“As in other creative fields, the term artist is carelessly used in the theatre. There are more turners over of old, exhausted earth than breakers of untouched soil. It was Barrymore’s complete devotion to creation that made him the true artist and, I believe, the only full grown theatre artist of our time. As applied to him the word towering had true meaning. He found the heights and there his banner will fly as long as there lives one whose shining eyes look up to it.”
– Arthur Hopkins
The youth of John Barrymore belonged to his feelings that he would become an artist. Despite an acting lineage that impressed on him every growing year his duty to claim a place among their ranks, Jack dedicated himself to the quieter artistic practice. It was in the younger years of this persuasion that Jack received notice from his superiors that his drawings within the walls of a Catholic boys’ school were too much of the macabre sort, concerningly so. At one time in his career at the convent school, Jack was handed Dante’s Inferno to read as a punishment, with illustrations by Gustave Doré that he took a great shine to. Jack soon began turning out his own haunting reproductions of monsters and the Devil, most unwelcome and unpopular in his education. “Why do you draw pictures of the Bad Man and monsters?” he was once asked by Sister Vincent of the convent school. Jack answered simply: “Because I see them in my sleep.”
A pair of sunken eyes, a gloss of permanent grey over what once might have been called deep blue, green-hazel, or what his brother referred to in later years as “bloodshot,” might have given away the otherwise elusive true age of a man, who retained much of his youthful abandon until the end of his days. On the marriage license to his third wife Dolores Costello, he gave the age of thirty-seven against his true forty-six. Thirty-seven, in fact, was the decided age of John Sidney Blyth for much of his adult life, and Barrymore the name he was given at birth, the exact time it was decided he would become an actor. Through a more comprehensive study, who the real John Barrymore was might be revealed, a full portrait of himself on willing display despite these and other constant diversions. His profession, too, might suggest a man who was constantly at odds with himself, but this, like much of his personal happenings, had never been concealed or made to cover the cracks in the surface. It is interesting his disaffection toward the facades of celebrity, neither embracing a persona nor rejecting the funny terms it had him carry out for public appeal; instead he kept the joke on the inside, where only he and a few lucky souls were allowed to sneer at. It’s true that Barrymore was a man of deep internal unrest, with a legacy that compliments this popular thought. But of course, that is only a half-truth. In his youth Jack would draw monsters from the depths of hell and perhaps those he imagined here on Earth, too. In his youth Jack would slip into deep dazes of intense thought, and as an adult he was known to enter London fogs and disappear for hours at a time. After he would enter these liminal spaces of contemplative existence, he would emerge unchanged. As a natural Byronism made him an actor, a good humor kept him sane, and so he would pretend with every performance that he was, just like his incredible ability to attach and detach himself with ease in life, unaffected. And indeed he was, all through his life, a great pretender.
Born in 1882, Jack was the youngest of the three Barrymore children, the first class of Barrymores to appear in motion pictures, and between his siblings Lionel and Ethel, was the last to join his family’s great legacy on the stage. Like Lionel, who was of the reluctant sort, too, Jack waded in less fantastic artistic waters for as long as possible, postponing but never rejecting the inevitable. As a young man of 18, Jack had a job as a political cartoonist for the Evening Journal, where his sketches of plenty were completed almost always in haste, and though showed promise of artistic skill, he lacked complete structure in the discipline. Perhaps more interesting to note in Jack’s short career as a published artist than his employment record, was one criticism he received for illustrations he submitted to Cosmopolitan in 1902. His drawings, “Despair,” “Unrest,” “Fear,” and “Jealousy” received note that “Barrymore would only achieve greatness when he flung away his vision of a man defeated to show a man triumphant.” The illustrations of Doré were manifest in Jack. An inability to capture the pleasures of man in his accessible artistic feats suggest he had decided to live tormented by the unseen haunts of the world, but that is looking too far into the mythos of Hamlet and the actor who would go on to portray him consummately. To understand why it is that his illustrations and his later goliath achievements as an actor were always overburdened by unrest, we must look to Jack in his fifteenth year. It was in this year that Jack had taken to the care of his beloved grandmother Louisa Lane Drew (“Mummum”), who had led him and his siblings with a ferocity of spirit not one of them would forget, but especially not Jack. Her death in 1897 was a devastation Jack would bear into his adulthood, clear through his last days. Also in his fifteenth year, there emerges the reputed story of Jack’s seduction by a thirty-two-year-old Mamie Floyd, his stepmother. This event is looked upon as formative in Jack’s development, especially by his friend and biographer Gene Fowler, who suggested this of the engagement:
“The strange circumstances attending this initiation of the adolescent dreamer, the impact of the event upon an imaginative mind, may provide the key to a better understanding of the emotional conflicts, the jealousies, the extreme behaviorisms that made a jigsaw puzzle of Barrymore’s later years. It may be that even his interpretation of Hamlet’s problem rested somewhat upon the consequences of Jack’s own debut in the bedroom of a young woman currently the loved one of Maurice Barrymore, his father.”
