Home Classic MoviesTCM John Barrymore: Legendary Stage Actor Had Vastly Undervalued Film Career

John Barrymore: Legendary Stage Actor Had Vastly Undervalued Film Career

John Barrymore: At first a reluctant actor, this member of the renowned Drew and Barrymore families made his stage debut at age 18 in an early 20th-century play starring his father, Maurice Barrymore. In the ensuing four decades, John Barrymore would be seen in about 40 plays and 60 features.
  • Acclaimed as “the greatest living American tragedian,” John Barrymore enjoyed one of the most prestigious careers in the history of the American stage. Although his film work never quite reached such lofty heights, Barrymore was featured in numerous significant big-screen releases of the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Turner Classic Movies is presenting 14 John Barrymore movies as part of its “Summer Under the Stars” series. For artistic and/or historical reasons, must-see titles include Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, and Don Juan.

Legendary Broadway actor John Barrymore had prestigious & successful + vastly underappreciated Hollywood career

Known as The Great Profile, labeled “the greatest living American tragedian,” and heralded as “the foremost English-speaking actor of his time,” John Barrymore was Arthur Schnitzler’s Anatol, Leo Tolstoy’s Fedor Protasov, Victor Hugo’s Gwymplaine, and John Galsworthy’s William Falder.

Most illustrious of all, he was William Shakespeare’s Richard III decades before the role became associated with Laurence Olivier, and Hamlet at a time when Olivier and John Gielgud were still teenagers. Initially staged at the Sam H. Harris Theatre, Barrymore’s Hamlet ran for 101 performances (1922–1923), thus beating by one Edwin Booth’s reported Broadway record (1864–1865).

John Barrymore’s nearly three-decade film career never quite reached the level of acclaim of his stage work. No one watching his characterizations in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Don Juan, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, or, for that matter, Bulldog Drummond’s Revenge and Hold That Co-ed, would consider calling him “the foremost English-speaking” anything.

Yet Barrymore did create several indelible screen portrayals and he did star in several of the most momentous releases of the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, even if his Hollywood/screen work never equalled the stature of some of his Broadway performances, John Barrymore was undeniably one of the highest-ranking film stars of the silent and early talkie eras.

On Aug. 14, those with access to Turner Classic Movies (U.S./Canada) can check out 14 John Barrymore movies – three of them are briefly discussed below – covering his career from his matinée idol days during the silent era to his final years as the haggard-looking star of modestly budgeted productions and supporting player in A releases. Most titles should remain available for a while on the TCM app.

Grand Hotel: First all-star mega-hit

Between 1914 and 1941, John Barrymore (born John Sidney Blyth on Feb. 14 or 15, 1882) acted in nearly 60 features. A large chunk of these are either forgotten or forgettable titles. Yet a not insignificant chunk consists of critical and/or commercial hits.

Directed by Edmund Goulding, and starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore (billed second), Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s multithreaded 1932 drama Grand Hotel belongs to the latter group.

In point of fact, Grand Hotel has a unique place in film history:

  • It’s the only Best Picture Academy Award winner (for the period 1931–1932) not to have been shortlisted in any other category. (Just bear in mind that there were fewer categories and fewer slots per category back in those days.)
  • It was the first all-star Hollywood release; that is, excluding revues à la Show of Shows and Paramount on Parade, and star-cameo-filled “straight” narratives like Hollywood and Souls for Sale.
  • It’s one of three 1932 releases to star brothers John and Lionel Barrymore, the other two being the TCM presentations Arsène Lupin (their first de facto screen pairing) and, alongside sister Ethel Barrymore, Rasputin and the Empress.
  • It’s the motion picture in which the reclusive Greta Garbo moans “I want to be alone.”

Additionally, Grand Hotel turned out to be the most successful ($2.6 million in worldwide rentals) and most profitable ($947,000) MGM release of the year.

Of course, historical importance, box office grosses, and Best Picture Academy Awards don’t ensure that elusive, mercurial, perplexing quality known as “fun.” For despite all its talent and prestige, Grand Hotel is a dramatic letdown.

