John Barrymore (1882-1942)

John Barrymore (1882-1942)

"Four generations of the unique Barrymore family have been actors, and three of its members from the second generation, siblings John, Lionel, and Ethel, have had significant movie careers. While the Barrymore name is legend in the theater, it enjoys less renown in Hollywood circles. But while the theater saw the best of the Barrymores, the movies still caught a considerable amount of their talent, charm, and style. Maurice Barrymore (born Herbert Blythe) and Georgiana Drew were famous actors during their heyday on the American stage in the late 19th century. They gave birth to three children, Lionel (Blythe) Barrymore (1878–1954), Ethel (Blythe) Barrymore (1879–1959), and John (Blythe) Barrymore (1882–1942). John Barrymore is the most famous of his three siblings, and rightfully so. He had a prodigious talent that was barely captured on screen." [1]

Barrymore fondly remembered the summer of 1896 in his youth, spent on his father's rambling estate on Long Island. He and Lionel lived a Robinson Crusoe-like existence, attended by a black servant named Edward. John was expelled from Georgetown Preparatory School in 1898 after being caught entering a bordello.

The Great Profile

While still a teenager, he courted showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in 1901 and 1902. For years, rumors swirled that Nesbit had become pregnant and that Barrymore had arranged an abortion, disguised as an operation for "appendicitis". Several years later, another Nesbit lover, famed architect Stanford White, was murdered by Nesbit's husband, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw. Barrymore was subpoenaed to testify at Thaw's trial in defense hopes of showing that Nesbit had a history of "immorality." Both Barrymore and Nesbit denied the abortion story under oath.

Barrymore was staying at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake struck. He had starred in a production of The Dictator and was booked to tour Australia with it. Since he loathed this prospect, he hid, spending the next few days drinking at the home of a friend on Van Ness Avenue. During this drinking jag, he worked out a plan to exploit the earthquake for his own ends. He decided to present himself as an on-the-scene "reporter", making up virtually everything he claimed to have witnessed. Twenty years later, Barrymore finally confessed to his deception, but by then, he was so famous that the world merely smiled indulgently at his admission. His account was written as a "letter to my sister Ethel". He was sure the letter would be "worth at least a hundred dollars." In terms of publicity it earned Barrymore a thousand times that amount. When his sister read John’s letter to their uncle John Drew, at that time known as 'The First Gentleman of the American Stage', she asked if he believed any of it. Drew replied "I believe every word of it. It took a convulsion of nature to get him up and the US Army to make him go to work!"

John Barrymore, Shakesperian Actor

For a while, he resisted the family trade, preferring to try his hand as a painter and commercial illustrator while frequenting New York's clubs and night spots. Only economic necessity forced him to join sister Ethel and brother Lionel on the stage, which to him was simply "the easiest place to earn a decent living." He made his stage debut in 1903 in a play called Magda.

John Barrymore, 1906

Within a few years, his handsome profile and amiable disposition had helped him become a popular matinee idol in light comedy and farce. In 1909, his appearance in The Fortune Hunter catapulted him to Broadway stardom. The following year he entered into the first of his four marriages with Katherine Harris, a stage-struck 18-year-old debutante.

A fortuitous meeting with the playwright Edward Sheldon during the 1911-12 season ultimately led to a new direction for Barrymore's career. Blithe and mercurial by nature, with a penchant for alcohol and chorus girls, Barrymore had never taken himself or the theatre seriously. Yet Sheldon detected hidden reserves of dramatic power that lay untapped in his abilities and gradually persuaded him to look beyond the trivial entertainments that for years had provided his livelihood. In 1916, at Sheldon's urging, Barrymore attempted his first substantial role: Falder in Galsworthy's Justice. His success was instantaneous, and overnight he found himself acclaimed as a tragedian of the first rank.

Leading roles in Peter Ibbetson (1917), Redemption (1918), and The Jest (1919) consolidated his position as one of the most talented actors on the American stage. In 1920, Barrymore joined forces with the producer-director Arthur Hopkins and the designer Robert Edmond Jones (with whom he had first worked a season earlier on Redemption) to attempt his most ambitious undertaking to date: Shakespeare's Richard III. Aware of his limited vocal prowess, Barrymore studied intensively with a voice coach to prepare for the role.

Richard III, 1920

On March 6, 1920, the Plymouth Theatre in New York was filled to capacity with more than a thousand spectators eager to witness John Barrymore's Shakespearean debut in Richard III. Many in the audience that night were skeptical of Barrymore's ability. Despite recent triumphs in several dramatic roles, he was still better known around Broadway for light comedy and heavy carousing. By the end of the evening, however, it was apparent that Barrymore had made theatrical history. His sinister, almost painful beauty as Shakespeare's hump-backed tyrant had made the audience gasp, and his unprecedented psychological interpretation won praise as a welcome departure from the "tragic elevation" of his Victorian and Edwardian predecessors. The production was hailed by leading critics as the beginning of a new era for Shakespeare on the American stage. To Heywood Broun of the Tribune, his Richard was "the most inspired performance which this generation has seen." The production was destined for only a limited run, however; less than four weeks after the opening, Barrymore suffered a nervous breakdown, the result of his intense performance and months of overwork. Hopkins was forced to refund more than thirty-five thousand dollars to disappointed ticket holders.

Two years later, Barrymore, Hopkins, and Jones, after noteworthy failures the previous season - Barrymore in a play by his second wife, Blanche Oelrichs, and Hopkins and Jones in an ill-fated production of Macbeth starring Lionel Barrymore, again joined forces. On November 16, 1922, at the Sam H. Harris Theatre, they presented Hamlet. Barrymore's portrayal - colloquial, restrained, yet forceful and startlingly clear - electrified the audience and moved the critics to proclaim him as one of the greatest Hamlets seen in New York. His characterization was revolutionary in its use of Freudian psychology; in keeping with the post World War I rebellion against everything Victorian, he eschewed the genteel, idealized "Sweet Prince" of 19th-century tradition, imbuing his character with danger and sexuality. His impersonation, proclaimed Arthur Hornblow in Theatre Magazine, was "alive with virility and genius."

Hamlet and Gertrude (Blanche Yurka), 1922

After 101 performances - one more than Edwin Booth had played during the 1864-65 season - Barrymore, by then weary of the role, withdrew from the production. Nonetheless, he revived the play in New York and toured it the following season, and in 1925, serving as his own producer and director, took his Hamlet to London - a city where American Shakespeareans had in the past achieved scant success. Although the production brought an irate letter from George Bernard Shaw, who objected vociferously to the extensive cuts to the text, Barrymore's performance was acclaimed by an overwhelming majority of reviewers. James Agate, dean of the London critics, found his portrayal to be "nearer to Shakespeare's whole creation than any other I have seen."

Future Hamlets John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier both spoke admiringly about seeing Barrymore's performance as Hamlet in London, and surely he laid the cornerstone for a more modern Shakespearean performance, but modernity is a relative term. In 1924, Barrymore's Hamlet might very well have seemed modern compared to earlier tragedians like Edwin Booth, Henry Irving and Richard Mansfield, and there is persuasive testimony to the subtleties of Barrymore's melancholy Dane. The critic Stark Young thought that Barrymore made you feel that Polonius' dithering represented the corrupt world that had taken Ophelia away from him, while Helen Hayes was moved by the pained way he reacted to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had once been his close friends and were now set against him. "When he was on stage, the sun came out. Everything about him was exciting. He was athletic, he had charisma, and, to my young mind, he played the part to perfection." Olivier proclaimed.

John Barrymore on Screen

John Barrymore

John Barrymore was most likely convinced into giving films a try out of economic necessity and the fact that he hated touring a play all over the United States. He could make a couple of movies in the off-season theater months or shoot a film in one part of a day while doing a play in another part. He also may have been goaded into films by his brother Lionel and his uncle Sidney, who had both been successfully making movies for a couple of years. During the period of his greatest theatrical acclaim, Barrymore starred in silent films with modest success despite being robbed of his greatest gift, his magnificent speaking voice. His first film was An American Citizen (1914). He ultimately appeared in more than 20 silent movies, but was cynical about his work:

In the silent days, I found myself continually making frantic and futile faces to try to express unexpressable ideas - like a man behind a closed window on a train that is moving out of a station who is trying, in pantomime, to tell his wife, on the platform outside, that he forgot to pack his blue pajamas and that he wants her to send them to him care of Detweller, 1032 West 189th Street, New York City.