In accounting for the impressionable boy to whom this intimate adult interaction was forced upon, Fowler engages in this traumatic event from Jack’s childhood with an informed grasp on the older Barrymore, who would often lose his grips on his romantic relationships for elusive reasons. While Fowler does this, he also makes note of perhaps an early influence of Jack’s Hamlet. What is key here, and what is key in considering Jack’s life as an artist, is his perpetual Shakespearean association to a detriment; the harshest depths of his personal and professional upset would never escape comparison to his eminent Hamlet. We may observe that Barrymore could not endure so much in the name of art, that the trials of his fifteenth year bore much more insidious effects than what might be artistically considered the inspiration for his greatest theatrical triumph. This and all of his suffering he endured personally, his Hamlet and all of his peculiar and brilliant character demonstrations born out of something completely novel in the man himself. Perhaps out of his mind’s fog, or in the dreams where the Bad Man came to him.
There’s an idea of John Barrymore belonging to a class of theatre hams who did Shakespeare not only to say they conquered his lot, but to say they were called upon to do so by a great force beyond, they the great descendants of tragic kings adorning thorned crowns. This idea must be cast aside to instead consider Barrymore as a reluctant great; in truth, to cast all of Jack’s greatness upon his incarnation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Arthur Hopkins’s 1922 production, is to miss all the richness that existed in Jack from his own originality. Jack himself admitted that Hamlet was the easiest role he had ever played, his brother Lionel in full support—“You must take into account that when the Bard wrote Hamlet he had Jack in mind.” This is all to say that to call the afflictions of John Barrymore makers of his great Hamlet, what might be known as the greatest achievement of any actor if they are able to receive laurels as magnificent as his in the role, is to announce all his life a great tragedy. To borrow from the words of Fowler, his life was more comparable to that of a “variegated symphony, and, to some degree, an unfinished one,” implying his keen dramatic sense that was, above all, derived from a melodic and haunting something within, damned to be judged by the extremes in which he lived by. This is what I imagine Fowler meant by Jack’s life symphony, varied by his astronomical achievements and failures of plenty.
As his own affairs created for the stage and film a rich lot from which to draw from without limit, Barrymore continued to lampoon with an unbreakable devotion towards displacing as much of his true self from further speculation as possible. This, such as how he acted his Hamlet and made it seem as though the verse had been written with him in mind, was Jack’s unsung discipline: to take from and show as little of himself as possible while remaining vitally open to his craft and, as he continued to take uncharitable roles, to spare himself from bracing too many serious internal wounds. In the years nearer to his death, Jack would take on roles that were written about him, notably the Richard Aldrich stage production My Dear Children and Walter Lang’s horrible farce The Great Profile, but before he played these roles, principally to pay his many debts (literally), there was Twentieth Century. Directed by Howard Hawks, adapted by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur from their 1932 play of the same name (lifted from the unproduced Charles Bruce Millholland play Napoleon of Broadway), the story of an egomaniacal theatre producer (Barrymore) who makes a star out of a young actress (played consummately by Carole Lombard), who he turns away with his own domineering temperament then tries desperately to win back, seems to ride the line between lampoon and personal irony: the perfect Barrymore vehicle. It’s the impression I had the first, second, third, fourth time I watched the film that Barrymore’s character, Oscar Jaffe, was carved out of the mold of the man himself, but the more I understand about Barrymore and the more the film matures on me, I realize that the truth is much more complicated, Barrymore’s performance much more textured than meets the eye. For an obvious one, Jaffe is a theatrical producer, not an actor. Though Barrymore was many things in his life, not one of them was a producer. Then, his character is not by design a John Barrymore stand-in, but the bit pulls in much from his famous character as a theatre “ham,” as well as the more unknown sides of Barrymore that he plays fully (his extreme jealous tendencies in his relationships with women), in order to make it appear as so, and it works handsomely. Barrymore plays up his Svengali and the waves of actors he’s been brushed by, more than he plays up himself. And if anything must known about the temperament of John Barrymore, it’s that he was not by any metric an egoist.