Movie-stealer Joan Crawford + Nazi prototype Wallace Beery

That isn’t to say this big-screen transfer of William A. Drake’s long-running Broadway hit (1930–1931) – itself an adaptation of Vicki Baum’s Berlin-set 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel (“People in the Hotel”) – is an all-around failure.

For starters, Grand Hotel is visually sumptuous: Cinematography by frequent Garbo collaborator William H. Daniels, art direction by Cedric Gibbons, costumes by Adrian.

And if Garbo delivers one of the most mannered performances of her career as a Swedish-accented Russian ballerina (Rrrring! Rrrrring! Rrrring!), John Barrymore is only marginally effective as an impoverished baron/jewel thief, and Lionel Barrymore’s characterization of a dying accountant consists of a series of interminable whines, the then less illustrious Joan Crawford, as a go-getting stenographer, proves herself an accomplished dramatic actress. Indeed, Crawford’s is the one Grand Hotel star turn that hasn’t aged in the past nine decades.

Lastly, Grand Hotel offers some restrained but compelling political commentary by way of the uncouth, unscrupulous industrialist Preysing, played by Wallace Beery – the one cast member with a German-ish accent. Preysing is emblematic of Germany’s plutocratic class which, in the ensuing years, would enable Nazi deeds even without necessarily embracing Nazi ideals.

One doesn’t have to be a genius to make the connection to present-day goings-on elsewhere.

John Barrymore in Grand Hotel, with Greta Garbo. Somewhat surprisingly, a good portion of John Barrymore’s most memorable big-screen work is found in his latter-day career, when the former Hamlet, ravaged by alcohol, was cast in supporting roles in A-grade productions (e.g., Maytime, Midnight).

Lasting influence

Though definitely not the first of its kind in terms of interlocking storylines – the German silent Grand Hotel…! (1927) and Fox’s Transatlantic (1931), to name two, treaded on similar ground – MGM’s Grand Hotel proved to be one of the most influential releases of the early 1930s.

In 1945, the studio remade it as the heavily Americanized, New York City-set Week-End at the Waldorf, one of the year’s biggest box office hits. Robert Z. Leonard directed Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon, Lana Turner, Van Johnson, and Edward Arnold.

That same year, Warner Bros. released Peter Godfrey’s Hotel Berlin, based on Vicki Baum’s 1943 novel of the same name. A handsome, competent, but less distinguished production, it features less high-profile names: Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine, Raymond Massey, Andrea King, Peter Lorre.

In later years, there would be all-star Grand Hotels on air (The High and the Mighty, Airport and its sequels), at sea (The Poseidon Adventure, Voyage of the Damned), at an airport (The V.I.P.s), in a burning skyscraper (The Towering Inferno), in temblor-prone and seemingly race-obsessed Los Angeles (Earthquake, Crash), at a country music event (Nashville), at other hotels (Hotel, California Suite), etc.

Ah, and at dinner parties.

Dinner at Eight: ‘Subversive’ all-star comedy

If you can make one all-star blockbuster, why not two?

If you can pair up the Barrymore brothers in three movies in the same year, why not pair them up in twice more the following year?

Directed by recent Broadway import George Cukor – who had handled John Barrymore the previous year in A Bill of Divorcement at RKO – MGM’s David O. Selznick-produced Dinner at Eight features a long list of stellar names, some brighter than others: top-billed Marie Dressler, the Barrymore brothers (also seen together in another 1933 release, Night Flight), Jean Harlow, Billie Burke, Edmund Lowe, Phillips Holmes, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy, May Robson, and Grand Hotel’s Jean Hersholt.

