John Barrymore: Profile of the Profile

John Barrymore/Movie Still/Twentieth Cen

Today is the birthday of 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.

Now here’s something cool: a screen test for a 1933 version of Hamlet that was never filmed. The value of Barrymore’s histrionics (and profile) aside, you can see why it’s problematic: he looks more like he should be playing Polonius. There is a brief intro the clip by Orson Welles:

To learn more about show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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