It was once said of Barrymore by Richard Watts Jr., “Everything he did was in an epic way, and, even when he appeared to be making an embarrassing clown of himself, he did so on a grand and wholesale scale, coming apart with boisterous gargantuan humor and a sardonic air of self-criticism. For, be it noted among the characteristic traits of John Barrymore was a keen and invariably witty critical sense. He could afford to laugh at the world because he could always laugh at himself,” an observation that gives credence to his good-naturedness toward lampooning himself, for what he always found the humor in was what the public thought John Barrymore to be. These outfits where the caricature endures are where his wicked humor is most obvious, and in Twentieth Century, it is cast in sublime and tremendous terms. In a way, Twentieth Century is not only a magnificent departure from the matinee idol routine and the prestige pictures for which Barrymore had become infamous in Hollywood, it is the creation of character everyone thought they saw in Barrymore, an act so tactful that reveals more layers to what Twentieth Century confidently says about theatre folk: “We’re not people, we’re lithographs. We don’t know anything about love unless it’s written and rehearsed. We’re only real in between curtains.” Here, Barrymore is imitating the lithograph, creating a performance within a performance; the comedy is in watching everybody else try and rise to his hysteric, meteoric height.
When an actor can’t get their lines, often just one line, or in this case the correct pitch of a scream, everybody is made to weather the night in the theatre. Its atmosphere, like its long-suffering people, is born out of these nights that bleed into day, and when the chalk is drawn, the mania is afoot. This is how Twentieth Century, a film about the sprawling insanity of the stage and the people who thrive on the extremities of art, opens. This scene is only rehearsal, not as much for a literal play but for the one that takes shape aboard a train, the Twentieth Century Limited, where more than half the film remains. As Oscar Jaffe chases the hand of Lily Garland, there unravels a comedy in itself, which ends only as everything with actors ends: back on the rehearsal stage, gleaning from the rites of the theatre the best and most convincing ways to imitate life. Twentieth Century is a film so brilliant it deserves a complete overhaul on production details, a scene-by-scene breakdown, but there are book deals for that sort of endeavor; as I continue, know that it is my favorite of John Barrymore’s films, the one that let loose on my great fascination with him, and the film that we might look to as the central host of Barrymore’s greatest acting virtues. In the film he comes undone and John Barrymore as the truly unique artist can be found on the interiors of the Twentieth Century Limited, functionally a train but more importantly a stage.
Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe lives out his histrionic impulses, and what one might call dreams, through those in his employ, only to be understood by shopgirl-turned-actress Lily Garland. Not an actor on stage, but one who can turn out performances of plenty in life: riotous and exaggerated but thoroughly convincing manipulations of reality that earn him the title of a ham though the footlights never once befell him. To call him a ham outright, though, as if to call Jaffe and Barrymore the same persuasion of man, is perhaps missing the larger picture. Jaffe makes hams of his actors, and from the pulse of the theater, he, producer and wing-dweller, has somehow become King Ham. He adopts all aspects of the theatrical mind into how he talks (in the exaggerated vibrato of a zealous Shakespeare disciple), how he acts (again, always as if he is the one on stage), how he thinks (like an actor, a mightily ungenerous one): for this, Oscar Jaffe is a ham. Barrymore does not play himself here, because as an actor and a man perceptive always to the weaknesses of his sex (that is to say the weaknesses he was overly familiar with in himself), he sees the true comedy in a producer who has fallen so far into the dwellings of the theatre that he can see no other version of himself as a man and a lover than in his own ability to imitate life. He, like all theatre folk, are doomed to become actors or half-actors. It is in his full-bodied characterization of an impresario who thrives on the responses from others, his cronies and his lover, that Barrymore arrives at a version of an artist disturbed that is so much of his own beast molded by the insanity called upon his life in the theatre, it is utterly inimitable. All at once he makes his contemporaries and onlookers appear as buffoons, who, gawk as they might, still fuel the performances of an unhinged impresario with their own stuffy parlance and hasty judgments of his character. Oscar Jaffe doesn’t survive on anybody’s illusions but his own, and with this, he finally becomes an extension of John Barrymore: the most honest man in the theatre.
