skip navigation
John Barrymore Profile
Remind Me

John Barrymore Profile

No other actor reached such heights of achievement then fell to such depths as did John Barrymore. At his zenith in the 1920s, he was acclaimed as the greatest Shakespearian actor of his generation. His aristocratic good looks earned him the title of "The Great Profile". At his nadir in the early 1940s, he parodied himself on radio as a washed-up, drunken actor for much needed cash. Modern audiences can only judge Barrymore's talent on his film appearances since his greatest theatrical triumphs were not recorded for posterity. Luckily for us, he made several outstanding films before his decline in the mid 1930s and in these we can see the extraordinary talent he was.

John Sidney Blyth (or Blythe) was born on February 14 (or 15th), 1882 in Philadelphia. His father, English actor Maurice Blyth used the stage name Barrymore which was also adopted by his children. Barrymore's mother was Georgiana Drew of the famed Drew family of actors who, along with the Blyths, dominated the American theater in the 1800s. The marriage was a tumultuous one with separations and reconciliations. Georgiana Barrymore contracted consumption (tuberculosis) during the run of her successful play The Senator in December 1891. She died two years later, leaving behind three children: Lionel, Ethel, and John who was only eleven. John spent his childhood in various boarding schools or with relatives like his grandmother, the famed actress Louisa Lane Drew, known on the stages as "Mrs. Drew" who owned and managed the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia.

Growing up in a theatrical family, it would have seemed natural that Barrymore would become an actor, but his first ambition was to become an artist. After being thrown out of Georgetown Preparatory School for being caught in a bordello, he studied art. For a few years, he was able to work as an illustrator for the William Randolph Hearst owned New York Evening Journal, and as a painter but his reckless lifestyle and early alcoholism kept him almost perpetually broke. Finally, in 1903, needing the money, he entered the family business and made his legitimate stage debut in a small part in the play Magda, where he earned an unenthusiastic review from the Chicago Tribune: "The part of Max was essayed by a young actor who calls himself Mr. John Barrymore. He walked about the stage as if he had been all dressed up and forgotten." John would become a full-time actor in 1905 when he joined his family on a cross-country tour performing various plays.

The following year, 1906, Barrymore found himself in San Francisco en route to a tour of Australia, when the famous earthquake and fire nearly leveled the city. He had fallen asleep after a night on the town at a friend's house and after putting his evening clothes on, he ran back to his hotel where he promptly went up to his room and fell asleep, despite the aftershocks and the fire. Following the tour of Australia (where he was arrested for 'laughing in the streets after 9:00 pm'), he returned to Broadway where he made his mark in mostly light comedies and the occasional foray into moving pictures. In 1916 after ten years of being thought of as just a matinee idol, John Barrymore made the critics take him seriously as an actor when he portrayed the cockney crook in Justice, which was followed up with another success in Peter Ibbetson. And then came Shakespeare.

During the 1920s, John Barrymore was the most celebrated Shakespearian actor in the world. His triumphs in Richard III and Hamlet won him acclaim in both the United States and in London, where he influenced a generation of Shakespearian actors such as Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, and Laurence Olivier. In 1933 Barrymore admitted the reason he wanted to do Hamlet, "Money meant nothing to me. The important thing was that John Barrymore, once a wild, irresponsible no-good comedian had pulled himself together, had worked so hard and conscientiously and so effectively that London praised his performance of Hamlet! The most critical Shakespeare audiences on earth had applauded John Barrymore's Hamlet ! God, what satisfaction!"

When not appearing on stage, Barrymore was busy making films for Paramount where his acclaimed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) was one of the first movies to be shot at the new Astoria Studios; at Goldwyn Pictures where he made Sherlock Holmes (1922), a film long thought lost and which was recently partially restored by the George Eastman House (and the film in which Roland Young and William Powell made their film debuts); and Warner Bros, with whom he signed a long-term contract and for whom he would do his best silent films such as Beau Brummel (1924), co-starring his current girlfriend/lover Mary Astor, The Sea Beast (1926), in which he would co-star with the woman he would later take as his third wife, Dolores Costello, and Don Juan (1926), which featured a very young Myrna Loy. The latter film also made movie history as the first film released with a recorded soundtrack using Warner Bros experimental "Vitaphone" process which synchronized a record of the soundtrack to the film.

In 1929 Warner Bros released The Show of Shows in which they, like many studios that year, paraded their talent in front of the microphone. It is in this film that modern audiences can have a glimpse of John Barrymore doing Shakespeare. He appears from behind a curtain in a tuxedo and introduces a scene from Henry VI Part III in which he portrays his famous Richard III character and does a monologue. It was originally shot in two-strip Technicolor which has apparently been lost. What does survive attests to Barrymore's greatness as a Shakespearian. His Richard III conveys a sense of menace and madness even after nearly eighty years.

Barrymore easily made the transition from silent to sound films, unlike many of his contemporaries. In 1932 Barrymore's contract with Warner Bros was not renewed. As Margot Peters wrote in her book The House of Barrymore, The Great Profile wasn't bringing in the audience the way he used to, and with the Great Depression at its height, the problems he was causing the studio made him a liability. "[W]hen they'd signed him for fabulous terms, Jack Warner hadn't realized that Barrymore drank his meals [...]Admitting that Barrymore had given some great performances, Warner Bros also had to pay attention to arithmetic. Barrymore box-office receipts did not justify his salary. Now Warner Bros declined to renew his contract on their old terms, and in 1931 its long association with John Barrymore ended."

