HE WAS born 100 years ago in February; birth records are confused as to whether it was the 14th or 15th, but it has been a natural inclination for biographers and film historians to claim that John Barrymore, the man Hollywood dubbed "the world's greatest lover," was born on St. Valentine's Day.
When he died, 40 years ago this May, he was the object of ridicule. Hollywood had switched to calling him "John Barleycorn" and "the clown prince." Memory of his innovative Hamlet on Broadway in 1922 and his dazzling screen portrayals of Svengali, Captain Ahab, the baron in "Grand Hotel," Oscar Jaffe in "Twentieth Century," and Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet" had vanished. His career had become limited to film burlesques, in which he was the butt of the jokes, and to his role as sidekick to Rudy Vallee in the Sealtest Radio Hour.
And yet, in celebration of his birthday, it is appropriate to rekindle the memory of his greatness. Viewed without the prejudice that he was debasing his talent by appearing in films rather than playing Shakespeare, and without the continual wondering of whether or not he was drunk during filming, his screen performances glow with an inner fire. They show the blending of 19th-century acting technique with Stanislavsky's "method," which set the pattern for the contemporary style of acting.
Barrymore was born into an acting family. Ancestors had been strolling players in the time of Shakespeare. Almost every member of the family was an actor, including his uncle John Drew, known as "the first gentleman of the theater." John, his brother Lionel and sister Ethel (labeled "the royal family of Broadway" in the 1920s) were bred on Shakespearean quotations and the traditions of the theater. Their bedtime prayer was "God bless Mother and Father, Grandmother and Mum-Mum, and please, God, make Uncle Jack a good actor." Family friends included Edwin Booth, Joseph Jefferson and Fanny Davenport.
Barrymore's early years showed great evidence of frivolity: he was expelled from Washington's Georgetown Prep for frequenting a bordello; he was in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake struck and wandered around the ruins of the city in top hat and tails; he was in love with Evelyn Nesbit, central figure in the 1906 shooting death of architect Stanford White. But in 1911, he met playwright Ned Sheldon, who subsequently devoted his career to making Barrymore the greatest actor of the era. Barrymore starred in the American premiere of John Galsworthy's "Justice," a play of social relevance, in which a young man forges a check and is sent to prison, where he later commits suicide. In contrast to the affected declamations and hand-to-the-forehead gestures of the previous century, his performance was marked by sober, realistic playing and highlighted by occasional and measured moments of histrionics, as when the young man hysterically pounds on theprison bars. Thereafter, Barrymore pursued serious theatrical works. He never performed in a play by a major American playwright -- Eugene O'Neill tried to get him for both "Beyond the Horizon" and "The Great God Brown," but Barrymore was unavailable -- and yet each vehicle helped to further broaden his range of acting.
He had the classic, chiseled face of an Adonis, with what many called the perfect profile. One critic said he entered a scene "like an exquisite paper knife," and women in the audience gasped in ecstasy at his beauty. And yet he despaired of a "pretty boy" image ("How can I bring myself to say these angel cake speeches?" he once complained during rehearsals) and frequently took parts in which he could disguise his features, such as the title roles in the 1920 film version of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." He hired coaches to rid his voice of a Brooklyn twang and soon developed a range that equipped him to play Shakespeare. Early in his career, he also explored the world of film in a series of comedies as a rich man's Charlie Chaplin. Of his work in these silents, The New York Times wrote: "No actor needs fewer titles" -- high praise for a silent film actor.
Barrymore's mentors and friends were influenced by the theories of the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavsky, advocate of the "method" school of acting. Actors were encouraged to search for motivation and to imagine themselves as the characters. Barrymore knew Stanislavsky and people of his circle. His talk and writings about his performances suggest the influence of the "method." He said of his 1920 performance as Richard III, "It was the first time I ever actually got inside the character I was playing. I mean I thought I was the character and in my dreams I knew that I was he." He modeled his performance as the evil and deformed British king on the image of a scorpion he had seen at the zoo. He often talked about the characters he was playing in the third person -- "I don't think the guy would do that" -- a type of objective analysis typical of method acting.
Barrymore's absorption in his characterizations was responsible for the colorful stories about how he reacted to coughers in the audience who broke his concentration. He once threw a five-pound sea bass into the audience, shouting "Busy yourself with this, you damned walruses, while the rest of us proceed with the libretto!" While declaiming Richard III's famous cry, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse," he pointed to a coughing spectator and added, "Forget the horse! Saddle yon braying ass!"
The hallmark of Barrymore's theatrical career was his Hamlet, which he brought to both Broadway and London. For motivation, he dwelt on Hamlet's affection for his mother and pioneered the Oedipal interpretation of the role that has since become standard.
His performance was hailed as one of the greatest interpretations of the role. The New Republic's Stark Young wrote, "Other actors can act Hamlet, but John Barrymore is Hamlet." On the basis of his Broadway and London Hamlets, his Richard III, and film roles such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Barrymore was regarded as the finest actor of his generation. His acting "had many facets," said Ben Hecht. "It had strut and oratory in it and it had the naturalness and the touch of commonplace life." The list of actors who have gone on record as having been influenced by Barrymore is a formidable one -- Fredric March, Orson Welles, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quinn, Laurence Olivier.