Three of these stars – and a little-known name – are stand-outs:

  • In one of her final big-screen appearances, top box office draw and Best Actress Academy Award winner Marie Dressler (Min and Bill, 1930–1931), who, as larger-than-life Broadway actress Carlotta Vance, gets to deliver the wittiest line in the film. Something to do with curvaceous blonde Jean Harlow, automation, and the labor market.
  • John Barrymore’s A Bill of Divorcement wife, Billie Burke has one concern in Dinner at Eight. No, not the Great Depression, the rise of fascism around the world, or the failing health of her current Barrymore husband (Lionel), but – channeling Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway – hosting an immaculate dinner party. Burke’s outburst about how difficult life is for someone in her position – Park Avenue society matron – is nothing short of masterful.
  • As the crude and shapely wife of boorish magnate Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow reminds viewers that years of hard work will most likely never land you anywhere near Park Avenue, but some clever use of one’s physical attributes just might do the trick. Important: Make sure not to get yourself a blackmailing maid.
  • Stage veteran and minor Hollywood supporting player Hilda Vaughn is the aforementioned blackmailing “help.” Marie Dressler’s double take after learning that Jean Harlow has actually held a book in her hands is the best-remembered bit in Dinner at Eight, but Vaughn’s covetous look at one of her mistress’ jewels – she has so many of them – is no less memorable, both in terms of thespian prowess and social commentary.

George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber wrote the original hit play Dinner at Eight, which ran for 232 performances (1932–1933) on Broadway.

Two-time Academy Award winner Frances Marion (The Big House, 1929–1930; The Champ, 1931–1932) and future Citizen Kane co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz were credited for the big-screen adaptation, with additional dialogue provided by future Hollywood blacklist victim Donald Ogden Stewart (Holiday, The Philadelphia Story).

Curiously, despite enthusiastic reviews and solid box office (MGM raked in nearly $1 million in profits), Dinner at Eight failed to be shortlisted for a single Academy Award.

John Barrymore in Don Juan, with Mary Astor. Barrymore wanted future wife Dolores Costello as his Don Juan leading lady, but former lover Mary Astor was cast instead. Barrymore and Costello’s son was John Drew Barrymore (1932–2004), father of E.T. and Charlie’s Angels actress Drew Barrymore.

Don Juan: Sound era landmark + off-screen lovers’ reunion

In addition to being a lavish and engaging production, Alan Crosland’s Don Juan (1926) has a special place in film history as the first feature to boast synchronized sound – swords clacking, a musical score – by way of Warner Bros.’ sound-on-disc Vitaphone system.

And whether or not you find his figure alluring or his acting naturalistic, John Barrymore – then in his mid-40s – is fully persuasive as the title character, perhaps in part because his off-screen self was as much of a female magnet.

As a matter of fact, one of his off-camera lovers plays Don Juan’s virginal romantic interest, Adriana della Varnese. That’s notorious diarist and future Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Mary Astor (The Great Lie, 1941), 19 years old at the time and with whom Barrymore had become involved during the making of another Warners period piece, Beau Brumell (1924).

Notwithstanding any probable moments of awkwardness on the Don Juan set – Barrymore was now attached to his The Sea Beast leading lady and future wife Dolores Costello, whom he had wanted as Adriana – chances are that viewers will be unable to notice anything short of torrid passion between experienced seducer and inexperienced seducee.

Don Juan’s noteworthy women

Besides Mary Astor, several female Don Juan cast members deserve mention:

  • Dark-eyed, dark-haired silent era seductress Estelle Taylor, at the time married to boxer Jack Dempsey, plays Don Juan’s malevolent wife wannabe, Lucrezia Borgia. Aware that she’s about to lose him to Adriana, the Borgia woman resorts to Machiavellian measures that would have done current authoritarians proud: a bit of strategic poisoning, a declaration of war, and, most cruel of all, an arranged marriage.
  • Chicago actress Phyllis Haver and Dolores Costello’s sister Helene Costello are seen in unbilled cameos as, respectively, Don Juan’s lover Imperia and Adriana’s maid.
  • Future powerhouse gossip columnist Hedda Hopper plays another Don Juan conquest, the very-much-married Marchesia Rinaldo.
  • Future MGM star Myrna Loy is briefly seen as the lady-in-waiting Mai.

One last female Don Juan talent worth singling out is screenwriter Bess Meredyth.

