Classic Hollywood: John Barrymore
Hollywood is a company town, which means celebrity spawn often join the movie business. Think Henry, Peter, and Jane Fonda. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. Kirk and Michael Douglas. But long before those famous clans made their marks, there were the Barrymores: a show biz dynasty that began in the 19th century and lives on in fifth-generation star Drew Barrymore.
Drew’s grandfather John is my favorite Barrymore. Friends called him “Jack,” fans knew him by his nickname, “The Great Profile.” He joked, “The right side of my face looks like a fried egg. The left side has features that are to be found in almost any normal anthropological specimen and those are the apples I try to keep on top of the barrel.” Like other actors, Jack enshrined his hands and feet in wet cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, then whimsically added his faceprint for posterity.
Jack was born in 1882, the youngest of three siblings, all of whom inherited the family’s theatrical DNA. Brother Lionel and sister Ethel won Academy Awards for their roles in A Free Soul (1931) and None But the Lonely Heart (1944), though Jack never so much as received a nomination. He speculated it was due to his notorious drinking problem: “I think they were afraid I’d show up at the awards’ banquet drunk.”
Jack’s relationships with women were similarly fraught. He barely knew his absentee mother, an actress who died when he was 11. At 15, he was reportedly molested by his 28-year-old stepmother. Expelled from several schools – once for allegedly patronizing a brothel – Jack’s illicit affairs were legion. Same with his drinking binges.
Blessed with looks and talent, Jack debuted on Broadway in 1904, made his first film short in 1912, and gained fame in the early 1920s for acclaimed portrayals of Richard III and Hamlet. In 1924, Warner Bros. signed Jack for Beau Brummel, which ignited his silent movie career – and a steamy affair with his 17-year-old co-star Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon). Screen success funded a lavish lifestyle that included a 55-room compound in the Hollywood Hills.
When talkies arrived, Jack’s rich voice only enhanced his romantic image. He headlined the all-star dramas Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, and played Katharine Hepburn’s troubled father in A Bill of Divorcement. My favorite Barrymore performance is in Twentieth Century, a screwball classic opposite Carole Lombard. (He’s also great in the comedies Midnight and The Great Man Votes.)
Sadly, Jack’s alcoholism was relentless. Studios were reluctant to hire him. When they did, they cast him as drunks or has-beens, mirroring his physical decline. Barrymore sets were littered with cue cards because he couldn’t remember his lines. Divorced four times, Jack’s substance abuse ravaged his heirs: daughter Diana committed suicide at 38; son John and granddaughter Drew battled drug addictions. Jack confessed he was powerless against his demons: “You can’t drown yourself in drink. I’ve tried. You float.”
On May 29, 1942, Jack died of cirrhosis of the liver and other health issues. He was 60 years old. I would like to believe the legendary tale that Jack’s posse swiped his body from the funeral home and propped him up in a chair at drinking buddy Errol Flynn’s house. Alas, I cannot confirm that it’s true. But wouldn’t it be a fitting finale to Jack’s tempestuous life?
Classic Hollywood posts appear bimonthly on The Music Hall blog.