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John Barrymore

Biography: 

(1882-1942)

The legendarily profligate talent of John Barrymore generated masterly performances on stage and screen, and cringe-inducing walk throughs of scripts and screenplays presented for the world to witness. The son of theatrical talents Maurice Barrymore and Georgia Drew Barrymore, and brother of Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, John grew up in the theater and witnessed at the end of the 19th century every major performer of the English speaking stage. He internalized their technique, mimicked their delivery, and noted every scene stealing trick that two generations of professionals had devised. To this sense of received practice John Barrymore added several components derived from other parts of the performing world.

Barrymore was fascinated with the physical comedy being developed in vaudeville and in the Weber & Fields musical comedies--the tradition that would blossom memorably in Mack Sennett silent movie comedy. The antics of comedians gave him the liberty to move away from the upright "stand and deliver" style of acting standard repertoire. Barrymore's landmark "Hamlet" had him declaim much of the dialogue when not standing. He became the master of interacting with prop furnishings of his generation, rivaled perhaps only by comedian Fred Stone.

John Barrymore's early Broadway roles tended to be in comedy, which he considered a more difficult mode of performance to present artfully than tragedy. He had the energy to lead a farce such as "The Dictator," the charisma to lead a romantic comedy, such as "Stubborn Cinderella," the manliness to manage a western, such as "Believe me, Xantippe," and the gravitas to drive a tragedy to its climax. Every play in which he appeared from 1914's "The Yellow Ticket" to 1919's "The Jest" was a critical and popular success. Though 1921's experimental "Claire de Lune" was too chaotic and self-indulgent to win an audience, his follow-up, the landmark "Hamlet" etched his name on the plaque of Broadway immortals.

Barrymore having ascended to the summit of theatrical eminence, decided to cash in. He signed a lucrative film contract and began his splendid, inconsistent, and sometimes transgressive film career. David S. Shields/ALS