I wasn’t going to review this movie. I was just going to watch it, rate it, and then move on with my life. However, The Private Life of Don Juan ends up doing everything right that Casanova would try to do more than 70 years later wrong. Without that connection, I would have enjoyed the film just as much but felt no need to write about it. Having this contrast to write about was my intellectual hook that got my brain going with about half an hour left in the film.
Don Juan is the purely fictional Spanish version of the Italian historical figure Casanova, sort of. The fictional Spaniard predates the Italian historical figure by more than a century, but their cultural imprint is similar. Both are libertines in search of sensual pleasures from the women of Seville or Venice. That being said, it’s obvious that the only way that Hollywood from its earliest days to today could deal with either character was to end up softening them to the point where they could end up with one woman. Fellini, being Italian and his own artist, took a very different approach with the historical Italian, but Hollywood turned Casanova into a boring romantic comedy lead with Venetian clothes. Alexander Korda, with a script by Frederick Lonsdale and Lajos Biro, find a far more interesting way to get Don Juan to a similar spot.
There’s a knowing, almost meta, aspect to this 1934 film. The movie starts with Douglas Fairbanks (in his final film role) as an aging Don Juan falling behind his reputation. He sneaks into Seville one day only to have his presence known throughout the town within hours. This happens because he is being trailed by a youth, Rodrigo (Barry MacKay), who idolizes Don Juan and wants to be just like him, climbs about a dozen balconies to young married woman throughout Seville that very same night. The actions of Don Juan’s imposter is what announces his arrival. He also has a couple of other things swirling around him. The most prominent is his wife, Dona Dolores (Benita Hume), who owns all of his debts and will have him thrown into prison if he does not return to her. The other is a young dancer who wants the publicity brought to her by a potential kiss from Don Juan to jumpstart her career and make her more desirable to wealthy men as a potential wife. Things all go awry when Don Juan goes to the dancer instead of his wife the same night that the imposter gets murdered by a jealous husband. With the news that he himself is dead, Don Juan celebrates, freed from his debts and his own reputation, he runs off and hides for six months.
Up until this point, I was entertained, but I felt like something extra was happening and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then the book arrived. With the news of Don Juan’s death, his reputation was now cemented in print with a book that told of the complete exploits of Don Juan’s conquests. At first, Don Juan eats it up, enjoying every manufactured detail no matter how far from reality. Rested from six months free of “Don Juan”, he suddenly feels invigored to pursue it again, and things immediately start heading in the wrong direction. The attractive young woman who works at the inn he’s living at laughs off the idea of his being Don Juan and will only submit to his charms if he essentially buys her off with a pair of golden earrings. He catches the eye of an attractive young woman, but when he climbs the tower to her room he discovers that she doesn’t want him beyond his ability to transmit a message to the young man that she loves. Something’s off, so he decides to return to Seville.
In Seville, he cannot get anyone to believe that he is Don Juan. People laugh him off left and right all while reciting, word for word, the fabrications of the book, The Private Life of Don Juan, right back in his face. He even goes to the dancer, now being courted by a duke, who insists that he is not Don Juan. He crashes a production of a play about him, insisting that it’s all lies, and the crowd laughs at him. He calls out to people he knew in real life in the crowd to vouch for him, and all he gets is heckles about his inability to pleasure any woman at all. His wife is in the crowd, and in an effort to further debase her wayward husband, feigns ignorance of him as well.
All throughout the film, Don Juan had made disparaging remarks about marriage, about how the only good thing is that it leads to less walking in the middle of the night. And yet, when his looks have faded, his reputation has taken off to be beyond what even he could fulfill (insisting that making love to two women at the same time is impossible, for instance), what does he have? He has his Dona Dolores who is happy to take him back eventually, insisting that every woman wants a Don Juan as long as he’s exclusive to her.
How is this different than the 2000s version of Casanova? Well, the latter film tried to split the baby of having the “real” Casanova preserved while taking the young, virile sexual specimen and turning him into a generic romantic comedy lead. The Private Life of Don Juan does something very different while leading its main character to a similar spot. He does end up with one woman alone who will love him, but it’s not because he suddenly discovers the joys of monogamy. He ends up with one woman because she’s the only one who will have him. Perhaps if she had rejected him completely might we have gotten the sort of hard-edged approach to this story that it really needs, but I think this idea of Don Juan essentially settling into marriage is a very good middle ground. It’s enjoyable rooting for Dona Dolores in the end, teaching the wayward lover the humility he needs, and it’s also satisfying seeing Don Juan find a happy ending at the same time (the advantage of having a charming lead).
I ended up enjoying this far more than I thought I would.