Bright Lights Film Journal

John Barrymore: Sweet Prince of Irony

“Isn’t it extraordinary that the most popular character ever written should apparently be defeated by life instead of transcending it?”

For a long while, the influence of John Barrymore on the art of acting has seemed more archeological than actual. During his theatrical heyday in the early twenties, his name was synonymous with serious thesping, much as the name Olivier became shorthand for “great actor” in the forties and beyond. Olivier and John Gielgud both spoke admiringly about seeing Barrymore’s performance as Hamlet in London, and surely he laid the cornerstone for a more modern Shakespearean performance, but modernity is a relative term. In 1924, Barrymore’s Hamlet might very well have seemed modern compared to earlier tragedians like Edwin Booth, Henry Irving and Richard Mansfield, and there is persuasive testimony to the subtleties of Barrymore’s melancholy Dane. The critic Stark Young thought that Barrymore made you feel that Polonius’ dithering represented the corrupt world that had taken Ophelia away from him, while Helen Hayes was moved by the pained way he reacted to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had once been his close friends and were now set against him. “When he was on stage, the sun came out,” Olivier proclaimed.

Barrymore left behind a few scraps of his Shakespearean past on film and radio. In The Show of Shows (1929), a Warner Brothers revue, Barrymore does a Richard III soliloquy from the third Henry VI, and it must be said that he’s fairly hopeless from a contemporary perspective; he sings the verse, prolonging vowels for no clear reason, and he can’t stop moving his eyebrows. On radio, he did bits of Hamlet, and this too is hopeless, even just to listen to, but he recorded his Dane when he was well past his prime, so it’s entirely possible that the whinnying “pear-shaped tones” of these recordings are not representative of his original work. As Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1936, above with Edna May Oliver), Barrymore brings a blast of buffoonish fun to a stately, dullish film; it’s a literally rip-snorting performance (he even belches during the Queen Mab speech). Overweight and clearly ill by this point, Barrymore still manages to give a wildly over-the-top but colorful and valid reading of the role. In his later years, he was often called a ham, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. His Mercutio is good ham acting, meaning that it’s emotionally connected but unafraid to gild the lily to the nth degree, whereas his Richard III looks like bad ham acting, mugging with too little emotion and thought underneath.

Watching Barrymore on screen, we are always waiting to see whether he will engage with his material; if he does, he’s capable of large-spirited magic, and if he doesn’t, he merely moves his face and pops his eyes, wearily, as if he’s trying to be amused. Though he provided inspiration to the hard-working Olivier and Gielgud, Barrymore was the first in a line of outsized American talents who wound up trapped in self-parody. A few years ago on Broadway, Christopher Plummer did a one-man show as Barrymore, and he had an indelible moment toward the end where he stopped short during a raucous Shakespeare recitation; in that pause, which lasted only a few seconds, Plummer gave you the full impact of Barrymore’s ghastly self-knowledge. He knows he’s a slacker, a shirker, and that he’s pissed away his promise with drinking and whoring and easy money. On film, the real Barrymore could be indulging in cringe-worthy horseplay, and then, like all drunks, he could suddenly turn totally serious; the corrupting years and the liquor barnacles would fall away, and his young face would emerge, with its poetic, flashing eyes and its fabled Great Profile.

It was a face made for greasepaint, and The Profile held a carnal promise that he cashed in so often that he wound up in debt. It doesn’t much matter what woman The Profile looks at; even Garbo loses some of her individuality when confronted with it in Grand Hotel (1932). His body was made for doublet, hose and sword, and he walks stiffly, grandly, until this natural grandeur inevitably gives way to a self-mocking parody of sexual prowess. It was his blessing and his curse that Barrymore couldn’t take anything seriously as he got older, and this quality infuses his greatest triumph on screen, in Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934, above), where his theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffe runs the physical and vocal gamut yet remains resolutely clear-eyed, even cynical, under the rococo frills and furbelows of his own vain delusions. To evade his creditors, Jaffe dresses as a Colonel Sanders type; taking off his costume, Barrymore saves his false nose for last, pulling on it until The Profile turns into a version of Cyrano de Bergerac, a romantic role that would have suited him in his prime. As if aware of this fact, he blithely starts to pick his Cyrano nose, a revelation of The Profile’s refusal of meaning and romantic love for a bracing “who cares?” laugh.

