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John Barrymore; Shakespeare, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde & Hollywood

Updated on October 4, 2013

Young John Barrymore

The Great John Barrymore

Few stars have fallen so completely, and from such a great height as John Barrymore. In 1925 he was at his peak: a triumphant Hamlet on the London stage and at the age of 43, about to become a romantic screen swashbuckler to rival the great Douglass Fairbanks. Ten years later he was in the grip of alcoholism, his memory deserting him, and the celebrated matinee-idol-looks which had earned him the nickname of the "Great profile", growing puffy and blurred, almost beyond recognition.

Barrymore did it all in his long and distinguished career. He performed Shakespeare on the stage, became a classic Hollywood monster in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and played numerous character roles in the 1930s.

John Barrymore Bio on Amazon

The Barrymore Family

Barrymore came into the world on St Valentine's Day 1882. He was born into a theatrical family. Both his parents were actors, and after dabbling in journalism, John followed his brother Lionel and sister Ethel on to the boards in 1903. That same year his father suffered a complete mental collapse and two years later he died in New York's Bellevue Hospital. In the 1930s when alcoholism and failing memory began to torment him, Barrymore was haunted by his father's illness.

Barrymore's stage breakthrough came in 1909, in a light comedy, The Fortune Hunter. Already, he was drinking heavily and, according to his biographer Gene Fowler, succedded in "smelling more of alcohol than fame" until Galsworthy's Justice established him as a dramatic actor. By 1914 John Barrymore had gained prominence on the stage, and began the first of a series of comedy thrillers on the silent screen.

A fine performance in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1920 gained acclaim for John as a powerful actor. He achieved a remarkable onscreen transformation with little help from makeup and gained respect around the world. He was now a full fledged star and respected actor.

Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

John Barrymore on Amazon

Brilliant Barrymore Performance

In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde John gave an outstanding performance as the handsome, moral, and studious Dr. Henry Hyde who, through his experiments, becomes the hideous, ugly and evil Mr. Hyde. The transition of total, exact opposites changing before our very eyes, is remarkable. Fredric March equaled or perhaps even surpassed the Barrymore version, but no other version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes anywhere close as far as performance of the lead character goes. From Shakespeare on the stage to Hollywood movies, Barrymore was now a highly respected actor of his profession throughout the world and industry.

For anyone who has never seen the silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that Barrymore perfected, it is a must see. The storyline was adjusted to fit the purpose of a motion picture in 1931 for the Fredric March version, and most all versions from that time on have followed the 1931 formula. This gem does its own thing and tries to fit in with the plot of the original story from the book.

If Barrymore was not living high enough on the hog before, he sure was now.

The Great Profile of John Barrymore


Second Wife, Blanche Oelrichs

Blanche Oelrichs
Blanche Oelrichs

3rd Wife; Dolores Costello

Stormy Marriages of John Barrymore

The year of 1920 also saw his marriage to the poetess Michael Strange (Blanch Oelrichs), a remarkable character with "the face of a Romney portrait and the spirit of a US Marine". It was but the second of four stormy marriages. Many years after Barrymore recalled, "I never married any of my wives-they married me." Blanch was already several moths pregnant when they married, and in 1921 she gave birth to Diana Blanch Barrymore.

In 1924 John arrived in Hollywood to play the title role in Warners' Beau Brummel. This led to an affair with his co-star, the ravishing 17 year old Mary Astor and a contract with Warner Brothers at the immense fee of $76 250 per picture.

Next came The Sea Beast in 1926, an adaptation of Moby Dick. Vying with the great white whale for Barrymore's attention was his beautiful co star Dolores Costello. Barrymore became infatuated with her and one year later, filming When A Man Loves he deliberately threw away scene after scene in order to build up her performance. He married her in 1928, but life with the star proved something of a trial. In the early 1930s, when he was desperately trying to control his alcoholism, he was reduced to drinking perfume from Costello's dressing table. Dolores Costello was mother of John Drew Barrymore and Dolores Barrymore, grandmother of John Barrymore III, Blyth Dolores Barrymore and Drew Barrymore.

The Barrymore's On Their Wedding Day

John Barrymore and Dolores Costello
John Barrymore and Dolores Costello

John Barrymore and Drink

in 1927 Barrymore moved to United Artists at a fee of $150 000 per film, but as fast as the money came in, it was going out. The roaring 20s were the lavish days of outlandish spending. His rambling estate, "Bella Vista". consisted of no less than 16 separate buildings containing 45 rooms. A dozen servants tended the two swimming pools, trout pond, bowling green, skeet-shooting range and aviary, whose exotic inhabitants included Barrymore's pet vulture Maloney.

Hard drinking guests of whom there was no shortage could drown their sorrows in a replica
English pub of a genuine frontier saloon shipped all the way from Alaska.

Thanks largely to his fine voice and perfect profile, Barrymore stayed at the top for another five years. In 1932 he made a fortune and starred opposite Garbo, and Katharine Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement. He gave excellent performances in a variety of roles. Barrymore has survived the coming of sound.

The Handsome John Barrymore

Barrymore Decline

In 1933 he starred in, Dinner at eight, and he came close to playing himself. A fading matinee idol. In that some year, booze finally exacted a terrible price. During the shooting of a scene for Counselor at Law his memory deserted him; after 56 takes he still could not get it right. The very next day he played it perfectly, but the writing was on the wall. There was a final brilliant performance, with Carole Lombard, in Twentieth Century and then serious decline.

By the end of the decade he was relegated to supporting roles and leads in B movies relying heavily on huge prompt cards. Occasionally he rallied. In Midnight 1939 he gave a charming performance, although co- star Mary Astor later recalled that throughout the shooting he had little or no idea of what the film was about.

During the last three years of his life he kept going by parodying his own image. With fourth wife,,Elaine Barrie, he toured in a play My Dear Children and audiences flocked to see the former great star fluff his lines and fall over the furniture.

In The Great profile 1940, he was a broken down old ham actor and on Rudy Vallee's radio show, and played a stooge to guests such as Grouch Marx.

One night Mary Astor spotted him alone in a corridor of the radio studio, sagging against a wall like someone "who just couldn't walk another step."

He died poverty stricken in1942.


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