"When a Man Loves" (1927) is a silent romantic drama starring John Barrymore, Dolores Costello, and Warner Oland. Directed by Alan Crosland and adapted from the 18th-century novel "Manon Lescaut" by Abbe Prevost, this film is about an aspiring priest who abandons his calling for the lovely Manon Lescaut. The story begins in an old French cathedral town during the reign of Louis XV where Fabien des Grieux, played by John Barrymore, is studying to become a priest. One spring morning, virginal Manon Lescaut, played by Dolores Costello, arrives at the convent. When Fabien sees Manon, it is love at first sight. Meanwhile, Manon's scheming brother Andre Lescaut, played by Warner Oland, decides to prostitute her. Fabien overhears Andre's plot and runs off with Manon to Paris. After living together in a boarding house for one week, the lovers are separated through the intervention of Andre who later sells Manon to Comte Guillot de Morfontaine. Manon soon becomes against her will the mistress of Morfontaine. Just when Fabien is about to go into the priesthood he finds out that Manon will be deported to Louisiana as a prisoner not only by spurned lover Morfontaine but also by King Louis XV of France. Will Fabien be able to rescue Manon before it is too late? John Barrymore was teamed up with his lovely wife, Dolores Costello, in "When a Man Loves." Warner's scriptwriters stopped short of the book's final tragedy in New Orleans but not before they have Barrymore as the maddened Fabien fighting with sword and inciting a whole cageful of prisoners to take over the prison ship in a spree of carnage. "When a Man Loves" was Barrymore's third and final film in a three picture deal with Warner Brothers and it followed the better known "Don Juan." Barrymore had become Warner's most prestigious property, and they billed him as "The World's Greatest Actor." Barrymore's acting ability was never questioned in Hollywood, and he was always treated with the respect that his theatrical lineage and triumphs brought to the screen. With his extraordinary good looks, Barrymore would inevitably become a matinee idol, known as "The Great Profile."
In his role as Fabien, Barrymore remains the master of stage acting which he shrewdly adapts to the screen. He has stage presence and stands out from the other actors. Barrymore could also take the tiniest gesture, like the raising of one eyebrow, and make it huge. I was quite moved by the way Barrymore's Fabien comes to the rescue of his beloved Manon every time she is in danger. In the swashbuckling action scenes, Barrymore is tough and full of fire. His performance in these scenes reminds me of Errol Flynn in "Robin Hood" a decade later. Dolores Costello gives a first-rate performance and has great chemistry with Barrymore. Their love scenes together are so touching and romantic. It is incomprehensible to me that this film is almost never seen. It is a major studio obscurity even though it has top-notch production values with sumptuous costumes and sets. "When a Man Loves" had a Vitaphone pre-recorded soundtrack with musical score and sound effects. This silent gem ab
out a love that endures despite overwhelming obstacles is the perfect film to watch on Valentine's Day.
* It is interesting to note that Drew Barrymore is the granddaughter of John Barrymore and Dolores Costello as well as the great-niece of Ethel Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore.