less than four times: by Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber (1856), Jules Massenet (1884), Giacomo Puccini (1893), and by Hans Werner Henze in Boulevard Solitude (1952), a provocative contemporary working complete with prostitutes and drug addicts. The novel was initially banned in France, though it was widely circulated in pirated editions and later published officially in a somewhat expurgated version. The second part of the novel, it should be noted, is set in New Orleans and the wilds of Louisiana; When a Man Loves, which is really better appreciated as a free treatment of Prevost's story than an adaptation per se, ends just at the point of arrival to the New World, giving the story a more optimistic flavor. But what the film may lack in literal fidelity to the novel it more than amply compensates with a vivid cast (who can forget Warner Oland as the dissolute brother?) and lavish production design.

The print being broadcast on TCM was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the George Eastman House and includes its original Vitaphone score. The first commercially viable synchronized sound process, Vitaphone linked the film projector to a large phonograph disc containing the soundtrack. It had obvious technical limitations in terms of maintaining synchronization with the projector throughout a film's running time--skipping records were not infrequent--but its recorded sound had superior fidelity compared to early sound-on-film processes, and its amplification system worked well for large auditoriums. The similarly lavish Barrymore vehicle Don Juan (1926) was the first feature film to use the Vitaphone process, though in that film--as with When a Man Loves--it was used not to add synchronized dialogue but rather to provide an economical and standardized form of orchestral accompaniment and selected sound effects. As one can hear in this restored version of When a Man Loves, it reproduced music surprisingly well. Only with The Jazz Singer (1927), also directed by industry veteran Alan Crosland, did Warner Brothers begin to use the Vitaphone process to synchronize spoken dialogue in a feature film.

Director: Alan Crosland
Screenplay: Bess Meredyth
Photography: Byron Haskin
Editor: Harold McCord
Music: Henry Hadley
Principal Cast: John Barrymore (Chevalier Fabien des Grieux); Dolores Costello (Manon Lescaut); Warner Oland (Andre Lescaut); Sam de Grasse (Comte Guillot de Morfontaine); Holmes Herbert (Jean Tiberge); Stuart Holmes (King Louis XV); Bertram Grassby (Duc de Richelieu); Tom Santschi (Boat Captain).BW-100m.

by James Steffen

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