During her 25-year Hollywood career, Meredyth was – at least partly – responsible for the scripts/adaptations of major productions, among them John Barrymore’s The Sea Beast and When a Man Loves, plus star vehicles for Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ), Greta Garbo (Romance), and Tyrone Power (The Mark of Zorro).

Partying corpse?

A chronic alcoholic, John Barrymore died at age 60 in May 1942.

Contrary to rumors, faux remembrances, and “confirmations,” his corpse did not go partying.

John Barrymore TCM schedule

6:00 AM DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920). Director: John S. Robertson. Cast: John Barrymore. Martha Mansfield. Nita Naldi. B&W-68m.

7:15 AM DON JUAN (1926). Director: Alan Crosland. Cast: John Barrymore. Mary Astor. Estelle Taylor. Warner Oland. Montagu Love. Jane Winton. John Roche. Myrna Loy. B&W-112m.

9:15 AM WHEN A MAN LOVES (1927). Director: Alan Crosland. Cast: John Barrymore. Dolores Costello. B&W-112m.

11:15 AM STATE’S ATTORNEY (1932). Director: George Archainbaud. Cast: John Barrymore. Helen Twelvetrees. Jill Esmond. William ‘Stage’ Boyd. Mary Duncan. C. Henry Gordon. B&W-79m.

12:45 PM RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (1932). Director: Richard Boleslawski. Cast: John Barrymore. Lionel Barrymore. Ethel Barrymore. Diana Wynyard. Ralph Morgan. Uncredited: Jean Parker. Anne Shirley. B&W-121m.

3:00 PM NIGHT FLIGHT (1933). Director: Clarence Brown. Cast: John Barrymore. Helen Hayes. Clark Gable. Robert Montgomery. Myrna Loy. Lionel Barrymore. B&W-85m.

4:30 PM BULLDOG DRUMMOND COMES BACK (1937). Director: Louis King. Cast: John Barrymore. John Howard. Louise Campbell. B&W-59m.

5:45 PM MAYTIME (1937). Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Jeanette MacDonald. Nelson Eddy. John Barrymore. Tom Brown. B&W-132m.

8:00 PM GRAND HOTEL (1932). Director: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Greta Garbo. John Barrymore. Joan Crawford. Wallace Beery. Lionel Barrymore. Jean Hersholt. Lewis Stone. B&W-113m.

10:00 PM DINNER AT EIGHT (1933). Director: George Cukor. Cast: Marie Dressler. John Barrymore. Jean Harlow. Wallace Beery. Lionel Barrymore. Billie Burke. Edmund Lowe, Phillips Holmes. Madge Evans. Lee Tracy. May Robson. Jean Hersholt. B&W-111m.

12:00 AM NIGHT CLUB SCANDAL (1937). Dir: Ralph Murphy. Cast: John Barrymore. Lynne Overman. Charles Bickford. Louise Campbell. Elizabeth Patterson. Harvey Stephens. Cecil Cunningham. B&W-70m.

1:30 AM ARSÈNE LUPIN (1932). Director: Jack Conway. Cast: John Barrymore. Lionel Barrymore. Karen Morley. B&W-84m.

3:00 AM SVENGALI (1931). Director: Archie Mayo. Cast: John Barrymore. Marian Marsh. Donald Crisp. Bramwell Fletcher. Carmel Myers. B&W-81m.

4:30 AM THE GREAT MAN VOTES (1939). Director: Garson Kanin. Cast: John Barrymore. Katharine Alexander. Virginia Weidler. Peter Holden. B&W-72m.


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“John Barrymore: Legendary Stage Actor” endnotes

“The greatest living…” via the Hartford Courant (December 2014).

“The foremost English-speaking actor…” via the New York Times.

Grand Hotel & Dinner at Eight financial information: The Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.

Greta Garbo, John Barrymore Grand Hotel image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Mary Astor, John Barrymore Don Juan image: Warner Bros.

“John Barrymore: Legendary Stage Actor Had Vastly Undervalued Film Career” last updated in October 2020.

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