Lily Garland, the former Mildred Plotka, is perhaps the only person to understand how Jaffe spins and abides by his own fantasies; as she’s observed, it is the only way to make it in the theatre, and to do so on a grand scale. Jaffe’s cronies Oliver (Walter Connolly) and Owen (Roscoe Karns) might be the most real people in his life (they even remind one of the true life friendships Barrymore maintained with MacArthur and Hecht, who once claimed that Jack had “burlesqued the gods of romance and good fortune as mere money lenders and pimps”), but they simply do not understand him on the level that Lombard’s Lily Garland does. We can only assume she’s the first person to call him a nut for making her stay up all night pacing an abundantly chalked stage and drawing out a scream to his liking, but we might also assume that she’s the first to truly appreciate him (she keeps the pin that he pricked her with to elicit that notorious scream in ridiculous, decorative casing, as if it were fine jewelry and not a common device she was once tortured by). While others humor Jaffe’s upsets, Lily is the only one who maintains the right to call his bluff as she can see exactly where he’s coming from. Wild spiels and impromptu monologues are the only ways they communicate with each other, how only they can communicate with one another: imitators imitating life to one another (“We’re not people, we’re lithographs…”). When Jaffe goes off on his own, a sharp eyebrow raise by Lombard signals to us exactly where the reality is that he’s trying to get across, so we too can be somewhat in on the joke; a keen touch by Lombard and an insight into how Twentieth Century creates a language of its own. The inside baseball of it all boldens the hysteria and sharpens the wit: the more you get it, the more you’re becoming like them. There’s artifice, then there’s Twentieth Century, which asserts that the glue which holds great artists together (and to each other) is their collective madness.
Oliver and Owen look on as Jaffe splashes paint upon theatrical posters advertising his latest play starring Lily Garland, cursing her name— “Anathema! Child of Satan!”—while destroying all evidence of her having existed in the theatre and in his life. He has just found out that Lily took a train to Hollywood, straight to the depths of hell, the lowest of lows a great theatrical star could sink (perhaps this is the real “final irony”). This is one of the only performances we see Jaffe conduct without his best audience, and to his onlookers, he appears to have completely lost his grips. They can’t see the great emotional turmoil underneath, a man in desperate need of being understood, they only see Jaffe as a madman let loose on a couple tins of paint. If we consider Oliver and Owen as Barrymore’s own Hecht and MacArthur, we might consider a man who, though surrounded by real, great minds, could appear to them a lost fool. Indeed, without the right crowd who could part from his delusions the workings of a wonderful mind, Barrymore might just be seen as a ham, a drunk, or a phony. Many will be content in doing just this, but as revealed in his Oscar Jaffe, an artist who folds himself into the frivolities of his craft to protect himself from outsiders must be dreadfully original indeed.
While he had been esteemed to act in the Arthur Hopkins productions of Liliom, Cyrano, and Richard II, Barrymore’s artistic eminence remained only in Richard III and Hamlet, and of course in Oscar Jaffe, flung up there with his inimitable greats. Like Jaffe, Barrymore maintained his own celebrity, his career on stage and in the movies, with constant acts of diversion: shielding himself with excesses so that the real, deep truths might not ever be touched upon or stolen from. Barrymore’s approach to acting often escapes definition, but as Hopkins once put it, “At all moments Barrymore was an artist. He created out of his own texture. He borrowed nothing. He copied nothing. His whole search was within himself. His wine was from his own vine. Whatever jewels adorned his final creation were brought from his own inner contact with the deep richness that is hidden in all men but found by so few. It is the finding that makes the true artist brother to all mankind. In revealing himself he reveals others to themselves.” His appearance in movies, like on the stage, belonged to a first generation, but Barrymore himself always belonged to a league of his own, even if his legacy wasn’t as long or as altogether spotless as one might expect. Perhaps with words he once committed to his first career as an artist, Barrymore best captured his attitude toward his life as an actor: “I might have been, but wasn’t.”
Fowler, Gene. Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore. The Viking Press, 1944.
Peters, Margot. The House of Barrymore. A. A. Knopf, 1990.