One of John Barrymore’s last and best known silent screen vehicles, Tempest is notable in the performer’s catalogue for exuding an aura of mostly asexual cultural significance. Two years earlier, the Barrymore patriarch had indulged in the greatest number of on-screen smooches up to that point as the title role in Don Juan (a statistic that conjures daydreams of the celluloid-bowdlerizing clergyman from Cinema Paradiso breaking his alarm bell due to overuse), but the paranoid structural tenor of Tempest is perhaps more befitting of the archetypal conservativism of middle-age (in 1928 the actor was nearly 50).
Shot on a grandly constructed and Oscar-winning back lot designed by William Cameron Menzies, the plot follows a dreary romance across economic borders during the caste system clusterfuck of the Bolshevik Revolution. This means that the hero is a low-ranking military officer, the leading lady is an heir to the Russian throne, and the antagonists are scruffy commie bogeymen—all of which seems like perfectly harmless if mushy period ornaments until we remember that when the film was made, the rise of Lenin was still recent history. A hypothetical, modern equivalent to this hazardously pop revisionism might be if an American director were to shoot a weepy commercial love story with a pair of star-crossed Iraqi lovers—a Shiite and a Sunni, perhaps—using the U.S. invasion as a tumultuous backdrop, and littering the cast with caricatured Arabic henchmen. Such an unambiguously xenophobic project would likely and rightly draw leftist heat—or be heralded as a masterwork of crude insularity.
Then again, it’s easy to forgive Tempest for its obtuseness—after all, the roaring ‘20s were a “simpler” time, and the production values are representative of the fiercest talent working in Hollywood on the cusp of the sound era. Aside from Menzies’s baroque interiors, the visuals by Harold Lloyd veteran Sam Taylor (though he was reputedly one of three directors to contribute to the project) feature consistently inventive flourishes, from the crane-like swoop across a miniature army base that opens the picture to Barrymore’s feverish prison hallucinations—achieved quite convincingly via state-of-the-art compositing techniques. And despite the inherent prejudices and addled politics of the storyline, C. Gardner Sullivan’s intertitles are some of the most concisely witty in silent film: When Barrymore’s lieutenant is reunited with his royal love interest after she suffers a slight injury, he remarks that he expected her blood to actually be blue. It is, of course, red—and the implicit color dichotomy is loaded with funny symbolism.
In fact, the greatest irony in the “red” setting of Tempest is that the chemistry between the two lead characters is entirely dependant on socio-economic taboo. Barrymore’s penurious lieutenant falls madly in love with a princess (the lustily Teutonic Camilla Horn) after accidentally watching her bathe in a river, and she responds to his “common” advances with pouty, bourgeois sensuality; they get off on the anticipated behavior of their respective social statuses as though it’s erotic role-play. Furthermore, their mutual, not to mention deliciously irresponsible, bodily attraction is the best argument in favor of the film’s glib interpretation of Marxism (we’re all equals when it comes to sex), but it’s confusingly portrayed as a blunt criticism of the Soviet Revolution. At the start of the movie, the villain—a filthy prole with the sharp eyes and facial hair of Rasputin played by Boris de Fast, one of the few Slavs in the cast—trolls around the military barracks, distributing propaganda at which the ranks scoff. By the end, he’s maniacally sending the charming but fuddy-duddy old guard to the firing squad with an imperious inhumanity, and Barrymore, who was jailed before the revolution for untoward behavior with the princess, is the only one who can put an end to the reign of terror.
The conclusion seems to be not so much that communism is automatically nefarious, but that it’s best helmed by white boys who have some libidinous stake in municipal legislature. What Tempest becomes is a pretty paradox, simultaneously pooh-poohing Russian socialism and applauding the American faux-ideal that love is blind to hierarchy.