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Virginia Weidler almost made her film debut in a John Barrymore film at the age of 3 in Moby Dick (1930), but she was replaced after refusing to take off her dress on screen. At that time, Barrymore, a matinee idol and acclaimed stage actor since the early part of the 20th century, was still enjoying the movie stardom that had begun in the silent era. The next time the two encountered each other, Weidler was assigned a small role in her third film, Long Lost Father (1934). At 52 years old, Barrymore was well past his days of dashing romantic leads and already gaining a reputation for difficult and erratic behavior fueled by alcohol, but sandwiched between Dinner at Eight (1933) and Twentieth Century (1934), this was still a successful time for him in motion pictures. When Weidler and Barrymore next met, the young actress's popularity was at its peak, while Barrymore's alcoholism had become so problematic that director Garson Kanin had to beg producer Pandro Berman to let him hire the actor for his new movie, The Great Man Votes (1939). After much argument, Berman finally agreed to let Kanin hang himself by casting Barrymore as an alcoholic college professor who loses his way after the death of his wife. It's up to his two precocious children to save the day by prompting his crucial involvement in the town's mayoral election, thereby restoring his self-respect and importance in the eyes of the community.
As low as Barrymore had fallen, Weidler was at the top of her game at her home studio (MGM) and in loan outs (she made The Great Man Votes for RKO). The same year she made this RKO feature, she appeared in nine pictures, including the all-star hit The Women (1939), where she held her own with the likes of Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. Working with Barrymore, however, turned out to be more difficult than appearing opposite such legendary divas.
Peter Holden, the six-year-old making his only screen appearance as the professor's son, was terrified of the star and extremely docile, almost immobile, in his presence. Weidler, however, a veteran of more than 20 films, was an expert actress and scene-stealer, so accomplished that Barrymore began referring to her sarcastically as "Mrs. Thomas Whiffen," the celebrated American stage actress who had continued to act well into her later years. In one key scene, Barrymore had to deliver a long, moving speech to the children about their dead mother. Virginia sat on his lap, twisting and re-twisting his necktie around her finger as he beautifully delivered the monologue. Kanin found himself enthralled by Weidler's bit of business until suddenly the take was interrupted by a scream from Barrymore. He jumped to his feet and hurled the little girl across the set (luckily, she was caught by two stagehands), cursing and berating her for being a "hammy little bitch" who craftily pulled focus to herself in what was supposed to be his big dramatic moment. Weidler was led off the set weeping, and Kanin walked Barrymore around the lot until he calmed down. The director later admitted that, unpleasant as the incident was, the outburst did refocus his attention on what was best dramatically for the scene. The next day, Weidler sat stone still on Barrymore's lap while the actor did a magnificent take of the scene with no distraction.
Despite the volatile nature of Barrymore's eruption, his overall behavior during production proved Kanin had been justified in hiring him for the part. Barrymore was by all accounts a delight to work with, sober on the set and, despite his reliance on reading his lines off blackboard cue cards, highly professional and effective. One of the ways Kanin guaranteed this happy outcome was to order all members of the cast and crew to refer to him as "Mr. Barrymore," even those people who for years had known him simply as "Jack." Not only did this maneuver bolster the 57-year-old star's sense of being respected and revered for his long and distinguished career, it also helped ensure that he did not become pals with crew members, a practice that on previous projects led to long nights of carousing and many problems during shooting.
Unfortunately, despite fine work by all involved, The Great Man Votes was not a success. Weidler went on to bigger pictures, such as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Babes on Broadway (1941) before retiring from show business at the age of 17 in 1943. Barrymore made only five more movies, in which he was often called on to lampoon his own wastrel image, before his death in 1942 of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver.
Director: Garson Kanin
Producer: Cliff Reid
Screenplay: John Twist, Garson Kanin (uncredited), story by Gordon Malherbe Hillman
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Editing: Jack Hively
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Roy Webb
Cast: John Barrymore (Gregory Vance), Virginia Weidler (Joan Vance), Peter Holden (Donald Vance), Katharine Alexander (Agnes Billow), Donald MacBride (Iron Hat McCarthy).
by Rob Nixon