His most notable performance during the silent period is in the original film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), in which he used no makeup, relying totally on facial contortions to turn himself into the hideous monster, Mr. Hyde. It was a bravura performance that still amazes to this day. On March28, 1920 - while Richard III was still playing - Barrymore inspired sensation worthy of a rock star: Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde premiered at New York's Rivoli Theatre. So hell-bent was the crowd to see the film that hysteria erupted outside the theatre as the crowd broke the Rivoli's door and shattered two windows.

Barrymore as Richard III in The Show of Shows (1929)

With the coming of sound, he found his services even more in demand, earning in excess of $30,000 per week. Barrymore's stage-trained voice added a new dimension to his screen work. He made his talkie debut with a dramatic reading of the big Richard III speech from Henry VI, part 2 in Warner Brothers' musical revue The Show of Shows ("Would they were wasted: marrow, bones and all"). "Though he was past his prime and suffering from the effects of decades of heavy drinking, he did manage a handful of exquisite performances. In Grand Hotel (1932) he was the epitome of the debonair but melancholy jewel thief. In Counsellor at Law (1933) he lent a finely wrought intensity and a rich humanity to his role of a Jewish attorney who had fought his way out of the slums. He was utterly brilliant, almost uncontainable, in Hollywood’s first screwball comedy, Twentieth Century (1934). The best of his other performances were usually parodies of his own well-documented dissolution, such as his painfully realistic portrayal of the drunken, failed actor in Dinner at Eight (1933)." [1]

According to Frank Miller, writing for Turner Classic Movies, MGM Studio chief Louis B. Mayer objected to the casting of John Barrymore. "He was worried about Barrymore's drinking and erratic behavior," Miller writes, "but Cukor assured him that they had developed a good working relationship on A Bill of Divorcement (1932). On the set of Dinner at Eight Barrymore was cooperative and helpful. Far from resisting comparisons between himself and his character, a fading matinee idol succumbing to alcoholism, he suggested playing up the similarities. At his instigation, [Frances] Marion and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz added references to his profile and his three wives. On the set, he even improvised imitations of faded actors he'd run into in New York."

During this period Barrymore entered into his third marriage, with the actress Dolores Costello, and had two children (he had earlier fathered a daughter, Diana, with Blanche Oelrichs aka Michael Strange). For a time, he enjoyed domestic and professional prosperity. By the mid-1930s, however, years of hard living, reckless drinking, and a mercurial disregard for his personal well-being had taken their toll. Barrymore began to experience numerous alcohol-related illnesses, and his memory became increasingly erratic; on several occasions, he found himself unable to remember his lines and forced to use cue cards.

Barrymore with his favored pet Maloney, a king vulture

Barrymore suffered a relapse on his boat, The Mariner, in 1929 off the coast of Mexico while on honeymoon with wife Dolores. This entailed a quick trip to shore by his crew and admittance into doctor's care. Much of his newly occurring health problems most likely stemmed from his consumption of bad and sometimes nearly poisonous illegal alcohol during the period of Prohibition in the United States.

In 1935, he began a relationship with a starstruck 19-year-old college student, Elaine Barrie, later to become his fourth wife. Their bizarre liaison resulted in sensational tabloid headlines as this young "Ariel" pursued her "Caliban" (as the press dubbed them) across the country. By that time, it was clear to the film community that Barrymore's skills and memory were in decline. Forced to read lines from blackboards placed just out of camera range, he was cast mainly in secondary roles in inferior films as a parody of his former self.

During the 1939-40 season, he made an ill-starred return to Broadway in My Dear Children, a flimsy, exploitative comedy in which he burlesqued his image as an over-the-hill ham. The play opened to scathing reviews, yet audiences came to see a once-magnificent talent, lured by his propensity to make unpredictable departures from the script. In the years that followed, Barrymore, in part to honor his monumental debts to ex-wives and the Internal Revenue Service, continued to accept whatever roles were offered. He became a fixture on Rudy Vallee's radio show, where the jokes invariably centered on his drinking, marital problems, and has-been status. Even in decline, he continued to harbor quixotic hopes of returning to the stage in a worthy Shakespearean vehicle, despite ravaged powers and recurring memory loss.

In 1937, Barrymore visited India, the land where his father had been born. His brother Lionel tried to help him find a small place near Lionel's house and to convince him to stay away from impetuous marriages, which usually ended in divorce and put a strain on his once large income.

John Barrymore's Death

The final collapse of John Barrymorecame on Tuesday evening, May 19, 1942, at a rehearsal for the Rudy Vallee show at NBC. He had just recited Romeo's "Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon" when he collapsed into Vallee's arms. "I guess this is one time I miss my cue" he said. Dr. Hugo Kersten, always on call at NBC just in case Barrymore collapsed at the studio, drove the star to Hollywood Hospital, where he was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia, hardening of the arteries, hemorrhaging ulcers, and cirrhosis of the liver. He dad $.60 in his pocket.

John Barrymore (1882-1942)

On his deathbed, he received the Last Rites of his Catholic faith. The sacrament, administered by old family friend Rev. John O'Donnell, supposedly came at the urging of his brother, Lionel. Still, it's significant that Barrymore accepted it. For ten days he faded and rallied, drifting in and out of consciousness until May 29, when at 10:20 p.m. he died. The causes of death were acute myocarditis, due to chronic nephritis.

According to Errol Flynn's memoirs, film director Raoul Walsh "borrowed" Barrymore's body before burial, and left his corpse propped in a chair for a drunken Flynn to discover when he returned home from The Cock and Bull Bar. This was re-created in the movie W.C. Fields and Me. Other accounts of this classic Hollywood tale substitute actor Peter Lorre in the place of Walsh, but Walsh himself tells the story in Richard Schickel's 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies. However, Barrymore's great friend Gene Fowler denied the story, stating that he and his son held vigil over the body at the funeral home until the funeral and burial.

Commentaries appearing over the next few days almost invariably lamented the dissipation of his talents, yet the supreme dramatic artist was not forgotten. "The moralists," remarked an anonymous editorial writer in the Herald Tribune, "said it was 'sad' that in his latter years he became a 'caricature' of a once magnificent figure. But none of this was news to Barrymore, nor did he allow it to disturb him unduly. ... Here was an actor. Was ever there a better in America? ... No matter what he touched, he gave it a manner and a dash. He was born to be an actor, and when he conscientiously set himself to a task he could blend his genius with a thoroughly sound and intelligent craftsmanship. ... He was a mortal whose head at times reached very close to the stars."


  • Playmates (1941)
  • World Premiere (1941)
  • The Invisible Woman (1940)
  • The Great Profile (1940)
  • Midnight (1939)
  • The Great Man Votes (1939)
  • Hold That Co-ed (1938)
  • Spawn of the North (1938)
  • Marie Antoinette (1938)
  • Romance in the Dark (1938)
  • Bulldog Drummond's Peril (1938)
  • True Confession (1937)
  • Bulldog Drummond's Revenge (1937)
  • Night Club Scandal (1937)
  • Bulldog Drummond Comes Back (1937)
  • Maytime (1937)
  • Romeo and Juliet (1936)
  • Twentieth Century (1934)
  • Long Lost Father (1934)
  • Counsellor at Law (1933)
  • Night Flight (1933)
  • Dinner at Eight (1933)
  • Reunion in Vienna (1933)
  • Topaze (1933)
  • Hamlet - Act I: Scene V (1933)
  • Rasputin and the Empress (1932)
  • A Bill of Divorcement (1932)
  • State's Attorney (1932)
  • Grand Hotel (1932)
  • Arsène Lupin (1932)
  • The Mad Genius (1931)
  • Svengali (1931)
  • Moby Dick (1930)
  • The Man from Blankley's (1930)
  • General Crack (1930)
  • The Show of Shows (1929)
  • Eternal Love (1929)
  • Tempest (1928)
  • The Beloved Rogue (1927)
  • When a Man Loves (1927)
  • Don Juan (1926)
  • The Sea Beast (1926)
  • Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) (uncredited)
  • Beau Brummel (1924)
  • Sherlock Holmes (1922)
  • The Lotus Eater (1921)
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
  • The Test of Honor (1919)
  • Here Comes the Bride (1919)
  • On the Quiet (1918)
  • National Red Cross Pageant (1917)
  • Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917)
  • The Red Widow (1916)
  • The Lost Bridegroom (1916)
  • Nearly a King (1916)
  • The Incorrigible Dukane (1915)
  • The Dictator (1915)
  • Are You a Mason? (1915)
  • The Man from Mexico (1914)
  • An American Citizen (1914)
  • One on Romance (1913) (unconfirmed)
  • A Prize Package (1912) (unconfirmed)
  • The Widow Casey's Return (1912) (unconfirmed)
  • The Dream of a Moving Picture Director (1912) (unconfirmed)