This is not the sort of part I associate with John Barrymore, the most respected actor of his day, both on stage and on screen. But then, I haven’t really seen all that many of his pictures. He was known as The Great Profile, a devilishly handsome man, and usually the romantic lead, at least early in his career. The best performance by him that I have seen was the hilariously clever Dinner at Eight, where he played a washed-up alcoholic actor … a bit of typecasting, except for the washed-up part. Soon after that he would be washed up, and he drank himself to death.
Here he is a timid, innocent, but fiercely dedicated schoolteacher who is sacked because he gave a Duchess’s son the failing grades the little prick richly deserved. But he ends up employed by the Duke, thinking he is working as a chemist developing healthy drinking water but in fact serving as a front man for the germ-ridden swill the Duke is bottling from the Paris taps. When he finds out about this, mostly from the Duke’s mistress (Myrna Loy, before she became a box office draw with The Thin Man), he freaks out …
… and then the movie surprised me. This was made in the years just before the horrible Hayes Office really cracked down on any suspicion of immorality being rewarded, so the writer and director had quite a bit of leeway in the plot. And old Prof. Topaze wises up! He realizes the Panglossian platitudes he had been teaching his boys were really a crock of merde. Virtue is not rewarded. Evil can triumph. He dives into the world of crooked capitalism with relish. Though he still understands and values the ideas he was teaching, when addressing his old class as he is receiving a high academic honor, he warns them that the real world is not like that. There is a note of optimism in the speech, but in the end the lesson is a cynical one, and I was glad to see it. I try to be idealistic as much as I can, and I think most of us do. But no one is perfect, and we have to be ready to deal with the evil ones out there, and if necessary beat them at their own game.