On this day in theatre history–August 6, 1926–Don Juan premiered in New York City. This smash hit full-length film, starring John Barrymore as the dashing womanizer, is important to theatre history for two great achievements. First, it featured the latest technological innovation–Vitaphone sound. While the movie itself contained only synchronized music and sound effects, at the premiere–and only at the premiere–the show was preceded by a series of Vitaphone shorts, including a filmed welcome from the movie industry’s chief censor and MPAA president, Will Hays, telling the audience in perfectly synchronized sound, “Welcome to a new era in motion picture.” It was a stunning introduction to the extraordinary potential of the new technology. Most film histories cite this event as the beginning of the “sound” film era. And indeed the world of commercial entertainment would never be the same after that night. The first true “talkie,” of course, was The Jazz Singer which premiered the following year, also using the often troublesome Vitaphone system that included a separate recording disk on a turntable that was physically connected to the projector. (The more reliable photoelectric sound-on-film system, similar to one originally pioneered at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was only just beginning to catch on.) By 1930, as the Great Depression was gaining momentum and audiences for live stage were rapidly declining, the highly profitable motion picture industry was booming with the new talkies dominating nationwide. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the arrival of talkies signaled a major shift in the entertainment preferences of most Americans. With significantly more money and talent ending up in the far more lucrative film industry, the American stage was soon drained of much of its vitality, innovation, and financial support.
Don Juan‘s other great distinction is that it remains the film with the most kissing. Yup, it’s a bussing blizzard–a world record, in fact. No other motion picture has as much good ol’ fashioned lip-smacking osculation as this one. During the course of its 110 minutes, Mr. Barrymore smooches his female co-stars no fewer than 191 times, averaging one kiss every 34 seconds. A record that has yet to be broken–though, in all honestly, few have tried. (Okay–admittedly, much of Mr. Barrymore’s amorous activity was limited to mere hand kissing, but still…)