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Bob Bernard's Corner: Don Juan in (and out of) Hell

By Bob Bernard

With Mozart’s Don Giovanni looming ahead near the beginning of The Metropolitan Opera’s 2016-17 Live in HD Season, it is apropos that we refresh ourselves with respect to this monumental morality tale..

The character of opera’s Don Giovanni is based upon a fictional libertine, with the first published novel being written by Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina: El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest) around 1630. It has provided material that has inspired Moliere, Pushkin, Byron, Gluck, R. Strauss and, of course, G.B. Shaw.

The opera begins where this Spanish nobleman’s heartless series of seductions of women are at the point where Don Giovanni attempts to rape Donna Anna, is repulsed, but kills her father, the Commendatore, before fleeing the premises. The Don continues living as before, pin-balling between Donna Anna, Donna Elvira (an old conquest), and an attempted new conquest: Zerlina (a peasant girl). He escapes retribution until, finally, the Commendatore, returning as a ghost, pulls him down to Hell.

Four motion pictures provide (alleged) supplemental biographical information:

  1. Don Juan --- 1926 silent, with John Barrymore
  2. The Private Life of Don Juan ---1934, with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
  3. Adventures of Don Juan --- 1949, with Errol Flynn and Alan Hale
  4. Don Juan DeMarco --- 1994, with Johnny Depp and Marlin Brando

Proceeding chronologically, in the Johnny Depp film Don Juan DeMarco, Depp is the patient of psychiatrist Marlon Brando. Depp is delusional and truly believes that he is Don Juan, directly descended from the noble Spanish family. He recalls that, at an early age, the young females of his village were already drawn to him, even queuing up for a kiss from him. This circumstance caused his mother sufficient concern to present him to God and ask the Lord to save him before it was too late.


But it was already too late.


The film Adventures of Don Juan is rather silly, but who could look more like Don Juan than Errol Flynn (in his prime)? And, of course, there still echoes the boyhood slogan: “In like Flynn."

Continuing from the Flynn film: (1) On the left, Flynn lectures a neglectful husband on the proper treatment for his wife (“You should remind her of her beauty ever day. Write her poetry. Send her flowers.”), and (2) On the right, Flynn explains his latest recidivistic romantic relapse to Alan Hale’s Leporello (“There’s a little bit of Don Juan in every man. Since I am Don Juan, there must be more of it in me.”).


In the 1926 silent film Don Juan with John Barrymore, the antagonist is a Duke Margoni. The Duke is offended because he suffers multiple insults at the hands of Don Juan. To begin with, Don Juan is having an affair with the Duke’s wife. Also, he bridges the generation gap by simultaneously maintaining a relationship with the Duke’s niece.

Polls have shown that people consider France’s major contribution to the world to be the ménage et trois but, in this film, Barrymore raises the bar to a remarkable ménage et quatre. As you can see, he is also on a daily basis with the Duke’s mistress.


Duke Margoni is a broad-minded sort: He tolerates Don Juan enjoying both his wife and niece but, when the Don commences to include his mistress in the mix, well, that is just too much. Here below we see them come to blows. A close look at the actor playing Duke Margoni yields a historic bit of film lore.


The actor playing the Duke later played Al Jolson’s father in the film The Jazz Singer, then morphed into a more cerebral role, often speaking in proverbs to his #1 son, saying things like, “It is known that too inquisitive pups often have scratched noses." He became the manifestation of the third most recognized literary character in the world (the others being Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan): Honolulu’s most famous detective, the Swedish actor Warner Oland, whom so many of us enjoyed in those sixteen Charlie Chan movies when we were young.

In both the Met 1990 and 2000 productions of Don Giovanni, the sets are identical: a Zeffirelli design (new in 1990). What is changed (besides some of the principals) is the costuming, and the acting is a lot sexier.

In the opera, Don Giovanni moves on to [attempted, at least] new conquests. The aria "la ci darem la mano" ["There you will give me your hand"] goes with the Don’s coming on to the peasant girl Zerlina and is the opera’s most famous tune: Both Beethoven and Chopin wrote variations on this tune. Liszt wrote a Don Juan Fantasy; and, in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom’s wife Molly and her lover Blazes Boylan sang this as they carried it to its physical conclusion.

Here below are images of Don Giovanni singing this tune. On the left are Sam Ramey as Don Giovanni and Dawn Upshaw as Zerlina. Ramey merely touches Upshaw’s hand, but then, on the right, 10 years later, we see Bryn Terfel all over Hei-Kyung Hong like a cheap suit:


What if Don Giovanni, instead of perishing while in the prime of life, had lived on into middle age?

The Fairbanks film yields this answer. There exist gradations of hell on earth unimagined by Dante.

The following images come from the 1934 film The Private Life of Don Juan, the last film Douglas Fairbanks ever made. This film shows Don Juan seeking medical help while maintaining a dialogue that conformed to the de facto censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code and The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. He and his physician used euphemistic metaphors throughout the conversation. The doctor, not having pharmaceutical resources to call upon, could only offer some very droll advice regarding the “rationing of resources” over time.

“Nowadays, when I sit down to a quiet game with a lady, I’m no longer sure of holding the cards.”

“My prescription: Don’t climb more than one balcony a day, then slowly decrease that to four balconies a week.”


Besides the above, there is the issue of suffering one's material going stale. What if all you had to say to your prospective girlfriend was: “What divine hair!” --- “Those two lovely stars, just a little frightened, gazing at me!” --- “You baffle me!” --- “Once again, I’m just a helpless child” ---“I could kill you for being so attractive!”, and you had to repeat this same line over and over again? For a while, okay, it worked. Here is Fairbanks succeeding with the lovely actress Merle Oberon.


But "time wounds all heels," and even this great line wore thin, resulting in his being rejected by younger women. And even worse, being patronized by younger women. “You remind me of my dear father. He would have been just about your age. He would never have been able to climb the balcony. It’s incredible at your age.”


And the descent continued, propositioned by older women ("It needn’t be exactly married!”) and, finally, getting married (“Every woman wants more than a husband. Every woman wants Don Juan, only all to herself!”).


The actress on the right is Benita Hume who, in real life, married two Don Juans (or they were as handsome as a Don Juan should be), Ronald Colman and George Sanders, both marriages ending only when death did the parting, the first with Colman’s death, the second with Ms. Hume’s.

In the opera, after Don Giovanni is pulled down into Hell, the remaining principals go in for a bit of moralizing.


Above left: Sam Ramey and Kurt Moll, Met 1990; above right: San Francisco Opera, 2007, "Death to the wicked who cause strife!"

So let’s finish up by doing our own moralizing, based upon the story of Don Juan and the film examples. First of all,ladies: Remembering that self-serving observation of Errol Flynn, please keep in mind that there is a little bit of Don Juan in every man. So if your man’s eye wanders a bit from time to time, don’t take it personally. It is simply in our DNA.

And you, gentlemen: Whether you’re married or "not exactly married," you should speak daily of your lady’s beauty: her divine hair, those two lovely stars that you gaze into…. Tell her you could kill her for being so attractive. Remember that every woman wants Don Juan ---- only all to herself.

Finally, the antagonist Warner Oland (in the Barrymore film) perhaps has the best advice we have, from the proverbs of Charlie Chan: “Three things a wise man does not do: (1) He does not plow the sky. (2) He does not paint pictures on the water. And (3) he does not argue with a woman.”

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