Self-pity was Barrymore’s specialty on screen, and on him it was never unattractive; it was as if he’d earned the right to luxuriate in it. Few actors are moved to diamond-like tears as often as The Profile, especially in his late silent movies, like Don Juan (1926), The Beloved Rogue (1926), When a Man Loves (1927) and Eternal Love (1929). The left coast intelligentsia was scornful of these lucrative efforts, after they had acclaimed his Richard III and his Hamlet, and they were right to be, for these Barrymore vehicles are exactly the kind of silent costume romances so mercilessly parodied in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In his forties, Barrymore can still get away with wearing tights, and could Douglas Fairbanks it up to a fare thee well, but he can’t muster much interest in the claptrap plots. “One must sorrow that a man of such genius should be a drunken clown,” reads an inter-title in The Beloved Rogue, and this isn’t the last of such meta commentary in Barrymore’s films. In The Great Profile (1940), Anne Baxter calls him “a great artist who destroyed himself with drink.” Offended by this carping yet also reveling in it, the late Barrymore lays it on so thick in his last movies that his facial acrobatics might make Marie Dressler blush. He was often drunk on set, and you can tell; he has jerky spurts of energy, then falls back into a sort of glazed, pickled brooding.

But his innate talent will sometimes leap out at you. In Tempest (1928), a sumptuously designed satin pillow of a movie, subtle ideas and feelings flicker across Barrymore’s face in close-up, until you feel that he is capable of raising silent film acting to a crest of private pantomime and fulfilled dreams. He takes a framed photograph of his beloved (Camilla Horn) and caresses it sensually; alone in her room, he takes her pillow and intensely kisses it. A moment like this feels completely private, and we can trace a direct line from this desperate kiss to Brando’s harrowing scenes in front of the mirror in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), where he exposes a wretched man’s buried fantasies. The best acting, from Barrymore to Brando, is a private thing, an airing of dirty laundry, an opening of windows. It can also be pure id, pure fantasy, which Barrymore proved with his magnificent performance in Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920, above), an early film undertaken during his most creative period on stage.

As Dr. Jekyll in the first scenes, Barrymore’s movements are contained and a bit staccato, as if the doctor feels he needs to control his worst impulses (surely The Profile could relate). When he drinks the potion that will unleash his dark side, in one shot, without aid of lighting or make-up, Barrymore transforms his classically beautiful face and body with a German expressionist contortion of his hands and facial muscles; this image is so outré that it could conceivably get a laugh, but it doesn’t because Barrymore is reaching as high as he can for the most full-blooded malignancy, and he achieves it visually by tapping into an extreme ugly interior to go with the extreme ugly exterior, amplified in the next shot by some helpful make-up, which includes a pointy head and snake-like fingers. Like Olivier, he’ll throw his entire body around the space to get the effect he wants, but the sardonic humor Barrymore brings to his roles is entirely his own; when Hyde casts off a girl (Nita Naldi) he has used up and abused, he indulges in a very funny little shrug of indifference. You won’t find a better, more physically daring performance from the silent era than Barrymore’s Jekyll and Hyde.

In the sound era, Barrymore was at his best when under the direction of George Cukor, who must have known just how to handle him. In the creaky melodrama A Bill of Divorcement (1932), Barrymore proves his range by creating a hesitant, damaged man, gentle and confused, his eyes shining with fear as he describes the “black hand” of madness that sometimes overtakes him. Cukor harnesses and focuses Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn, in her debut, and the two of them make the hoary plot work through sheer star power. Look at the way Barrymore nervously shakes the hand of the asylum director who’s come to check up on him, as if he’s a fearful little boy in a ruined, middle-aged man’s body; at his best, this was an actor who could pump gestures like this full of the largest kind of imaginative empathy. (His hands are his most expressive tool, though the gestures he makes with them are sometimes slightly old-fashioned, whereas James Cagney’s hand gestures in this period are as stylized as Barrymore’s but feel more immediate, more modern.)

