Biography

Like his brother Lionel and his sister Ethel, American actor John Barrymore had early intentions to break away from the family theatrical tradition and become an artist, in the "demonic" style of Gustav Doré. But acting won out; thanks to his natural flair and good looks, Barrymore was a matinee idol within a few seasons after his 1903 stage debut. His best-known Broadway role for many years was as an inebriated wireless operator in the Dick Davis farce The Dictator. On stage and in silent films (including a 1915 version of The Dictator), John was most at home in comedies. His one chance for greatness occurred in 1922, when he played Hamlet; even British audiences hailed Barrymore's performance as one of the best, if not the best, interpretation of the melancholy Dane. Eventually, Barrymore abandoned the theatre altogether for the movies, where he was often cast more for his looks than his talent. Perhaps in revenge against Hollywood "flesh peddlers," Barrymore loved to play roles that required physical distortion, grotesque makeup, or all-out "mad" scenes; to him, his Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) was infinitely more satisfying than Don Juan (1926). When talkies came in, Barrymore's days as a romantic lead had passed, but his exquisite voice and superb bearing guaranteed him stronger film roles than he'd had in silents; still, for every Grand Hotel (1932), there were the gloriously hammy excesses of Moby Dick (1930) and Svengali (1931). Unfortunately, throughout his life, Barrymore was plagued by his taste for alcohol, and his personal problems began catching up with him in the mid-1930s. From Romeo and Juliet(1936) onward, the actor's memory had become so befuddled that he had to recite his lines from cue cards, and from The Great Profile (1940) onward, virtually the only parts he'd get were those in which he lampooned his screen image and his offstage shenanigans. In 1939, at the behest of his latest wife Elaine Barrie, Barrymore returned to the stage in My Dear Children, a second-rate play that evolved into a freak show as Barrymore's performance deteriorated and he began profanely ad-libbing, and behaving outrageously during the play's run. Sadly, the more Barrymore debased himself in public, the more the public ate it up, and My Dear Children was a hit, as were his humiliatingly hilarious appearances on Rudy Vallee's radio show. To paraphrase his old friend and drinking companion Gene Fowler, Barrymore had gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel; we are lucky indeed that he left a gallery of brilliant film portrayals before the fall. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi