the Barrymores



  • A distinguished US acting family, consisting of Ethel Barrymore(1879 - 1959) and her brothers Lionel Barrymore (1878 - 1954)and John Barrymore (1882 - 1942). They were the children of theactress Georgiana Drew (see Drew family) and the Britishactor Maurice Barrymore (1847 - 1905). The Drew-Barrymore claninspired the 1927 Broadway comedy The Royal Family by GeorgeS. Kaufman and Edna Ferber.

    Ethel Barrymore began her career as a pianist. Shemade her theatrical debut in 1894 in the company managed by her grandmother,Mrs John Drew. Three years later she played London with Henry Irvingin The Bells and in 1901 became a Broadway star in CaptainJinks of the Horse Marines. A remarkable beauty, Ethel soon becamethe darling of the stage, the title glamour girl being firstcoined for her. Time magazine also coined the adjective Barrymorishto describe her captivating stage presence. When Winston Churchillproposed marriage she declined, later explaining "My world wasthe theater." She was also noted for her wit. When a criticpointed out that an actress known for her bad language was playingin a theater with poor acoustics, Ethel commented "Now she canbe obscene and not heard."

    Ethel was also praised for her performances in Ibsen's ADoll's House (1905), Pinero's Trelawny of the 'Wells' (1911),and such Shakespearean roles as Ophelia, Portia, and Juliet. In 1928the Shuberts opened the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with the actress starringin The Kingdom of God. In 1940 she crowned her career in EmlynWilliams's The Corn is Green, which ran for four years. Shesubsequently abandoned the theater for the cinema. Her daughter EthelBarrymore Colt (1912 - 77) became an opera singer.

    Lionel Barrymore, who called acting "the familycurse", reluctantly went on the stage at 15 after tutoring byhis grandmother. As he later wrote:

    Neither Jack nor myself...preferred the stage...Yetit seemed that we had to be actors. It was as if our father had beena street cleaner, and had dropped dead near a fire hydrant, and wewent out to pick up the shovel and broom and continue his work.
    He abandoned the theater for three years in 1906 - 09in order to paint in France, later starring with his brother, John,in Peter Ibbetson (1917) and The Jest (1919). In 1926Lionel turned permanently to Hollywood, where he made nearly 200 films.He published an autobiography, We Barrymores, in 1951.

    His younger brother John Barrymore preferred loveaffairs and drinking to acting. He became noted for his comedy rolesbefore making a stunning transition to tragedy in Galsworthy's Justice(1916). One of the first matinee idols, he became known asthe Great Profile on account of his striking good looks.His electrifying Hamlet (1922) ran for a record 101 performances;members of the Players' Club were upset because he had notstopped at 99 in respect for Edwin booth's record 100 performances.John returned to the role in 1925 at London's Haymarket. One evening,rather the worse for drink, he rushed from the stage to vomit. Later,at the Garrick Club, he was congratulated for having so movinglyexpressed Hamlet's grief by retiring from the stage.

    He had a furious temper. One evening, when coughing interruptedhis lines, he returned in the second act and reached inside his coatfor a large fish. "Here you damned walruses," he shouted,hurling the fish at the audience, "busy yourselves with this,while we go on with the play." He once wrote:

    My only regret in the theater is that I could never sit outfront and watch me.
    John was lazy and, at the peak of his stage career, abandonedit for films. Both his daughter Diana Barrymore (1921 - 60) andhis son John Barrymore Jr (1932 - 2004) had promisingacting careers ruined by alcohol and drugs. His granddaughter, DrewBarrymore (1975 - ), seemed set for a similar fateafter early fame in the film E.T. (1982) was followed by aspell in rehab before she was 15. However, Drew went on to star ina string of successful films in the 1990s and 2000s.