In the perilous role of a fallen movie star in Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933, right), Barrymore builds a believable has-been gesture by gesture, hilariously misquoting Ibsen, feeling his lower face as if to say, “I’m still handsome!” and sneering the word “love” as if he still desperately wants to believe in it. What could be akin to the self-exploitation of his last films is instead closer to a mini Last Tango in Paris (1972), an all-cards-on-the-table movement toward death. When his agent (Lee Tracy) calls him a corpse and says that he “sags like an old woman,” Barrymore hardly flinches. Left alone, he trips over an ottoman, and his body lands on the carpet with a horrible thud, yet the asymmetrical posture of his body on the floor has a kind of dancer-like élan and expressive power. A trouper to the end, he picks himself up, turns on the gas in his room and makes sure that he’ll look good when he’s found dead. Cukor moves his camera in and contemplates The Profile in winter, the perfect end to this small, honest portrait of reaching the end of your tether.

He was too cutesey as the schoolteacher in Topaze (1933), putting quotation marks around the character’s unlikely innocence, but he’s a hoot in the first scenes of Svengali (1931), a sort of Gothic horror movie where Barrymore chooses to make you laugh at his mesmerist for the first two reels so that he can catch you off guard as he reveals the man’s evil powers. When cast with his older brother, the dread Lionel, who ruins just about any movie he’s in, Barrymore takes it easy, smiling indulgently at his sibling’s gruesome hamming; attempting to strangle Lionel’s Rasputin at the end of Rasputin and the Empress (1932), Barrymore seems to know that you can’t really kill a performance this bad. Off to the sidelines in that movie, sister Ethel looks at both of her brothers impatiently, as if she thinks that the movies are beneath her. John, Ethel and Lionel were the most famous fruit of a theatrical dynasty that went back several generations; all that’s left of it nowadays is John’s granddaughter, the amiable Drew Barrymore, in whom you can see glimpses of her grandmother, Dolores Costello, but little of the Barrymore fire and temperament.

Barrymore was a romantic up to a point; you can see it in the all-out expression of love he showers on Mary Astor in Beau Brummell (1924) and Costello in The Sea Beast (1926). By the thirties, though, his belief in practically every finer emotion has been extinguished, so that he looks at Greta Garbo, Hepburn, Myrna Loy and many other delectable leading ladies with a kind of exhausted, disinterested sympathy; even a Joan Crawford at her most self-loving and sexed-up in Grand Hotel (above) can barely stir the embers of his once ardent and now merely courtly attention. And his heavy drinking brought a major problem; filming a retake on the set of Counsellor at Law (1933), an adaptation of an Elmer Rice play filled with reams of rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, Barrymore found that he couldn’t remember his lines, even after trying all day long. Henceforward, he would come to rely heavily on cue cards, and this explains the often-absent quality of some of his later performances; Brando to the contrary, you can’t really act when you’re reading your lines off camera.

His last years brought a series of catastrophes that he embraced with unseemly relish. Beset by a designing fourth wife and failing health, he made a fool of himself regularly on radio programs and finally succumbed to a series of films that made mock of his once glittering reputation. “Some things are too low for even me to stoop to!” he roars in his last film, Playmates (1941), which has him as “John Barrymore,” a tired old ham who “reacts” spasmodically before anyone says or does anything. Lupe Velez actually threatens to cut off his profile, and he is made to show off padding that he supposedly wore to fill out his tights when he played Hamlet; at the end, he is unable to play Shakespeare and a large audience laughs at him. In the middle of this nightmare, Barrymore sits down and recites the beginning of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, in all seriousness. As he intones the well-known words, his face collapses and his nose droops while his bleary eyes stare upwards, begging for relief, for death, which would come shortly after filming was concluded. “He inspired love,” said his sister Ethel. The work he left us on screen was a mixed bag, but when he cared about what he was doing, you can see why he inspired love, and why he influenced all the actors that came after him.