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John Barrymore (aged 40) in 1922
|Born||John Sidney Blyth
February 15, 1882
|Died||May 29, 1942
Los Angeles, California
|Height||5 feet 9 inches (1.75 m)|
|Spouse(s)||Katherine Corri Harris
|Relatives||Lionel Barrymore (brother)
Ethel Barrymore (sister)
John Drew Barrymore (son)
Drew Barrymore (granddaughter)
John Sidney Blyth (February 15, 1882 – May 29, 1942), better known as John Barrymore, was an American actor of stage and screen. He first gained attention as a handsome stage actor in light comedy, then high drama and culminating in his portrayals in Shakespearean plays Hamlet and Richard III. His success continued with motion pictures in various genres in both the silent and sound eras. Barrymore's personal life has been the subject of much writing before and since his death in 1942. Today John Barrymore is known mostly for his portrayal of Hamlet and for his roles in movies like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920), Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), and Don Juan (1926), the first feature length movie to use a Vitaphone soundtrack.
Barrymore was born in the Philadelphia home of his maternal grandmother. His parents were Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe, a British actor who performed under the stage name Maurice Barrymore, and American actress Georgie Drew Barrymore. His maternal grandmother was Louisa Lane Drew (aka Mrs Drew), a prominent and well-respected 19th-century actress and theater manager, who instructed him and his siblings in the ways of acting and theatre life. His maternal uncles were John Drew, Jr. and Sidney Drew.
Barrymore fondly remembered the summer of 1896 in his youth, spent on his father's rambling estate on Long Island. He and brother Lionel lived a Robinson Crusoe-like existence, attended by a black servant named Edward. John was expelled from Georgetown Preparatory School in 1898 after being caught entering a bordello.
John sought to escape the heritage of the theater by trying to be a cartoonist and reporter. Barrymore studied to be an artist and worked on New York newspapers before deciding to go into the family business as an actor. He made his stage debut in October 1903 playing a part in Magda at the Cleveland Theater, Chicago. Soon after he was on Broadway and after two seasons there, he made his first appearance in London with William Collier as Charles Hines in The Dictator.
While still a teenager, he courted showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in 1901 and 1902. For years, rumors swirled that Nesbit had become pregnant and that Barrymore had arranged an abortion, disguised as an operation for appendicitis. In 1906, another Nesbit lover, architect Stanford White, was murdered by Nesbit's husband, Pittsburgh millionaire Harry K. Thaw. A testimony of questions was prepared for Barrymore to testify at Thaw's murder trial on the issue of Nesbit's morality. Barrymore was never called in as the Thaw trial was decided based on insanity plea and Nesbit's morality being irrelevant to Thaw's murdering Stanford White. Barrymore and Nesbit were never questioned under oath about her "immorality" or as stated in the prepared deposition that he had taken her to a doctor for 'appendectomy'. 
Barrymore was staying at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when the 1906 earthquake occurred. He had starred in a production of The Dictator and was soon to tour Australia in the play. As he loathed this prospect, he hid, spending the next few days drinking at the home of a friend on Van Ness Avenue. During this drinking jag, he worked out a plan to exploit the earthquake for his own ends. He decided to present himself as an on-the-scene "reporter", making up virtually everything he claimed to have witnessed. Twenty years later, Barrymore finally confessed to his deception, but by then, he was so well-known that the world merely smiled indulgently at his confession. His account was written as a "letter to my sister Ethel." He was sure the letter would be "worth at least a hundred dollars." In terms of publicity it earned Barrymore a thousand times that amount.
Barrymore was also great friends and a drinking companion with baseball star Mike Donlin. Donlin eventually appeared in two of Barrymore's silent films, Raffles The Amateur Cracksman and The Sea Beast.
Early theatre and film career
Barrymore's movie career spanned 25 years as a leading man in more than 60 films.
Barrymore specialized in light comedies (He first starred in Are You a Mason and Half a husband.) until convinced by his friend, playwright Edward Sheldon, to try serious drama. Critics declared that his portrayal of Falder in John Galsworthy's Justice was artistic and self-effacing, (1916) co-starring Cathleen Nesbitt and directed by Ben Iden Payne. It would be Nesbitt who would introduce him to Blanche Oelrichs.
He followed this triumph with Broadway successes in Du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson (1917), a role his father Maurice had wanted to play, Tolstoy's Redemption (1918) and Selm Benelli's The Jest (1919), co-starring his brother Lionel, reaching what seemed to be the zenith of his stage career as Shakespeare's Richard III in 1920. Barrymore suffered a conspicuous failure in his wife Michael Strange's play Clair de Lune (1921), but followed it with the greatest success of his theatrical career with Hamlet in 1922, which he played on Broadway for 101 performances as the melancholy Dane, breaking Booth's record. In February, 1925 he successfully presented his production in London despite the so-called apathy extended toward American Shakespearean actors in Britain.
