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The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Featuring:
John Barrymore
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1917 John Barrymore Kromo Gravure Trading CardIf ever there were a movie family of legendary figures spanning generations, it would be the Barrymore clan. Both in films and real life, from the golden days of the silent screen until today, the Barrymores have lit silver screen and paraded their temperamental sides in public life. It is no secret that family feuds run rampant in this family – starlet Drew Barrymore, the E.T. girl, one of Charlie’s Angels, and the latest in a long line of screen legends, refers to Steven Spielberg as the major father figure in her life. But to get to the heart of this family feud, one must go back to the beginning, to a time when John Barrymore became one of cinema’s first matinee idols.

John Blyth Barrymore, born February 15, 1882 in Philadelphia, was the youngest of three siblings, all of whom caught the acting bug when the new medium of motion pictures was taking hold in the first decade of the 20th century. Before turning toward the movies, however, John was an ambitious young man who1904 Program for John Barrymore's first Broadway Play The Dictator worked as a cartoonist with a New York newspaper. He also moved to Paris for a time to acquire some worldly experience before realizing he wanted to be an actor, around 1903. He certainly had the looks for it. Any photo of John will readily reveal his dark good looks; adding to that his tall frame and darkly alluring eyes, and it isn’t difficult to see how this star was born.

In 1903, he made his debut on the stage, his smooth, booming baritone voice complementing is handsome physique to lend him a remarkable presence before a live audience. A few performances in, and everyone knew who John Barrymore was. What’s more, everyone had to see him, especially the women. He became known, through a flurry of press coverage, as the “Great Profile”, a witty play on words describing his intriguing, media-friendly persona and his beguiling good looks. Here was a man whose range had him excel in Shakespearean roles and in whimsical comedy. Barely into his career and John could do no wrong. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his less attractive, less talented siblings, Lionel and Ethel, whose stars faded a lot more quickly than that of their little brother.

John’s first film role was in 1913’s “An American Citizen”, and right from the start it was apparent that he was as versatile on the big screen as he was on the stage. From 1920s dark and serious (if campy) “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, to 1926’s “Don Juan”, John tapped into all sides of his psyche to portray endless variations of mood and emotion – a rare feat in the days of melodramatic overacting. These two films alone indicate his legacy as one of the earliest film stars, as many remakes have been made of both films, with John’s performances the benchmark for all future actors assuming these roles. It’s incredible, in fact, how timeless his performances are, how well they stand up over 70 years after he immortalized them. It also should not go without notice that John seamlessly made the transition from silent film to sound, a feat many of his peers did not succeed in accomplishing. Thanks to his wonderful voice, he was able to survive and prosper when the medium changed forever when synchronized sound was introduced in 1927.

1920's Issue of Cinefilo featuring John Barrymore on the front cover1930's German Jasmatzi Trading Card featuring John BarrymoreJohn was so famous that he was able, by 1933, to parody himself in the film “Dinner at Eight.” By the time people begin the poke fun at themselves, it’s usually an indication that a turning point has been reached, and John Barrymore is no exception. A hard drinker, his life and career were beginning to suffer. His performances began to dull, and he would even need cue cards on set to remember his lines. Not to say that he didn’t have some standout performances left in him: most memorable include 1932’s Grand Hotel and A Bill of Divorcement, 1933’s Topaz and Counsellor-at-Law, and 1937’s Maytime.

John Barrymore lived hard and played harder. He married four times. His writer/poet wife Michael Strange was as volatile as John was always known to be, so their marriage inevitable ended – on tempestuous terms. John also married two actresses: Dolores Costello and Elaine Barry. He had two children, Diana (1921-1960) and John, Jr. (1932-). Both went into acting but neither had the natural magnetism of their father, and neither made a big splash on the industry. It didn’t help that they both inherited their father’s moodiness and penchant for self-destruction, although Diana used her rocky life to her benefit – she wrote an autobiography called Too Much, Too Soon in 1957 that was made into a film a year later, starring Errol Flynn.

John died on May 19, 1942 in Hollywood, the year America actively joined the Second World War. He was penniless and miserable. In stark contrast to his sad demise, the legacy he left behind, both through future generations of Barrymores, and his films, will light up movie screens forever. But ultimately, the man behind the stunning looks remain an enigma. As his brother Lionel once famously said about him: “Setting down words to explain Jack Barrymore ... is like seeking the mystery of Hamlet himself in the monosyllables of basic English.”
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen here in the M.P.P.N. twice monthly.  Next issue, Clara Bow.


Other John Barrymore Pages:

John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor -- Web site for the book by Michael Morrison which also has informative links including a bio of The Great Profile, photo gallery, and an audio clip of Barrymore as Hamlet.
Masters of Disguise by Stephen Schochet -- Another page right here on things-and-other-stuff.com