05 February, 2009
John Sidney Blyth Barrymore was an American actor, frequently called the greatest of his generation. He first gained fame as a stage actor, lauded for his portrayals of Hamlet and Richard III. His success continued with motion pictures in both the silent and sound eras. His distinguished features won him the nickname "The Great Profile".
Barrymore was born in the Philadelphia home of his maternal grandmother. His parents were Maurice Barrymore and his wife Georgie Drew Barrymore. His maternal grandmother was Louisa Lane Drew (aka Mrs Drew), a prominent and well-respected 19th century actress and theater manager, who instilled in him and his siblings the ways of acting and theatre life. His uncles were John Drew, Jr. and Sidney Drew.
Barrymore fondly remembered the summer of 1896 in his youth spent on his father's rambling farm on Long Island. He and Lionel lived a Robinson Crusoe-like existence, attended by a black cook named Edward. He was expelled from Georgetown Preparatory School in 1898 after being caught smoking a cigarette.
While still a teenager, he courted showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in 1901 and 1902. When Nesbit became pregnant — she aged 17 and he 19 — Barrymore proposed marriage. Her "sponsor" Stanford White intervened, however, and arranged for her to undergo an abortion, disguised as an operation for "appendicitis". White was later murdered by Nesbit's husband, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw.
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.
Barrymore was also great friends and a drinking buddy with baseball legend Mike Donlin. Donlin eventually appeared in two of Barrymore's silent movies, Raffles The Amateur Cracksman and The Sea Beast.
Barrymore delivered some of the most critically acclaimed performances in theatre and film history and was widely regarded as the screen's greatest performer during a movie career spanning 25 years as a leading man in more than 60 films.
Barrymore specialized in light comedies until convinced by his friend, playwright Edward Sheldon, to try serious drama. Thereafter Barrymore created a sensation in John Galsworthy's Justice (1916) co-starring Cathleen Nesbitt. He followed this triumph with Broadway successes in Peter Ibbetson (1917), a role his father Maurice had wanted to play, Tolstoy's Redemption(1918) and The Jest (1919), co-starring his brother Lionel, reaching what seemed to be the zenith of his stage career as Richard III in 1920. Barrymore suffered a conspicuous failure in his wife Michael Strange's play Clair de Lune (1921), but followed it with the greatest success of his theatrical career with Hamlet in 1922, which he played on Broadway for 101 performances and then took to London in 1925.
Barrymore entered films around 1913 with the feature An American Citizen. He or someone using the name Jack Barrymore is given credit for four short films made in 1912 and 1913 but this has not been proven to be John Barrymore. 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 the day while doing a play in another part of the same day. 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. Some of Barrymore's silent film roles included A.J. Raffles in Raffles the Amateur Cracksman (1917), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924), Captain Ahab in The Sea Beast (1926), and Don Juan (1926). When talking pictures arrived, Barrymore's stage-trained voice added a new dimension to his screen work. He made his talkie debut with a dramatic reading from Henry VI in Warner Brothers' musical revue The Show of Shows, and reprised his Captain Ahab role in Moby Dick (1930). His other leads included The Man from Blankley's (1930), Svengali (1931), The Mad Genius (1931), Grand Hotel (1932) (in which he displays an affectionate chemistry with his brother Lionel), Dinner at Eight (1933), Topaze (1933) and Twentieth Century (1934). He worked opposite many of the screen's foremost leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. In 1933, Barrymore appeared as a Jewish attorney in the title role of Counsellor-at-Law based on Elmer Rice's 1931 play. As critic Pauline Kael later wrote, he "seems an unlikely choice for the ghetto-born lawyer...but this is one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His 'presence' is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor, and his zest."
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 the late 1930s, alcoholism, or perhaps an early onset of Alzheimer's Disease, encroached on his ability to remember his lines, and his diminished abilities were apparent in a surviving screen test that he made for an aborted film version of Hamlet in 1934. From then on, he insisted on reading his dialogue from cue cards. He continued to give creditable performances in lesser pictures, for example as Inspector Nielson in some of Paramount Pictures' Bulldog Drummond mysteries, and offered one last bravura dramatic turn in RKO's 1939 feature The Great Man Votes. After that, his remaining screen roles were broad caricatures of himself, as in The Great Profile (with "Oh, Johnny, How You Can Love" as his theme music) and World Premiere. In the otherwise undistinguished Playmates with band leader Kay Kyser, Barrymore recited the "To Be, or Not to Be" soliloquy from Hamlet. In 1937, Barrymore visited India, the land where his father had been born. In his private life, during his last years, he was married to his fourth and last wife, Elaine Barrie, a union that turned out to be disastrous. 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.
He was known for calling people by nicknames of his own creation. Dolores Costello was known in his writing alternately as "Small Cat," "Catkiwee," "Winkie", and "Egg." He called Lionel "Mike", and Ethel called John "Jake". He was fond of sailing, and owned his own yacht, The Mariner.
Barrymore collapsed while appearing on Rudy Vallee's radio show and died some days later in his hospital room.