The Barrymores

The Barrymores were a famous American theatrical dynasty who, for three generations and well over a hundred years, provided America with important actors.

The fortunes and misfortunes of the remarkable Barrymore family started in America in 1827 with the debut of seven-year-old Louisa Lane, beginning a career that lasted 70 years. Acting with established stars of the day, she married an Irish comedian, John Drew. Best known for her comic roles, Louisa Drew also excelled as a theater manager. In 1861 she took over the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia, becoming the second woman in America to assume theatrical management responsibilities.

The Louisa Lane-John Drew marriage produced three important actors: John, Jr., who eventually became one of the most important comic actors of his day (and incidentally provided a pattern and a measure of greatness for his niece and two nephews); Sidney, called Uncle Googan; and Georgiana, a spirited comic actor (who in 1876 married Maurice Barrymore and became the mother of the most celebrated Barrymores, Lionel, Ethel, and John).

Maurice Barrymore, born Herbert Blythe, was the son of an army officer stationed in India. Upon leaving Oxford University, he expressed an interest in acting; his horrified family suggested he change his name. He complied and also changed his country.

Because they were actors first and parents second, both Maurice and Georgiana Barrymore were on the road continually, and so the three children spent their early years in their grandmother's home. Maurice seems to have been an indulgent parent when home but almost forgot his children when away. Georgiana died of tuberculosis when her children were teenagers; thus their grandmother provided what stability they knew as children. Maurice had to be committed to a mental institution for the last two years of his life.

Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959)

Ethel Barrymore's early years were spent in a convent school; but by 1894 fortunes changed, particularly in theater management, and her grandmother, Louisa Drew, began touring again. Although Ethel would have preferred to become a concert pianist, she recognized that financial necessities required immediate returns. (In later life she said, "We became actors not because we wanted to but because it was the thing we could do best.") She joined her grandmother and Uncle Googan, making her professional debut in Montreal. For three years Ethel appeared in small roles, usually in productions headlined by more famous relatives.

In 1897, gaining recognition in London in the play Secret Service, she joined Sir Henry Irving in The Bells and Peter the Great. On returning to the United States, she appeared with her uncle John, and then in 1901 under Charles Frohman's management she had her own success in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. Other outstanding successes included Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire (1905), Mid-channel (1910), The Constant Wife (1920), and The Corn Is Green (1942).

Ethel Barrymore often played in vaudeville, using James Barrie's one-act play The Twelve-Pound Look as her vehicle. She also made films but, unlike her brothers, she never deserted the stage. Among the best films were Rasputin and the Empress (1932; the only production, stage or screen, in which the three Barrymores appeared together) and None but the Lonely Heart (1944).

In 1909 she married Russell Colt; they had three children. She carried on the family tradition by introducing her daughter, Ethel Colt, in the cast of the film Scarlet Sister Mary. In 1928 she was honored when a theater was named for her, and in 1952 she was awarded an honorary doctorate from New York University. Separated from her husband in 1920, she died in 1959 in Hollywood. She had found few roles worthy of her talent; nevertheless, she is recognized as one of America's greatest actors.

Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954)

The eldest of the Barrymore children, Lionel was the most reluctant to accept acting as a profession. From early youth he was interested in art, but at 15 he appeared in The Rivals with his grandmother. It was a near-disaster, but he continued in small roles, usually with a famous relative. His first public notice came as the organ grinder in John Drew's 1902 production with the improbable title The Mummy and the Mockingbird. He appeared with McKee Rankin and then married Rankin's actress daughter. In 1905 the newlyweds abandoned the stage; his interest in painting prompted Lionel to go to Paris to study at the Académie Julian. By 1909, convinced he had no career in art and lacking anything better to do, he returned to the stage.

Again great success was denied, though he continued in small parts on the stage and in the emerging silent-film field. In 1912 he joined D. W. Griffith in a one-reel film, opposite Mary Pickford, the script by Anita Loos. In 1917 he joined his brother, John, in Peter Ibbetson. His best role came the following year in The Copperhead. This performance placed him alongside the other greats of his family.

In 1925 Lionel left the stage for Hollywood. He made over 70 films, not counting the Dr. Kildare series. In 1931 he won an Oscar for his performance as the courtroom lawyer in A Free Soul. He directed seven films and is also remembered for his radio performances in Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

Throughout his life he continued painting as an avocation. Late in life he devoted time to serious musical composition, at which he had some success; one of his works was played by he New York Philharmonic. He was divorced in 1922 and remarried in 1923. He died in Van Nuys, Calif., in 1954.

John Barrymore (1882-1942)

Of the three Barrymore children, John was most haunted by the bright and dark spell of his father. That Maurice ended in an institution was one shadow; John was deeply attached to his grandmother, and her death when he was 15 was another. Perhaps those events can help define the maelstrom of his final years: the talent that mocked itself, the alcoholism, the emotional instability.

John also tried to avoid a stage career, though not as successfully as Lionel. John too attempted a career in art, working for a short time as a newspaper illustrator. But in 1904 he made his New York theatrical debut and for the next several years appeared in musical and light comedy.

In 1916 he turned to serious works. He was cast in Galsworthy's Justice, the role establishing his fame. Then came The Jest, Peter Ibbetson, Redemption, and, in 1920, Shakespeare's Richard III, directed by Arthur Hopkins. Although very successful, it closed after four weeks when John collapsed. In 1922 he returned to Shakespeare in what may have been America's best Hamlet of the 20th century, again directed by Hopkins. John always became bored playing long runs; this production lasted 101 performances, breaking by one Edwin Booth's record for the same play. The following season John took the production on tour for nine weeks and then in 1925 presented it at the Haymarket in London, repeating the New York success. When Hamlet closed in London he moved to Hollywood, returning to Broadway only once, in 1940, in a mediocre comedy and a parodying performance, My Dear Children.

John Barrymore was an important Hollywood personality; his exploits on and off stage helped build the reputation of that glamorous city. Among his better films were Grand Hotel (with Greta Garbo), Romeo and Juliet, Bill of Divorcement, Topaz, and Twentieth Century.

His personal life was stormy. He was married four times, each marriage beginning bright and ending very dark. He had three children. Alcohol became a habit; by 1936 he had difficulty remembering lines. The Hollywood years had earned him a quick fortune, but it was spent even faster. Then, his ability to remember lines gone, he turned to radio in a failing attempt to avoid bankruptcy. He died on May 29, 1942, in Hollywood.

Further Reading on The Barrymores

Each of the three Barrymores wrote an autobiography, and each seems to expect the reader to look elsewhere for such factual information as dates and places: Ethel Barrymore, Memories: An Autobiography (1955); Lionel Barrymore, We Barrymores (1951); and John Barrymore, Confessions of an Actor (1926). Gene Fowler, Good Night, Sweet Prince (1944), is an intimate biography of John Barrymore with many references to Lionel Barrymore; it deals with its subject as honestly as can be expected from a close friend. A newer work is Hollis Alpert, The Barrymores (1964). Barbara Marinacci, Leading Ladies (1961), includes a section on Ethel Barrymore.