John Barrymore (1882-1942)

John Barrymore
John Barrymore
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John Barrymore was one of Hollywood's earliest superstars. A brilliant actor with classic good looks, he mesmerised audiences first as a stage actor in light comedy and then in classic dramatic roles in silent movies, before successfully moving to Talkies. He was one of the first great movie stars and also one of the first major stars to bring about his own downfall through over-indulgence.


He was born John Sidney Blyth in Philadelphia on February 15, 1882 into a well known theatrical family. His parents were actors Maurice and Georgina Drew, who used the name "Barrymore" as a stage name. John had two older siblings, Ethel and Lionel, and all three children went on to become prominent and successful actors.

As an acting family it was natural for the children to put on their own home made plays together. The elder brother, Lionel would usually play the hero to Ethel's heroine, with the youngest sibling, John, forced to play the role of the villain.

His mother died in 1893 when John was 11 and he was brought up by his father and in the care of relatives when his father was touring. John attended the Jesuit-run Georgetown Preparatory School in Maryland but was expelled in 1898, aged 16 for apparently entering a brothel. It was the start of a pattern of self-indulgence which would last all his life.

He made his public acting debut aged 18 in 1900 in a production of 'A Man of the World' directed by his father but his first ambition was to become an artist and he attended New York's Art Student League, as well as working as a sketch artist at the New York Evening Journal.

However, it was natural, given his family background, that he should be attracted to the stage and in 1903 he decided to make acting his career. His professional debut was in October 1903 in 'Magda' in Chicago and he began touring the country doing plays.

Father's Death 1905

In 1901 John's father, Maurice had suffered a complete breakdown during a stage performance, witnessed by John. He was committed to an asylum, suffering from the effects of syphilis. He died in 1905, still institutionalised.

Success on Stage

John' s remarkable acting talent and his good looks ensured his success and he quickly rose to the top. After gaining experience in America, particularly impressing as a drunk in the farce 'The Dictator' in 1904, Barrymore moved to London and established a reputation for skilful acting in highly successful productions of Shakespearean classics. He returned to America in 1906 where he lived through the San Francisco earthquake of that year, then returned to Broadway, where he quickly became one of the leading stage actors of the day. His fame increased after his memorable Broadway performance as Nathaniel Duncan in Winchell Smith's 'The Fortune Hunter' in 1909.

Success on Screen 1914

John's elder brother, Lionel had already entered films in 1911 and John, who disliked the theatrical touring life, made his debut on the screen in 1914 in 'An American Citizen' followed by a movie version of 'The Dictator' in 1915. It is possible that he made four shorts before this, in 1912 and 1913. The four one reelers: 'One on Romance', 'A Prize Package', 'The Widow Casey's Return' and 'The Dream of a Moving Picture Director' all credited an actor called "Jack Barrymore" but no stills or prints survive.

Barrymore was thirty-five in 1917 when America entered the First World War. He tried to enlist for military service but was refused on medical grounds as he had varicose veins.

Barrymore's good looks and remarkable talent made him one of the first great stars of silent movies although he continued to perform regularly on Broadway for the next decade in such productions as 'Justice' in 1916, 'Peter Ibbetson' in 1917, 'The Jest' in 1919-1920, King Richard III in 1920 and 'Hamlet' in 1922 and 1923. His interpretation of the title roles of Richard III and Hamlet were rapturously received and marked the high point of his stage career.

Hollywood Star

He continued his movie career with great success in a wide range of film genres in such movies as 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' in 1920, 'Sherlock Holmes' in 1922, 'Beau Brummel' in 1924 and 'Don Juaner ' in 1926. After 1923 he stopped appearing on the stage in favour of the more lucrative, non-touring movie career.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, the arrival of sound movies caused no problems to Barrymore. He had a strong, well modulated voice which he had used to great effect on stage, and which served him well on screen. After the early Talkies 'The Show of Shows'' in 1929 and 'General Crack' in 1930 he starred in 'Moby Dick', also in 1930.

Barrymore was as commanding on screen as he had been on stage and he co-starred with some of the biggest stars of the day. In 1932 he appeared in the popular 'A Bill of Divorcement' with Katharine Hepburn in her movie debut. In the same year he co-starred with Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery as well as his brother, Lionel, in the classic 'Grand Hotel'. He worked with Lionel again, and also with his sister, Ethel, in the drama 'Rasputin and the Empress' again in 1932, the only film in which all three siblings appeared together. The following year John and Lionel appeared together again, with John in the supporting role, in the light comedy 'Dinner at Eight'.

Final Decade

Barrymore played supporting roles for much of the remainder of his career, mainly in high quality movies such as 'Twentieth Century' in 1934 with Carole Lombard, 'Romeo and Juliet' in 1936 and with Norma Shearer in 'Marie Antoinette' in 1938. He appeared in three of the 'Bulldog Drummond' adventure series in 1937 and 1938 and gave an acting masterclass in 'The Great Man Votes' in 1939. But his star had waned. From the late 1930's on the excesses of his life caught up with him and his decline was as swift as it was tragic.

Barrymore lived life to excess and particularly had a love of alcohol. His life of heavy drinking began to exact a heavy price when he was in his early 40's. He lost his dashing good looks and appeared bloated and slow. Worse still, his memory deteriorated to the point where he could not remember his lines and from 'Romeo and Juliet' in 1936 onwards, he had to read his lines from off screen chalkboards.

His final years were humiliating for a once proud actor. His ever-mounting debts forced him back to the stage in 1939 in 'My Dear Children', which became a success only because the public flocked to see Barrymore in an embarrassing second-rate play in which he ad-libbed and generally behaved outrageously. He was offered fewer and fewer films and he began making appearances as a parody of himself, clowning around on the Rudy Vallee radio show. In movies he was also reduced to parodying himself in 'The Great Profile' in 1940. His final film appearance was in 1941 in the lowbrow comedy 'Playmates' , playing himself again and in an obviously sorry physical state.


Barrymore was renowned as a ladies man. As well as many affairs he was married four times with each marriage ending in divorce. His first marriage, in 1910 was to silent film actress Katherine Corri Harris and ended in 1917. In 1920 he married the prominent socialite Blanche Oelrichs who wrote and published poetry under the pseudonym "Michael Strange". They had one child, Diana, born in 1921.

Barrymore's third wife was Dolores Costello, an actress whom he met on the set of 'The Sea Beast' in 1926. They married in 1928 and had two children, Dolores and John. After their divorce in 1935 Barrymore married for a fourth time in 1936 to actress Elaine Barrie. They divorced in 1940.

During a rehearsal for the Rudy Vallee radio show Barrymore collapsed and was taken to the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. After lingering for several days he died in his sleep on May 29, 1942. Cause of death was cirrhosis with complications from pneumonia, hemorrhaging ulcers, and hardening of the arteries. He was sixty years old.

He was buried at Mount Vernon Cemetery, Philadelphia. His fourth wife, Elaine Barry, was the only one of his former wives to attend his funeral.

John Barrymore Academy Awards

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John Barrymore Filmography

An American Citizen
The Man from Mexico
Are You a Mason?
The Dictator
The Incorrigible Dukane (Short)
Nearly a King
The Lost Bridegroom
The Red Widow (Short)
National Red Cross Pageant
Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman
On the Quiet
Here Comes the Bride
The Test of Honor
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Lotus Eater
Sherlock Holmes
Beau Brummel
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
The Sea Beast
Don Juan
When a Man Loves
The Beloved Rogue
Eternal Love
The Show of Shows