John Barrymore Overview:

Legendary actor, John Barrymore, was born John Sidney Blyth on Feb 15, 1882 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Barrymore appeared in over 60 film roles. His best known films include Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Grand Hotel, A Bill of Divorcement, Dinner at Eight, and Twentieth Century. Barrymore died at the age of 60 on May 29, 1942 in Los Angeles, CA and was laid to rest in Mount Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia, PA.

Early Life and Dynasty

John Barrymore was born John Sidney Blyth on February 15, 1882 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a family of theater people. For thirty years his grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew, managed the famed Philadelphia Arch Street Theatre was responsible for teaching  her grandchild the ropes of theatrical life and ingrain a love of the arts. His father was famed British actor Herbert Arthur Chamblerlayne Blythe, who would use Maurice Barrymore as his stage name, thus giving name to the Barrymore acting dynasty. John's mother was American comedic actress Georgie Drew Barrymore and his uncle, John Drew, was a leading man of the American stage. Thanks to their theatrical dynasty, John and his siblings, Lionel and Ethel, would spend their childhood smoozing with some of the greatest theatre actors of the day.

In 1891 Barrymore's mother fell ill and was forced to leave the stage. Two years later she was diagnosed with "consumption"  now understood as tuberculosis and would die while in search for a cure in California. Although Barrymore suffered this tragic loss at young age, the rest of his childhood was rather idyllic. He and his brother spent summers on his father's Long Island estate, rebel-rousing and chasing women. He was educated at the prestigious Georgetown Preparatory School until 1898, when we was expelled for being seen entering a brothel.

Early Career

Although Barrymore came from a famous theatre family, he sought to separate himself from his performance background and follow his dream of the visual arts. He studied at King's College in Wimbledon, England before attending New York's Art Student League. After graduating he become an artist, finding work as a painter and commercial illustrator for magazines such as New York's Evening Journal. Soon after, however, he found himself strapped for cash and not very fond of the life as a starving artist. He soon joined his brother and sister on the stage, calling it the "the easiest place to earn a decent living."

The Theatre

In 1900 the 18-year-old John Barrymore made his performance debut in A Man of the World, directed by his father at a local fundraiser. The next year his father would suffer from nervous breakdown while on stage, forcing his children commit him to an asylum.  Three years later in 1903, Barrymore would make his proper theatrical debut in the play Magda at the Cleveland Theatre in Chicago. He continued to work steadily on stage and by 1905 would travel across the pond to hone is dramatic skill. He soon won great acclaim for his work in Shakespeare's classics. In 1906 he experienced a tragic part of American History as he was staying at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco during the Great earthquake of 1906 . He soon traveled back to New York, making a reputation for himself as leading matinee idol. By 1909 he had reached stardom for his role in The Fortune Hunter. His Broadway success only continued with plays like 1910's Uncle Sam and 1912's a Slice of Life.

Move to the Screen

Now at the peak of his Broadway career, Barrymore decided to join his brother and try his hand in the newly minted film industry. In 1912 Barrymore made his film debut in the short comedy The Dream of a Moving Picture Director. At first the Barrymore played supporting roles in films like 1912's Just Pretending, and 1913's One Romance but by 1914 he found himself a leading man with the play An American Citizen. Soon Barrymore would become as popular on the screen as he was on the stage, splitting his time between the movie business and Broadway. This new fame allowed him to make films during the theatres off-season, thus eliminating the financial need to go on national tours, Barrymore's least favorite part of performance. 

Barrymore had gained a great reputation for his lighthearted comedies.  Roles in plays such as A Slice of Life and The Yellow Ticket proved his quick wit and sharp tongue. All of that would change in 1916 ,when he starred in the John Galsworth penned Justice. The play was big success with much of the credit going to Barrymore's intense portrayal of William Falder. The next year Barrymore again proved his dramatic acting chops in John N. Raphael'sPeter Ibbetson. During this time Barrymore continued to make a name for himself in the movie business with films such as Are You Mason?, The Dictator, Nearly King and The Lost Bride Groom. Stage-wise, he returned lighthearted comedy, starring opposite his older brother in the Arthur Hopkins produced The Jest. At 35 years old, Barrymore was considered one of the most versatile actors of the stage and the screen, however, Barrymore's most memorable and legendary performances were still yet to come.


In 1920 Barrymore reteamed with Broadway Producer Arthur Hopkins for his most ambitious production yet: Shakespeare's Richard III. Aware of his limitations, Barrymore worked tirelessly with a speech couch to gain the vocal control needed to master the Shakespeare classic. The play opened on March 6th, 1920 at the Plymouth Theatre to rave reviews with critic's unanimous hailing Barrymore's performance as one of the best of all time. The Tribune even hailed it as "the most inspired performance, which this generation has seen." After the play's forth week, however, Barrymore suffered a nervous breakdown due to the stress of the role and his months of non-stop work. He also continued to play a variety of roles on the silver screen, starring in an early film adaption of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In 1922, Barrymore once again teamed with Arthur Hopkins for another ambitious Shakespearean project: Hamlet. The play opened on November 16th to even better reviews than Richard III. Critics considered the performance a revolution is Shakespeare, as Barrymore added Freudian psychology and sexuality missing from the classic performances. To this day, his performance is still revered as one of the best of the twentieth century. Although busy revolutionizing Shakespeare Barrymore maintain his busy film schedule, starring in films such as 1922's Sherlock Homes and 1924's Beau Brummel. In 1926 he starred Alan Crosland's big screen adaption of Don Juan. The film would go down in history as the first to use the newly designed vitaphone to create a synched soundtrack. This synched soundtrack would be the start of the movie industries transition from the silence to sound.

