My grandfather’s parents were Cornish immigrants. They worked hard, but they were considered very “working class”. My grandfather decided that he would be cultured, he would ball dance like a dream, he would sing beautifully and be dashingly handsome. He would be a matinee idol of sorts.
When I think of my grandfather I think of Clark Gable, because of his looks, but when I think of his style, I think of John Barrymore: stylish, polished, an all round charmer, with a silky tongue and a wit to match.
John Sidney Blythe was born to Maurice and Georgiana in Philadelphia in 1882. In the tradition of Johns, he was called Jack when he was young. He was a lovely looking child, but his behaviour belied his looks. And he was sent to various boarding schools whilst his parents toured the country, providing him with no constant home which exacerbated this behaviour.
It was perhaps this unhappy childhood that initially dissuaded him from joining his famous thespian family in stomping the boards. But his father persuaded him to act with him in a play in 1900. However, the acting bug did not bite, and John did not become a professional actor until 1903.
Two years before this, John witnessed his father’s mental health disintegrate rapidly and completely due to tertiary syphilis. The fear that he, too, would succumb to madness purportedly haunted him for the rest of his life. This perhaps exacerbated his alcoholism, which developed when he was only in early adolescence.
According to Wikipedia:
The Encyclopedia of World Biography states that Barrymore was constantly ” haunted by the bright and dark spell of his father”,￼ and his close friend Gene Fowler reported that “the bleak overtone of this breaking of his parent’s reason never quite died away in Barrymore’s mind…
After failed attempts as a newspaper cartoonist and poster designer, John finally gave into what he called the family curse: acting.
…there isn’t any romance about how I went on stage. … I needed the money.”
The monetary monster would then bless the stage and screen with one of the most talented actors of the twentieth century. Although John would not embark upon his career with the bright eyed enthusiasm of some and would try the patience of his mentor, William Colliers, and his fellow actors many times due to his chronic drinking; in 1922 he would go on to give what is considered one of the greatest realisations of Hamlet on stage.
Forty years later, Orson Welles would say that John had realised the role of Hamlet entirely. The way John performed the role was
not so much princely – he was a man of genius who happened to be a prince, and he was tender, and virile, and witty, and dangerous”.
Which seemed to not only describe Hamlet, but John himself, who would be called all those things during his life and in death, by his wives, friends and family.
What I love most about John’s acting style is that it was both natural and theatrical. I know that’s an utter contradiction, but what I mean is that John always embodied his characters. He was Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a rebellious French poet, a man who wants to teach his wife a lesson with the help Claudette Colbert, or an evil, yet tragic figure. His technique was that of the stage, but he managed to make it work so well on camera, his signature eyebrow raise and side eye, his mischievous little smile, or the broken, hollow look he gave when acting out the sorrow of his character.
There has never been, and never will be, another actor like him. Although that description is bandied around a lot with regards to people, I think that it really is true of John. The first time I saw him onscreen I was immediately enthralled. And I am every single time I watch one of his films. It does not matter what part he plays, he always has my absolutely undivided attention.
For me, John Barrymore was not just an actor. He was and still is through the silver shadows of his films, a communicator of what it means to be an entertainer. Although his reasons for pursuing acting were not glamorous, he was a true entertainer. He gave himself entirely to his craft. While his good friend and long time costar John Howard, said of Barrymore that he was such an incredible actor that although Howard had to stick script pages on the floor, objects on set and even other actor’s due to Barrymore’s loss of memory due to alcoholism, that he made it seem entirely natural, as if this was part of his performance, and not something that likely caused Barrymore much frustration and despair. Howard also stated that Barrymore always prepared greatly for his roles, even at his most trying times.
The legacy of the Barrymores collectively is something to behold, so far reaching has it been. But John on his own has had an almost incalculable impact.
Despite never winning an Oscar, despite his numerous Oscar worthy performances, his biographer Martin Norden
…considers him to be “perhaps the most influential and idolized actor of his day”.
and Michael Morrison, who wrote a book on John’s Shakespearean acting said that
Barrymore’s stage portrayals of Richard III and Hamlet were a model for modern performances of these roles. His interpretation along psychological lines was innovative, and his “dynamic portrayals … changed the direction of subsequent revivals.” Barrymore’s natural acting style reversed the stage conventions of the time; his “‘colloquial’ verse speaking introduced to the stage the vocal manner of a postwar gentleman.”
It warms me to know that despite personal demons and tragedy, that it can firmly be stated that John Barrymore is one of the greatest actors to ever live. That his influence is still there somewhere, flitting in the stage lights of Broadway, present on the backlots of Hollywood that still stand, and on screen, through his many performances, where he was so many men, but was also always John “Jack” Sidney Blythe Barrymore. The Great Profile.
This is my first contribution for The Fifth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon being hosted by the lovely Crystal and myself. Please visit our blogs for more information and to read everyone’s tributes and thoughts on these brilliant siblings.