“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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.