Barrymore, John (1882-1942)

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Barrymore, John (1882-1942)

John Barrymore, who appeared in over 40 plays, 60 films, and 100 radio shows during his forty-year career, was perhaps the most influential and idolized actor of his day. The best known of America's "Royal Family" of actors, the handsome and athletic Barrymore was renowned for his ability to flesh out underwritten roles with his charismatic charm and commanding presence. He reached new artistic heights with title-role performances in theatrical productions of Richard III (1920) and Hamlet (1922-25) before answering Holly-wood's call to play romantic parts on screen. Though Barrymore brought these new figures to life with his customary ardor, his favorite roles were quite different: characters who required physical or psychological distortion, or both. Essentially a character actor trapped in a leading man's body, Barrymore wanted to prove to the world that he was much more than just "the Great Profile."

Born on February 14 or 15, 1882, in Philadelphia, Barrymore was the third of three children born to professional actors Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew Barrymore. His parents, frequently on the road, shunted him off to numerous boarding schools, where he quickly developed a reputation for wildness. An early punishment—a detention in an empty classroom—happened to lead to what he believed would be his life's calling; he discovered a large book illustrated by Gustav Doré and was so enthralled by the images that he decided to become an artist himself.

Barrymore pursued art training in England during the late 1890s and then returned to America in 1900 to become a cartoonist for the New York Evening Journal. Family members had other ideas about his career, however; his father insisted that he accompany him in a vaudeville sketch in early 1901 and, later that year, his sister Ethel convinced him to appear as a last-minute replacement in one of her plays. Fired from the Evening Journal in 1902, he soon joined a theatrical company in Chicago headed by a distant relative.

Though Barrymore's stage work at this time was hardly memorable, several theater magnates could see comic potential in the young actor. Producer Charles Frohman cast Barrymore in his first Broadway play, the comedy Glad of it, in 1903. The following year, William Collier recruited Barrymore to appear in The Dictator, a gunboat-diplomacy farce. The Dictator became a major hit, with many reviewers citing Barrymore's all-too-believable performance as a drunken telegraph operator.

Other stage triumphs quickly followed. Barrymore played his first serious role, the dying Dr. Rank, in a Boston staging of A Doll's House in January 1907, and later that year he received fine reviews for his first leading role: Tony Allen in the hit comedy The Boys of Company "B." Barrymore scored a major success with A Stubborn Cinderella (1908-09) and peaked as a comic actor the next season in his longest running play, The Fortune Hunter.

Barrymore's ensuing stage work generated little enthusiasm among critics and audiences, but he scored with a series of slapstick movies produced from 1913 to 1916, beginning with An American Citizen. He longed to be regarded as a serious actor, however, and soon earned his credentials in a 1916 production of the John Galsworthy drama Justice. Other acclaimed performances followed: Peter Ibbetson in 1917, Redemption in 1918, and The Jest in 1919. Barrymore then raised his acting to another level by taking on two Shakespearean roles, Richard III and Hamlet, during the early 1920s. Critics and audiences were stunned by the power and passion of his work.

Aware of Barrymore's emerging marquee value, the Warner Bros. studio signed him to appear in Beau Brummel (1924), his first film made in California. After returning to Hamlet for a highly successful London run, Barrymore settled in Hollywood in 1926 for a long career in the movies. He appeared in nine more films for Warner Bros. (including Don Juan [1926], the first feature film with a synchronized soundtrack) before signing on with MGM for such movies as Grand Hotel (1932) opposite Greta Garbo and Rasputin and the Empress (1932) with his siblings Ethel and Lionel. He also offered memorable performances in David Selznick's State's Attorney (1932), A Bill of Divorcement (1932), and Topaze (1933) before returning to MGM for several more films. A journeyman actor from 1933, Barrymore turned in some of his finest film work ever in such vehicles as Universal's Counsellor-at-Law (1933) and Columbia's Twentieth Century (1934).

Despite these achievements, Barrymore found movie work increasingly elusive. His alcoholism and frequently failing memory were among the biggest open secrets in Hollywood, and the studios were now hesitant to work with him. MGM signed him back at a highly reduced salary to appear as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1936), his only Shakespearean feature film, but few screen successes followed. He returned to the stage for one last fling—My Dear Children, a 1939 trifle about an aging ham and his daughters—and followed it up with several lamentable films. The worst was also his last: Playmates (1941), which featured him as an alcoholic, Shakespearean has-been named "John Barrymore."

Barrymore's radio broadcasts represented the few high points of his career from the mid-1930s onward. Building on a 1937 series of "Streamlined Shakespeare" radio plays, he appeared more than seventy times on Rudy Vallee's Sealtest Show beginning in October 1940. His comic and dramatic performances were well-received, and he remained associated with the Vallee program up to his death on May 29, 1942 in Los Angeles.

Theater critic Harold Clurman once suggested that John Barrymore "had everything an actor should ideally possess: physical beauty, a magnificent voice, intelligence, humor, sex appeal, grace and, to boot, a quotient of the demonic—truly the prince of players. There was unfortunately also a vein of self-destructiveness in him." In retrospect, the ignoble aspects of Barrymore's life—an extravagantly wasteful lifestyle, alcoholic binges, four failed marriages, numerous affairs, self-parodying performances—only contributed to his larger-than-life status. Though Barrymore the man passed on decades ago, Barrymore the myth has lost little of its power to captivate.

—Martin F. Norden

Further Reading:

Clurman, Harold. "The Barrymore Family." Los Angeles Times. May 1, 1977, C16.

Fowler, Gene. Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore. New York, Viking, 1943.

Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore. New York, Atheneum, 1977.

Norden, Martin F. John Barrymore: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1995.

Peters, Margot. The House of Barrymore. New York, Knopf, 1990.

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Barrymore, John (1882-1942)

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