16 August 2016

John Barrymore Glitters Like a Diamond: Reunion In Vienna

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This discussion of Reunion in Vienna is almost a sad one, because this film has been generally unavailable for viewing for many decades. I don’t know if it has ever been broadcast on television.
I was fortunate enough to see it at a rare screening at the National Film Theater in London in the early 1980’s, in a lovely print and a full house of film devotees. It was a great experience, not least because it is a fine film.
Reunion In Vienna was adapted from a successful play by Robert E. Sherwood. It is the story of the dispossessed Austrian aristocrats whose positions in life disappeared at the end of World War One in 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved. Raised to be members of the ruling class, they were left to survive as best they could with no more purpose in life. Here, a former Archduke, Rudolph Von Hapsburg, banished from Austria, who is earning a living as a taxi driver in Zurich, clandestinely returns to Vienna on the occasion of the former Emperor’s birthday, which is being celebrated by the former members of his court. There he meets his great love, Elena, who is now the slightly dissatisfied wife of a famous psychiatrist, Dr. Anton Krug. These characters are played by John Barrymore, the English star Diana Wynyard, and Frank Morgan.
Interestingly, the film was criticized at the time for not “opening out” the story, since it largely takes place in the rather palatial modern apartment of the Krugs and a ballroom; to me this is a plus, since well-constructed plays don’t need opening out and it usually ends up as a distraction. But the joy of this film is the performances. Barrymore is simply brilliant, in a deeply layered, perceptive portrayal of a man keeping up a lighthearted front, but actually, as becomes clear, deeply depressed. Diana Wynyard, who is usually cool to the point of frostiness, is warm, complex, and sexy here. And Frank Morgan, in a role that is not particularly comic, shows a man whose basic impulse is to heal others. The excellent supporting cast includes Henry Travers, May Robson, and Una Merkel, but really the three stars are the whole show.
John Barrymore, Diana Wynyard

Upon hearing of the celebration in honor of the Emperor, Elena at first doesn’t want anything to do with it, insisting that she has entirely forgotten those day. But Dr. Krug suggests that confronting her past is the only way she can be happy in the present, and at last she consents to go. There she meets Rudolph, and their former romance seems to blossom once more. Unfortunately, he is also wanted by the police, who arrive to arrest and deport him, but he eludes them. Elena returns home, but Rudolph follows her. There Dr. Krug and Rudolph interact enough for the doctor to conclude that he is on the edge of real mental illness; when the police arrive, he agrees to hide Rudolph from them.
With Rudolph in the bedroom, Dr. Krug gently tells his wife that when she can see her former love, who has been between them, as he really is — a down-on-his-luck taxi driver with delusions of grandeur — and not as she remembers him, she will finally be free. Then he goes to tell the authorities that Rudolph will voluntarily leave Austria, and that he personally will vouch for him.
Next we see Rudolph, sitting in a chair with his back to the camera. And he is a different man. All his manic joie-de-vivre is gone. He looks middle-aged. “I am no longer an Archduke, nephew of the Emperor,” he says. “I am a taxi-driver, dressed up.” Looking at himself, he has found nothing but tinsel. Barrymore is superb here; he doesn’t even have to speak. You can tell simply by the line of his shoulders that his illusions are gone.

John Barrymore, Diana Wynyard, Frank Morgan
Now here is where my memory fails me; in the stage version, it was quite clear that Elena goes to bed with Rudolph, which restores his confidence, that Dr.Krug realizes this but says nothing, and Rudolph, as promised, returns to Switzerland, and that Elena remains with her husband with a new appreciation of him. But I don’t really remember if the film was that true to the  play, or if they censored that particular plot development.
But it doesn’t really matter, seen from this distance. Because this is an involving story about interesting, attractive, thoughtful people, and the characters are what hold your interest. The scandalous hi-jinks (for the time) have lost any shock appeal they had, and we can now appreciate the work of artists like Barrymore and Morgan better without that distraction.
I certainly hope this film will emerge eventually from the shadows. (At least we know it exists.) It is a major performance by John Barrymore, equivalent to Dinner at Eight or Grand Hotel, and it should be seen.