At the peak of triumph on the legitimate stage, Barrymore deserted for the films. He first appeared in motion pictures in 1912, but gave to the movies only the time when Broadway was darkened. However, he finally left the legit stage to devote his full-time to moving pictures. Barrymore entered films around 1913 with the feature An American Citizen. He or someone using the name Jack Barrymore is given credit for four short films made in 1912 and 1913, but this has not been proven to be John Barrymore. Barrymore was most likely convinced into giving films a try out of economic necessity and the fact that he hated touring a play all over the United States. He could make a couple of movies in the off-season theater months or shoot a film in one part of a day while doing a play in another part. He also may have been goaded into films by his brother Lionel and his uncle Sidney, who had both been successfully making movies for a couple of years. John and his brother, Lionel, established a record for "brother acts".
Some of Barrymore's silent film roles included A. J. Raffles in Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924), Captain Ahab in The Sea Beast (1926), and Don Juan (1926). When talking pictures arrived, Barrymore's stage-trained voice added a new dimension to his screen work. He made his talkie debut with a dramatic reading of the big Duke of Gloucester speech from Henry VI, part 3 in Warner Brothers' musical revue The Show of Shows ("Would they were wasted: marrow, bones and all"), and reprised his Captain Ahab role in Moby Dick (1930). His other leads included The Man from Blankley's (1930), Svengali (1931); and being cast as a suave jewel thief opposite Lionel in Arsène Lupin (1932); with both siblings in The Mad Genius (1931); Grand Hotel (1932) with Ethel in which he displays an affectionate chemistry with his brother Lionel); Rasputin and the Empress (also 1932), with Lionel in the lead; and Dinner at Eight (1933) with Ethel. In Topaze (1933) he was cast with Myrna Loy and in Twentieth Century (1934) with Carole Lombard. He worked opposite many of the screen's other foremost leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford. In 1933, Barrymore appeared as a Jewish attorney in the title role of Counsellor at Law based on Elmer Rice's 1931 play. As critic Pauline Kael later wrote, he "seems an unlikely choice for the ghetto-born lawyer . . . but this is one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His 'presence' is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor, and his zest."
He returned to the stage with tremendous success. His escapades inspired several plays, The Royal Family andMy Dear Children, both later filmed, and two movies, Sing, Baby, Sing and The Great Profile. Playgoers would come back time and again to see him because of his famous adlibbing.
Barrymore collapsed on his boat, The Mariner, in 1929 off the coast of Mexico while on honeymoon with wife Dolores, requiring admittance into doctor's care. Much of his newly occurring health problems most likely stemmed from his consumption of bad and sometimes nearly poisonous illegal alcohol during the period of Prohibition in the United States, or possibly from early onset of the then-mysterious Alzheimer's Disease.
He gave a bravura Shakespeare performance, as an overage Mercutio, in the MGM film Romeo and Juliet (1936), and the following year put in a first class performance as a Svengali-type character in MGM's Maytime with Jeanette MacDonald, the top-grossing film worldwide of that year and regarded as one of the best film musicals of the 1930s: "Altogether, it's possible that this is one of the best and most competently handled operettas that Hollywood has turned out."
In the late 1930s, Barrymore began to lose his ability to remember his lines. From then on, he insisted on reading his dialogue from cue cards. He continued to give creditable performances in lesser pictures, for example as Inspector Nielson in some of Paramount Pictures' Bulldog Drummond mysteries, and offered one last bravura dramatic turn in RKO's The Great Man Votes (1939). However, his pictures started losing money and he—along with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, and others—was labeled "Box Office Poison" in 1938.
After that, his remaining screen roles were broad caricatures of himself, as in The Great Profile (with "Oh, Johnny, How You Can Love" as his theme music) and World Premiere. In the otherwise undistinguished Playmates with band leader Kay Kyser, Barrymore recited the "To Be, or Not to Be" soliloquy from Hamlet. In 1935, Barrymore visited India, the land where his father had been born. In his private life, during his last years, he was married to his fourth and last wife, Elaine Barrie, a union that turned out to be disastrous. His brother Lionel tried to help him find a small place near Lionel's house and to convince him to stay away from impetuous marriages, which usually ended in divorce and put a strain on his once large income.