"Predictably the break inspired waves of rumor: JOHN BARRYMORE QUITTING FILMS FOR GOOD...JOHN BARRYMORE SERIOUSLY CONSIDERING RETURN TO STAGE..." Although he was besieged with offers for Broadway plays, he refused them all. Already his alcoholism was beginning to affect his memory. "He was terrified of a live audience. He kept up the pretense, however, that he could go back to the stage whenever he chose. Hollywood was "that dermoid cyst," "Hollywoodus in Latrina," "the flatulent cave of the winds," "this goddam sinkhole of culture." All talk. He was hooked. Death was the only escape. Well, he was trying."

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed Barrymore in 1932. Although he was taking a $25,000 salary cut, he was mired in debt due to profligate spending, alimony, child support, and a Hollywood mansion. Barrymore spent the year making no less than five films, including the classics Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight (both co-starring his brother Lionel who had been at MGM for some time), and on loan to RKO Pictures he played Katharine Hepburn's mentally ill father in her film debut A Bill of Divorcement. Mental illness had long been a private fear of Barrymore's, having watched his brilliant father, Maurice, go slowly insane due to the effects of syphilis and alcoholism. His own later erratic and bizarre behavior indicates that he had every right to worry.

To see John Barrymore in films such as Topaze (1933), Dinner at Eight , Grand Hotel and especially his tour de force performance in Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century (1934) is to see a master at work. In the latter film, which he made on loan from MGM at Columbia, Barrymore takes command. True, it rightfully made Carole Lombard a star after many years in films, but the movie really belongs to Barrymore. He shows himself at his best, whether disguised as a Southern Colonel in order to escape the Sheriff, turning on the charm to try to seduce Lombard, or pretending to be dying in order to get her to sign a new contract with his theater company. It was a brilliant performance. Incredibly, he was never nominated for an Academy Award. He theorized that "I think they were afraid I'd show up at the banquet drunk, embarrassing both myself and them. But I wouldn't have, you know."

Following completion of Twentieth Century , Barrymore tried to cure himself of his alcoholism by going to India. By his own account, he spent most of his time in a brothel, but the details were always hazy. What is painfully clear is that after Twentieth Century, something happened to John Barrymore. He did not appear in a film again for nearly two years when he played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1936), but he could no longer remember his lines. This man who dazzled London audiences ten years before as Hamlet now had to have his lines written out on blackboards placed around the set. Watching his performances in any film after Twentieth Century is both sad and distracting. Barrymore's eyes constantly move from the other actor's face to the blackboards, and in most of his remaining work, he overacts manically, rolling his "r's" and his eyes in mock Shakespearian tones. He looks decidedly unwell and often unwashed. Stories about his bad hygiene became famous in Hollywood and Barrymore found himself difficult to employ.

With the exception of The Great Man Votes (1939), Garson Kanin's brave attempt to restore Barrymore's dignity and career, he was no longer a star. Worse, he was on his way to being a has-been. During the 1930s Dolores Costello had divorced him and in his early fifties, he took up with a 19-year old college student named Elaine Jacobs (who changed her name to Elaine Barrie). Their tempestuous affair and later marriage was tabloid fodder and did not do his bank account or his sanity any good. By 1940 the Great Profile was almost unrecognizable. He was bloated and bleary-eyed and was reduced to lampooning himself for money, not only in a film called The Great Profile (1940) and his last film Playmates (1941), where the washed up actor who needs a radio sponsor is called John Barrymore, but also on Rudy Vallee's radio show. His last stage appearance in 1939-40 had been a farce. My Dear Children ran for thirty-three weeks around the country and gained him a lot of publicity, but it was mainly for his ad-libbing and straying off into tangents on-stage. It was a train-wreck as described by his friend Eloise Sheldon, "He broke my heart he could be so wonderful, but by the time I knew him he was already destroyed. We shared the alley where the Selwyn and Harris Theatres joined, and I could have cried daily to see the curious that came around just to see what shocking things he'd say or do. Because he could be so simple and dear, it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen." Orson Welles befriended Barrymore around this time and often dined with him after his performance, "He was so generous to a young theatre man like myself and so kindly and so gentlemanly and so warm. He was such a good man. He was so sick he could hardly get through it and pretended to be drunk. He knew he was prostituting himself, and that everybody he cared about was ashamed of him, but he managed to play it as though it were a great lark, and to bring the audience into it as though they were at a party. A great performance, really."

In late May 1942 he collapsed during a rehearsal of the Rudy Vallee radio program. Peters wrote, "Today the usual buffoon's script was put into his hands containing, as usual, some Shakespeare to ham, this time lines from Romeo and Juliet: "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. / Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon –." Ironically, for one who disliked playing the lover, they were the last words John Barrymore uttered as an actor. As he spoke them he turned white and swayed. As Vallee caught him in his arms, Jack said, "I guess this is one time I miss my cue." He was taken to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital where he managed to hang on for several days before slipping into a coma. On May 29th, 1942, John Barrymore died at the age of sixty.

by Lorraine LoBianco

John Barrymore , by Martin F. Norden, The St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture
The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters
The Internet Movie Database

Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Scorsese Screens for February
An exclusive monthly column

In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film...more