John Barrymore: Profile of the Profile

John Barrymore/Movie Still/Twentieth Cen

Tribute today to John Barrymore (1882-1942). As we mentioned in our earlier post on him and his siblings Ethel and Lionel (which concentrated mostly on the their vaudeville connections), Barrymore was the product of a thespian father and a mother from a multigenerational acting dynasty the Drews (his maternal grandmother and two uncles were also actors, but the Drew history onstage goes back for many generations before them).

The young Barrymore had tried to dodge the family business and began his professional career as a newspaper artist (this was before the days when newspapers commonly ran photographs). It was during this period (1901-1902) when he romanced Evelyn Nesbit, later to become notorious for other reasons. For an artistic representation of what that liaison may have looked like, see my favorite source for all the art that matters, Caviglia’s Cabinet of Curiosities. 

Soon Barrymore bit the bullet and joined his siblings on the stage, almost as a lark at first. His specialty at first (much like Douglas Fairbanks) was light comedies. He happened to be in San Francisco in 1906 when the Great Earthquake hit. Unharmed, he wrote a letter to his sister as a hoax containing a number of fictitious adventures he supposedly had during the disaster. The letter was widely circulated, generating much positive publicity.

By 1913 he had also followed his brother into films. The 1920s would be the peak of his career, when he created two of his greatest stage triumphs Richard III (1920) and Hamlet (1922), which have gone down in theatre annals as among the greatest performances in history. The irony is that these legendary performances weren’t captured on film. Many other great Barrymore performances were, and some of them are bona fide classic moments of cinema as well, but none seem in a league with the descriptions of those stage performances. Still, he did create great and lasting screen roles in the twenties:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924) and Captain Ahab in The Sea Beast ( a rewritten version of Moby Dick, 1926). When he did get to do some Shakespeare in talking pictures (as when he does Gloucester’s speech from Henry VI, Part 3 in the 1929 film Your Show of Showsor when he played a 50-ish Mercutio in the 1936 Romeo and Juliet) the results are somewhat unfortunate.

But there are flashes of brilliance in the later work too. I am especially fond of Svengali (1931), for example, and his performance in the screwball comedy Twentieth Century (1934) is one of the great comic tour de forces of all time. And Barrymore is memorable in the ensemble pieces Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933), although they can scarcely be said to tap into his potential store of talents. Severe alcohol abuse (he was a drinking buddy of W.C. Fields) began to damage his career by the late 30s — he couldn’t remember his lines, and could scarcely deliver them.

One of his last films, 1940’s The Invisible Woman is a typical example of how far the greatest actor of the age had fallen. It is a comedy sequel to The Invisible Man (the third in a series); it was later remade in 1982 as a comedy pilot starring Bob Denver. 

Through an odd quirk of timing (and two generations of randy middle-aged Barrymores), John is the grandfather of Drew Barrymore, who was born nearly 30 years after he died.


Barrymore wasn’t as famously associated with vaudeville as his sister Ethel, but I want to thank friend Mari Lyn Henry for bringing my attention to this quote from his 1935 memoir We Three:

“I think I like vaudeville actors better than any other class of people—especially hoofers. I think it is because they make a living out of their facile bodies instead of out of their alert minds. prize fighters, jockeys, baseball players, any men or women whose profession demands that they keep their bodies physically fit, and who never have to worry about mental development usually are regular scouts. They are elemental and simple and honest about everything
that matters. I dislike most mental giants. The trouble with them is that if they make a living out of their minds,
they must quibble and falsify and strut and become unreasonable. I don’t mean that vaudeville actors are stupid. But they are elemental.

Once I was in vaudeville playing a scene from The Affairs of Anatol, which died at every performance. It was too highbrow and I knew it, but there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it, I was playing it as [Arthur] Schnitzler had written it. A vaudeville actor caught the sketch.

‘You need a finish, kid’ he said.

‘But Schnitzler–‘, I began.

‘Schnitzler hell! You’ve got to get over, or you’re fired. Now, listen—the act ends with a quarrel with the dame and she tells you to get out and you get out.’

‘Yes I said, We are supposed to be cultured people and I leave in a dignified manner.’

‘All right. Listen: You got a waste basket on the set. Well get yourself a dozen or two dozen oranges. And when she tells you to go, she starts to throw the oranges, see? You grab the wastebasket and put it over your head like a catcher’s mask, and she socks you with the oranges as the curtain goes down’.

Choking down all the traditions of my family, I got the oranges. I staged the scene with the wastebasket—may heaven protect me from Arthur Schnitzler! And the sketch was a tremendous success. No wonder I like vaudeville actors.
Ethel never saw the act after I rewrote Arthur Schnitzler, thank heaven!”

A good explanation for why during his last years Barrymore palled around with the likes of Fields so much! (See Gene Fowler’s books for many accounts of that) And thank you Mari Lyn, for helping me give this post a big finish, which had heretofore lacked!

For more on vaudeville, which John Barrymore loved so much please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.


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