But while he never achieved another role on the scale of Hamlet after he devoted his career to films in the 1920s, he essayed an incredible variety of characters in his movies. In the sound films, his theater-trained voice seemed as if it could split the screen at times. Nor did he build his reputation on the basis of one persona. Barrymore exemplified the term "actor." In 16 years (1926-42), he played 39 parts, in scripts or adaptations of works by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Robert E. Sherwood, Elmer Rice, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and Clemence Dane, under the direction of such noteworthies as George Cukor, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, and Mitchell Leisen. He was Svengali, his eyes covered by white lenses; then in the next film he'd be the lighthearted jewel thief Arsen Lupin. He'd take on the romantic (and secondary, opposite his brother Lionel and sister Ethel) role of Prince Paul in "Rasputin and the Empress" while at the same time filming "Bill of Divorcement" in which he played an escapee from a mental institution.
Yet his performances demonstrate a common theme. The characters he played -- Captain Ahab, Don Juan, Francois Villon, Arsen Lupin, Oscar Jaffe, Mercutio, even Svengali -- are strivers and dreamers. They call to mind a sentiment that Barrymore wrote in his diary: "A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams."
His films are filled with little touches, scenes and gestures that one remembers long after the film is over. Again, this is due to the blending of the theatrical with the realistic -- Barrymore's style of playing. His baron in "Grand Hotel" desperately needs money and steals the wallet of an old man he has befriended. While the old man (played by John's brother Lionel) searches for the wallet on his hands and knees and we hear his voice lamenting that it held all the money he had in the world, the camera is on Barrymore, who listens, shrugs, and turns to pretend to find the wallet for the old man. The shrug, this nonchalant act of compassion, seals his fate. Later in the film he is killed trying to steal another wallet. In "Topaze," his French schoolmaster, excited and unused to drinking, swallows the olive while drinking his martini. Most memorable of all is the end of the silent film "Beau Brummel," when as a pathetic old man, once the epitome of youth and gallantry before he insulted the king, he lies dead and the spirit of the young Beau Brummel emerges from his body. This is Hollywood romance at its finest.
John Barrymore's movie career was alsounusual and exemplary in that, rather than just making romantic films showing off his fabled "Great Profile," he took on a number of unflattering roles, including ones that touched on his hidden fears. His father had gone insane and died in an institution, as had his good friend Frank Butler, an alcoholic reporter and nephew of the Civil War hero Benjamin Butler, "scourge of New Orleans." And yet he played Hilary Fairfield, who escapes from a mental institution and returns to a wife who is planning to remarry. Again, there are the Barrymore "touches." Learning that his wife is coming into the room, he becomes quietly excited at the prospect of seeing her again. "Give me a minute," he says as he goes to a mirror and nervously pats his hair into place. In George Cukor's "Dinner at Eight," from the play by Kaufman and Ferber, he played Larry Renault, a drunken, has-been actor, something Barrymore could quite rightly have feared he would one day become. And yet, rather than shy away from these similarities, Barrymore, according to director Cukor, leapt wholeheartedly into the part and even contributed elements from his own biography to cement the connection. This was especially true of the ending. In the course of a single day, Renault recognizes that he has wasted his life and so plans to kill himself. He turns on the gas jet, adjusts the lamp, and positions himself in the armchair so that his left profile will be well-illuminated when they walk in and find him.
Even Barrymore's later films, done when he was regarded as unreliable and grateful for any part, can be depended on for sharp characterizations -- his Louis XV in "Marie Antoinette," George Flammarion in "Midnight," and Gregory Vance in "The Great Man Votes."
Barrymore's temperament, legendary drinking, and fears of embracing the insanity that his father and best friend experienced produced four unhappy marriages. "When they find the arms of Venus de Milo," he said, "they will discover boxing gloves on the hands." His features became bloated, and he chose to read his lines off slates. By the late 1930s, his romantic pursuit of a young woman whom he dubbed "Ariel" to his "Caliban" brought him the headlines once won by his performances. All that seemed to remain from his days of greatness was a sharp and ready wit. A scholarly minded woman asked for his interpretation of an aspect of Hamlet: "Did Hamlet and Ophelia make love?" "Only in the Chicago company," he replied.
He died at the age of 60, in debt. Recently, his main claims to remembrance have been biographies such as John Kobler's "Damned in Paradise," basically a lament of his fall from greatness, and his son, John Jr.'s, honoring of his father's last wish -- in December 1980, he moved Barrymore's remains from a cemetery in East Los Angeles back to the family plot in Philadelphia. And yet the films and the legacy survive.
On his 60th birthday, four months before he died, Barrymore was asked what he planned to do with the rest of his life. "I shall spend it at sea," he replied. "The skipper of the Flying Dutchman is signing me on as a boatswain." Barrymore's linking himself with the legendary captain sailing the seas for eternity in search of redemption was not inappropriate. Arthur Hopkins, director of many of Barrymore's stage successes, presented another view of Barrymore's afterlife, also using the imagery of the sea: "He charted new areas of expression that remain open for others to explore. . . . The area that knew Barrymore will know him again in the person of others."