He was known for calling people by nicknames of his own creation. Dolores Costello was known in his writing alternately as "Small Cat," "Catkiwee," "Winkie," and "Egg." He called Lionel "Mike," and Ethel called John "Jake." He called Blanche Oelrichs "Fig" and called their daughter Diana "Treepeewee" who as an infant wet the bed sheets, which Blanche made John change.
Barrymore collapsed while appearing on Rudy Vallee's radio show and died in his hospital room, shortly after 10pm, May 29, 1942. A compulsive smoker his adult life, he also had been suffering from latter effects of alcoholism, heart problems and pneumonia. His dying words were "Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him." Gene Fowler attributes different dying words to Barrymore in his biography Good Night, Sweet Prince. According to Fowler, John Barrymore roused as if to say something to his brother Lionel; Lionel asked him to repeat himself, and he simply replied, "You heard me, Mike." "The Great Profile met death with a smile as if anxious for the new adventure." With him at his bedside were his brother, Lionel. Daughter Diana was in the hospital at the time and sister Ethel had remained in Boston to finish her play at John's request.
Death, from liver, kidney and heart ailments complicated by pneumonia, came after an 11-day illness during which Dr. Hugo Kersten had alternately despaired and had been optimistic for his recovery. Shortly before Barrymore lapsed into his final coma, Kersten announced that the end was very near. Before his death Barrymore reembraced the Catholic faith in which he was born, receiving the final rites of the church from Father O'Donnell.
According to Errol Flynn's memoirs, film director Raoul Walsh "borrowed" Barrymore's body before burial, and left his corpse propped in a chair for a drunken Flynn to discover when he returned home from The Cock and Bull Bar. This was re-created in the movie W.C. Fields and Me. Other accounts of this classic Hollywood tale substitute actor Peter Lorre in the place of Walsh, but Walsh himself tells the story in Richard Schickel's 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies. However, Barrymore's great friend Gene Fowler denied the story, stating that he and his son held vigil over the body at the funeral home until the funeral and burial.
He was buried in East Los Angeles, at Calvary Cemetery, on June 2. Surviving family members in attendance were his brother Lionel and his daughter Diana. Ex-wife Elaine also attended. Among his active pallbearers were Gene Fowler, John Decker, W.C. Fields, Herbert Marshall, Eddie Mannix, Louis B. Mayer, and David O. Selznick. Years later, Barrymore's son John had the body reinterred at Philadelphia's Mount Vernon Cemetery.
Though both his brother and sister won Academy Awards, the only award John ever received for his screen work was from legendary Rudolph Valentino in 1925 for Beau Brummel. Valentino created an Award in his own name and felt that his fellow actors should receive accolades for their screen work. Presciently Valentino's initiative influenced the Oscar in 1927.
Barrymore had been a friend and contemporary (and drinking companion) of his fellow Philadelphian W. C. Fields. In the 1976 film W.C. Fields and Me, Barrymore was played by Jack Cassidy. Cassidy, like Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. idolized Barrymore. Barrymore was also portrayed by Christopher Plummer (who was a friend of Diana Barrymore) in the 1996 two-man show Barrymore, later filmed in 2012 and by Errol Flynn in the 1958 biographical film about Diana entitled Too Much, Too Soon.
He is mentioned in the lyrics of the song "I May Be Wrong (But I Think You're Wonderful)" by Harry Sullivan and Harry Ruskin, written in 1929, which became the theme song of the Apollo Theater in New York, and which was recorded by many artists including Doris Day in 1950.
In 1953, the comic book artist Graham Ingels (signing his name "Ghastly") used stills from Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde silent film as reference for a homicidal maniac in the comic book story "Horror We? How's Bayou?" which appeared as the cover story for The Haunt of Fear #17, published by E.C. Comics, and introduced by The Old Witch.
In addition, his ghost is a major character in Paul Rudnik's comedy I Hate Hamlet.
The Fort Lee Film Commission of Fort Lee, New Jersey, successfully petitioned the Borough to change the name of the intersection of Main Street and Central Road to John Barrymore Way on February 15 (Barrymore's birthday) in 2010. This was the site of the old Buckheister's Hotel where in 1900 the then 18-year-old John Barrymore made his stage debut in the play A Man of the World, directed by his father Maurice Barrymore for a Fort Lee Fire House fundraiser. Both of his siblings have historic sites named after them, Ethel the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York which she opened in 1928 and Lionel a college theatre in Wisconsin.
- Katherine Corri Harris (1890–1927), an actress who starred in the 1918 film The House of Mirth, on September 1, 1910 and divorced in 1917.
- Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs (1890–1950), aka "Michael Strange," who was a poetess, on August 5, 1920 and divorced her in 1925 and became Mrs. Harrison Tweed. They had one child:
- Dolores Costello (1903–1979), actress and model best known for Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1941); they married on November 24, 1928 and divorced in 1935. They had two children:
- Elaine Barrie (née Elaine Jacobs), (1916–2003), an actress; married November 9, 1936 and divorced 1940
- A Man of the World (1900) (Cincinnati)
- Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1901) (Philadelphia)
- Madga (1903) (Chicago)
- Leah the Forsaken (1903)
- Glad of It (December 28, 1903 - January 1904) (Broadway)
- The Dictator (April 4 - May 30, 1904; return engagement August 24 - September 1904) (Broadway and San Francisco)
- Yvette (1904) (benefit performance for Actors Fund)
- Pantaloon / Alice Sit-by-the-Fire (December 25, 1905 - March 1906) (Broadway)
- Sunday (1905) (national tour)
- His Excellency the Governor (Revival) (April 4 - May 1907) (Broadway)
- The Boys of Company B (April 8 - July 1907) (replacement for Arnold Daly) (Broadway)
- Toddles (March 16 - April 1908) (Broadway)
- The Candy Shop (1908)
- A Stubborn Cinderella (January 25 - April 10, 1909) (Broadway)
- The Fortune Hunter (September 4, 1909 - July 1910) (Broadway and national tour)
- Uncle Sam (October 30 - December 1911) (Broadway)
- Princess Zim-Zim (1911) (national tour)
- A Slice of Life (January 29 - March 1912) (Broadway and national tour)
- Half a Husband/On the Quiet/The Honor of the Family/The Man from Home (1912) (summer repertory; Rochester, New York and Los Angeles)
- The Affairs of Anatol (Revival) (October 14 - December 1912) (Broadway and national tour)
- A Thief for a Night (1913) (Chicago)
- Believe Me Xantippe (August 19 - October 1913) (Broadway)
- The Yellow Ticket (January 20 - June 1914) (Broadway)
- Kick In (October 15, 1914 - March 1915) (Broadway)
- Justice (April 3 - July 1916) (Broadway)
- Peter Ibbetson (April 17 - June 1917) (Broadway)
- Redemption (October 3, 1918 - March 1919) (Broadway)
- The Jest (April 9 - June 14, 1919; return engagement September 19, 1919 - February 28, 1920) (Broadway)
- King Richard III (Revival) (March 6 - April 1920) (Broadway and London)
- Clair de Lune (April 18 - June 1921) (Broadway)
- Hamlet (Revival) (November 16, 1922 - February 1923; return engagement November 26 - December 1923; 1925) (Broadway, national tour, and London)
- My Dear Children (1939; January 31 - May 18, 1940) (Broadway)
|1914||An American Citizen||Beresford Kruger||Lost film|
|The Man from Mexico||Fitzhugh||Lost film|
|1915||Are You a Mason?||Frank Perry||Lost film|
|The Dictator||Brooke Travers||Lost film|
|The Incorrigible Dukane||James Dukane||Extant|
|1916||Nearly a King||Jack Merriwell, Prince of Bulwana||Lost film|
|The Lost Bridegroom||Bertie Joyce||Lost film|
|The Red Widow||Cicero Hannibal Butts||Lost film (due to nitrate fire to negative this film was shot a second time with the actors accepting no salary.)|
|1917||Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman||A. J. Raffles||Extant|
|National Red Cross Pageant||The Tyrant (Russian episode)||Lost film|
|1918||On the Quiet||Robert Ridgeway||Lost film|
|1919||Here Comes the Bride||Frederick Tile||Lost film|
|The Test of Honor||Martin Wingrave||Lost film|
|1920||Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde||Dr. Henry Jekyll / Mr. Edward Hyde||Extant|
|1921||The Lotus Eater||Jacques Leroi||Lost film|
|1922||Sherlock Holmes||Sherlock Holmes||Extant|
|1924||Beau Brummel||Gordon Bryon "Beau" Brummel||Extant|
|1926||The Sea Beast||Captain Ahab Ceeley||Extant|
|Don Juan||Don Jose de Marana / Don Juan de Marana||Extant|
|1927||When a Man Loves||Chevalier Fabien des Grieux||Extant|
|The Beloved Rogue||François Villon||Extant|
|1928||Tempest||Sgt. Ivan Markov||Extant|
|1929||Eternal Love||Marcus Paltran||Extant|
|The Show of Shows||Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) in Henry VI Part III||Extant|
|1930||General Crack||Duke of Kurland / Prince Christian||Extant (*only silent version)|
|The Man from Blankley's||Lord Strathpeffer||Lost film(*Vitaphone discs survive)|
|Moby Dick||Captain Ahab Ceely||Extant|
|The Mad Genius||Vladimar Ivan Tsarakov||Extant|
|1932||Arsène Lupin||Arsène Lupin||Extant|
|Grand Hotel||The Baron||Extant|