Transition to Sound

By the late 1920's, Barrymore headed west to concentrate entirely on his film career. Although many actors found "talkies" to be the end of their career, Barrymore's extensive theatre background and vocal training made him one of Hollywood's  greatest assets. He made his "talkies" debut in the Warner Brother Musical Revue, 1929's The Show of Shows, offering a rendition of the Duke of Gloucester speech from Henry VI. He followed that up by starring as Captain Ahab in 1930's Moby Dick. That same year he starred opposite Lorreta Young in the comedy The Man from Blankley's. The film was hit and Barrymore received rave reviews for his light, comedic touch. Unfortunately for modern audiences, the film is now lost.

In 1932 he teamed with his brother, Lionel, for the Jack Conway directed mystery film Arsene Lupin. He would work with Lionel again that year, this time in the star-studded Grand Hotel. In the film he plays a financial ruined Baron, making his money via gambles and petty jewel theft. The film, which also starred Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry and Lewis Stone, would go to win the Best Picture Academy Award. The three Barrymores' would be seen on screen together in the MGM film Rasputin and The Empress. It was the only film that featured all three acting greats. The next year he would star with his sister in the George Cukor pre-code comedy Dinner at Eight.

Later films

As the 1930's worn on, Barrymore's age began to show and he revamped his image from dashing leading man to a great supporting player. In 1934 he starred opposite Carol Lewis in the classic screwball comedy Twentieth Century. He followed that up with a bombastic but portrayal of Mercutio in the lavish MGM production of Romeo and Juliet. He then appeared in the musical-drama Maytime with Jeanette MacDonal and Nelson Eddy. The film would go to be the highest grossing of 1937. 


By the late 1930's, Barrymore's hard drinking lifestyle began to show. He would often forget his lines, and demanded he be fed them via cue-cards. Despite this, he continued to work tirelessly, appearing in five films in 1937 including Night Club Scandal and True Confessions. He continued this pace the next year, yet again appearing in five films, including the Romance in the Dark and Marie Antoinette. Soon after, however, he would gain a reputation as difficult to work with and began having trouble securing work. In 1938, the once most in-demand actor in America was labeled "box office poison" by the publication Independent Film Journal.

In 1939 he was reduced to playing a caricature of himself in the film The Great Profile. In 1941 he would make his final stage appearance, starring in the comedy farce My Dear Children. The play noted for his impromptu and vulgar ad-libbs. Audiences flocked to see the play but for all the wrong reasons, waiting to see the once beautiful and talented actor reduced to vulgar farce thanks to years of alcohol abuse. In 1942 Barrymore collapsed while appearing on the Rudy Vallsee's radio show and was hospitalized. John Barrymore died on May 29th, 1942. He was 60 years old.

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



He was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures. John Barrymore's handprints and footprints were 'set in stone' at Grauman's Chinese Theater during imprint ceremony #54 on Sep 5, 1940. In addition, Barrymore was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and was immortalized on a US postal stamp in 1982. Barrymore was never nominated for an Academy Award.

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John Barrymore Quotes:

Chevalier Fabien des Grieux: You were right, my friend, when you told me women have no souls.

Gregory Vance: Gregory Vance, magnified briefly, by a kindly destiny, in a kindly land where... where greatness is within a people, not within a man; and where any man who calls himself great, is only looking at his shadow, from the shoulders of those who have lifted him up. Today, his own feet must carry him. Side by side we walk today, the big and the little, and, those we sometimes call: the down and out. A voter, by the name of Mr. Whittier, once spoke of that. Today, of all the weary year, a king of men am I. Today alike are great and small, the nameless and the known. My palace is the people's hall, the ballot box, my throne. Tomorrow, I will be quite forgotten - a bit of shadow glory, who, like the rest of you, left his mark only in a ballot box. But I will be no less a part of that total greatness because being even the least in a land where strength is so generous, is greatness in itself.

Oscar Jaffe: I want to send another
Oscar Jaffe: . To John Ringling. "I'm in the market for 25 camels, several elephants, and an ibis... Give me the rock-bottom price."

read more quotes from John Barrymore...

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John Barrymore Facts
Was a good friend of Errol Flynn, who subsequently played Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon (1958), a film about Barrymore's daughter Diana Barrymore.

Played by Jack Cassidy in W.C. Fields and Me (1976). Barrymore was Cassidy's idol.

Blue-eyed, brown-haired.

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