Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Born Today February 15: John Barrymore


John Sidney Blyth (some family spellings have the name spelled Blythe) either on this day or on Valentine's Day in Philadelphia.  It could easily be said that he was born into acting royalty; even then the Drew and Barrymore families were giants of the stage.  His parents were British actor Maurice Barrymore, whose birth name was Herbert Blyth, who had adopted the Barrymore last name after he took a liking to it from a poster is saw in Haymarket Theater in London.  His mother was Georgie Drew Barrymore; she was the descendent of the powerful and well known theater family the Drews.  Her parents were well off and occupied high positions in the theater, including her mother, who was a famous thespian and one the earliest female managers of a large theater, the Arch Street Theater; her father, who was also an actor, was considered a comedic genius.  Several other members of the Drew family were also successful actors of the stage. While a great deal of the details of John Barrymore's early life are not known, it is known that he was steeped on the theater and accompanied his parents on at least one major dramatic tour.  The family was not without it's stresses; Barrymore was often a naughty, uncontrollable child (owed to being the baby of fmaily?) and he was sent away to numerous schools.  One actress from Poland insisted that he and his two siblings be baptized into the Catholic faith (apparently as a show to his mother's secret conversion); his grandmother came to live with the family when her theater business began to flounder, and that caused considerable stress with the household.  But, it was his mother's death from tuberculosis when he was 11 that left him solely in the custody of his grandmother, who raised him.  He would go onto attend (and be kicked out of) one prep school.  For higher education, he decided that a stint in his father's home country would be the thing, and in 1898 he headed off to King's College in Wimbledon, eventually winding up in the Slade School of Fine Arts.  Though, none of this made much of an impression on him, and he was soon enjoying the London nightlife more than anything.  He returned to New York in 1900, where he found work as an illustrator for The New York Evening Journal.  That same year, he was persuaded by his father, despite that he had proclaimed a disliking for the professor of acting, to join performance of a short play.  But, it was a stage incident in the play that his older sister Ethel was acting in that would have a real effect on how he viewed acting.  She had persuaded the director to take him on when the production was short of players, one evening he forgot his lines, and admitted so on stage; rather than giving in, the actors then proceeded to improvise the whole scene instead.  He then got himself embroiled in a real scandal that included in the murder of the high profile New York architect Stanley White.  He almost had to testify at the trial of the man who shot White.  Already in the throws of a serious drinking problem, he was fired from his newspaper job for producing poor illustration while intoxicated.  It was then that he resigned himself to taking up the family business of acting.  Between the year's 1903 and 1913, Barrymore appeared in larger and larger roles on the stage,  many of which that would go on to be hits.  It was during that later part of this theatrical run, that he is thought to have entered the motion picture business.  It is known that in 1912 he traveled to Los Angeles.  Five films (it is sometimes listed as 4) then came out with the name of an actor as "Jack Barrymore" as a star; it is generally agreed that "Jack" was, in fact, John Barrymore.  The first of these was The Dream Of A Moving Picture.  All of them were produced by the Lubin Manufacturing Co., and all but one--the last one--were intended to be vehicles that studio's in house "star" at the time Jerold T. Hevener.  The last of these films, One On Romance, which was actually released in 1913, saw "Jack Barrymore" as the top billed star.  John Barrymore's film career was off.  The first film that carries Barrymore's actual name came in 1914 with An American Citizen.  The film was directed by none other that J. Searle Dawley, probably the first true director of films, for the Lasky Famous Players, that would later become Paramount.  Barrymore would go on to be one the most recognizable faces in silent film and super-star known all over the globe.  Before we had Lon Chaney Sr. in recognizable horror transformation roles, we had Barrymore in the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in the Famous Players version of the Stevenson story in 1920 (not that Chaney wasn't in films before this, he was!).  That on-screen transformation is still in the horror vaults as one the finest ever filmed.  The number of seriously famous silent films that he appeared in during the 1920's are basically two numerous to list here (that what links below are for); but what is remarkable about his career, is that up until 1925, he had never left the stage.  This meant that when the inevitable happened, that talking pictures would take over, the studios had little to worry about in regards to his voice capabilities; what they did have to worry about (and they knew it), was his ever growing debilitation from alcohol consumption.  Given his star power, it's little surprise that Barrymore was one of the actors put in the earliest transitional or partial sound films.  The first of these was in 1926 with Don Juan.  Vitaphone provided the sound effects and some early musical scoring.  The first full sound (in other words, "full on talkie") that he appeared in, was General Crack in 1929.  By 1933, he had gone to work for MGM and his health began fail. The first effect of this to primarily affect was his ability to remember lines for live performances.  It's not that he didn't make films in the 1930's that showed terrible performances, it's just that they were few and far between and most studios wouldn't chance handing him a role due his extreme alcoholism, despite a spate of film appearances in 1933.  He wound up with a recurring role in the Bulldog Drummond series as Col. Neilson.  He collapsed on the set of a "reality" radio show of it's day--Rudy Vallé's show, sort a Howard Stern affair of it's time--on the 19th of May in 1942.  He was rushed to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital, where he died 10 days later from cirrhosis that resulted in kidney failure and complicated by pneumonia.  He was 60 years old.  He was buried at first on the 2 of June 1942 in Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles-- apparently against his wishes--his devoutly Catholic sister insisted on the burial there.  In 1980, his son disinterred his body for cremation and reburial next to his parents in the Mount Vernon Cemetery in Philadelphia, par his original request.  Today, for "Barrymore" fans not familiar with his work on it's own merits, he is most famous for being the grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore.

His current burial site in Philadelphia

Former burial site in California, now empty, but still maintained.

Find A Grave For Original Burial Information

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