|State's Attorney||Tom Cardigan||Extant|
|A Bill of Divorcement||Hilary Fairfield||Extant|
|Rasputin and the Empress||Prince Paul Chegodieff||Extant|
|1933||Topaze||Prof. Auguste A. Topaze||Extant|
|Reunion in Vienna||Archduke Rudolf von Habsburg||Extant|
|Dinner at Eight||Larry Renault||Extant|
|Counsellor at Law||George Simon||Extant|
|1934||Long Lost Father||Carl Bellairs||Extant|
|Twentieth Century||Oscar Jaffe||Extant|
|1936||Romeo and Juliet||Mercutio||Extant|
|Bulldog Drummond Comes Back||Colonel Neilson||Extant|
|Night Club Scandal||Dr. Ernest Tindal||Extant|
|Bulldog Drummond's Revenge||Col. J.A. Nielson||Extant|
|True Confession||Charles "Charley" Jasper||Extant|
|1938||Bulldog Drummond's Peril||Col. Neilson||Extant|
|Romance in the Dark||Zoltan Jason||Extant|
|Marie Antoinette||King Louis XV||Extant|
|Spawn of the North||Windy Turlon||Extant|
|Hold That Co-ed||Governor Gabby Harrigan||Extant|
|1939||The Great Man Votes||Gregory Vance||Extant|
|1940||The Great Profile||Evans Garrick||Extant|
|The Invisible Woman||Professor Gibbs||Extant|
|1941||World Premiere||Duncan DeGrasse||Extant|
|Screen test: The Man Who Came to Dinner||Sheridan Whiteside||Extant|
- Barrymore family
- Drew Barrymore
- Lionel Barrymore
- Ethel Barrymore
- John Drew Barrymore
- Alumni of Jesuit schools
- Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 24
- Obituary Variety, June 3, 1942.
- North American Theatre Online: John Barrymore site offered free to most colleges & universities
- Kobler, John Nom. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 25
- Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 41
- Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 88
- Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts: The San Francisco Earthquake, Stein and Day, New York and Souvenir Press, London, 1971; reprinted Dell, 1972, SBN 440-07631, page 212
- Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-1918 p.52 c.1999 by Byron Farwell
- Mosher, John, in The New Yorker, March 27, 1937, p.70
- Billboard, June 6, 1942
- Kobler, John. Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore, New York: Atheneum, 1977, p. 364
- See the book Great times Good Times The Odyssey of Maurice Barrymore by James Kotsilibas-Davis and The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters, as well as the Fort Lee Film Commission (www.fortleefilm.org). At the time Maurice Barrymore lived in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee with his son John, and was a member of the Coytesville Fire Department.
- John Barrymore Way street sign, the road named after Jack; Fort Lee, New Jersey
- Good Night, Sweet Prince (1944) by Gene Fowler
- The New Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky & Amy Wallace
- The First Male Stars: Men of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee
- Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore (1977), by John Kobler
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to John Barrymore.|
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: John Barrymore|
- John Barrymore at the Internet Movie Database
- John Barrymore at the TCM Movie Database
- John Barrymore at the Internet Broadway Database
- John Barrymore at AllRovi
- John Barrymore Quotes ISearchQuotations
- More John Barrymore Quotes Quotlr
- Photo of Barrymore age 9 1891
- Photographs of John Barrymore
- stage, film and at home portraits
- NY Times article from 1913 outlining proposed book Barrymore was writing about his early life as an actor
- Still of Barrymore and Constance Binney in lost film TEST OF HONOR(1919) (painting of Barrymore as Peter Ibbetson hangs over the fireplace)
- Barrymore in the lost film MAN FROM BLANKLEYS
- Barrymore (doing his Mr Hyde routine) and old friend W.C. Fields
- Barrymore and Errol Flynn
- Barrymore appearing in bankruptcy court in 1940
- Life Magazine photo gallery of Barrymore and his daughter Diana taken on his 60th birthday
- John Barrymore at Find a Grave
- Barrymore receiving an award from Rudolph Valentino. Valentino has created his own special acting award for excellence
- John Barrymore with Jane Grey in "Kick In"(1915)
- Recording sample of Barrymore with Rudy Vallee and Orson Welles on Vallee's radio show
- John Barrymore and other Shakespearean stars read selections from Shakespearean plays
- Barrymore in pose as Hamlet, 1923
- Barrymore performing 'Hamlet's Soliloquy', 1941