Fall and Rise

BARposter

John Barrymore may be the first post-modern actor. At his best—and when Barrymore is at his best, it is considerably so—he stands outside the character he’s acting, as if observing himself and urging us, the audience, to observe him from a similar outside viewpoint. That’s where the post-modern aspect comes in: he’s commenting on his performance while he’s performing, taking apart his character, with its accompanying dialogue, gestures, and tones, and making us see it for what it is—a psychological and physical game. Those wicked, wanton eyes of his, swerving sideways and glinting with mischief (although Barrymore, who had memory problems, was probably only reading his cue cards), challenge us, dare us to join the game and become wised-up to the mummery. Catch me acting!, he seems to be saying (brownie points for trying).

No doubt that’s why Barrymore excelled at playing actors—he’s consciously performing as a performer. If it looks hammy, he means it that way—it’s all pretense, and for heaven’s sake, don’t take it too seriously. Like Oscar Jaffe in Twentieth Century, his greatest screen role, Barrymore is almost always “on.” And when he had material worthy of him, such as Jaffe, or Dinner at Eight or Counsellor at Law, or Topaze, or Svengali—he’s a rocket to the moon; we’re amazed at how far he goes, how high he stays in the air, how rarefied the atmosphere through which he zooms. But when the material is unworthy and bogus—

Well, when the stuff is bogus, and the effort shows, and we agonize as Barrymore by sheer will tries to drag it up to his level, that’s when you’re watching The Great Profile. No, there’s nothing subtle about the title; this is Barrymore served naked on watercress, garnished with only a smirk. The film is a straight-up send-up of the actor; and you know there’s something wrong about the enterprise when your first thought at the star’s entrance is, “Is he wearing a corset?” Actually, that wasn’t my first, first thought while watching. That came during the credits, when I heard the song “Oh, Johnny” zippily sung on the soundtrack, and I thought, “But he was called Jack.” That’s how off-kilter The Great Profile is. Its very title declares that it’s a John Barrymore burlesque, but no one ever called Barrymore “Johnny.” Joseph Garton, who published a doctoral thesis on John Barrymore’s film acting—yes, Barrymore’s acting is worthy of a doctoral thesis—points out that no one in the film itself is named Johnny. So we’re being nudged and winked at to read Barrymore into the film right off, but with a reference that doesn’t apply. It’s Barrymore’s Rodney Dangerfield moment. He can’t get any respect here, not even in a film that‘s all about making fun of him.

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Hollywood frequently mocked its stars and their public images, such as Jean Harlow as a bimbo actress in Bombshell or Dean Martin as a randy lounge singer in Kiss Me, Stupid. But those send-ups are affectionate; the stars are given some humanity and humor. And they’re not being hit while they’re down. But in 1940 Barrymore was in debt when he accepted this film, his memory was shot, and he couldn’t stop drinking. So to pay everything off he participated in his own self-travesty, such as portraying himself on the Rudy Vallee radio show as a drunken has-been for the world to laugh at. He was still getting some good parts—he’s wonderful in Midnight, in a performance crafted on multiple variations of puckered lips and brow, each pucker calibrated for precise comic effect.

But The Great Profile, which wasn’t even supposed to star Barrymore (though the film was patently about him, Fox was initially hesitant about offering it to Barrymore and planned it instead for Adolphe Menjou), played the lower half of double bills. Nobody has anything nice to say about The Great Profile. Garton labels it as “totally devoid of redeeming social value,” and Michael Morrison, in his book on Barrymore’s Shakespearean career, calls it a “strikingly exploitative vehicle.” I like that word “strikingly”; it’s detached and elegant, understated in its emphasis; and it elevates a project that didn’t aspire to anything more than a feature-length joke

I could agree with the critics, of course, and just dismiss The Great Profile as gunk, and mighty sticky gunk at that, and so end right there. However, I’ve got a blog post to fill, and, for me, anything with Barrymore is worth watching, even if it is gunk. I’m not saying the experience of gunk is pleasant, but Barrymore is our greatest American actor, and anything he does deserves respect. And Barrymore’s work in this film is weirdly fascinating. He’s not above belching during his entrance (that must’ve grabbed audience attention), and in one scene he wears a chin support that looks like a four-day growth of beard (he snaps it against his flesh like a kid playing with a rubber band). But he’s conscious of everything that he’s doing, he doesn’t yawn his way through the part. Announcing that he intends to enter a monastery where “I shall devote me [sic] life to solitude and prayer,” he slows down and sinks his voice on the final word, reaching for an unexpected bass note. That little twist is parodic yet oddly pensive; in some way it makes his character serious about what he’s saying. I’ve no doubt that Barrymore was aware that he was performing tripe, and also aware that audiences expected self-mockery; but he mocks with finesse. That’s probably the only way to play tripe and keep your self-respect.

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The film is based on a specific incident in Barrymore’s life, when he returned to the stage in a play called My Dear Children, about a ham actor with three troublesome daughters. I gather the play was dire; Barrymore’s friend and biographer, Gene Fowler, quotes Charles MacArthur’s description of Barrymore’s part as “not exactly…Hamlet.” Yet the play was a hit—not because of its merits but because of Barrymore not being able to remember his lines and outrageously (and often profanely) ad-libbing his way through a performance (the play ran 34 weeks in Chicago). Opinion is divided on the result; the play’s director, Otto Preminger, was appalled by Barrymore’s hijinks; but the respected theater critic Brooks Atkinson praised the actor for playing his part “with an alert sense of mischief,” and Orson Welles thought that watching Barrymore cavort like an antic King Lear would teach one “everything there was to know about acting.”

The movie doesn’t express an opinion either way. It neither condemned nor approved; it was merely trying to capitalize on recent Barrymore shenanigans while public attention was still engaged. Its story concerns Evans Garrick (pregnant name, that!), an actor fired from a film for drinking, who desperately agrees to act in a play written by a star-struck amateur (Anne Baxter) to boost his fortunes and win back his angry actress wife (Mary Beth Hughes). As with his real-life prototype, the boozing Garrick can’t remember his lines and makes an ass of himself onstage, but it doesn’t matter; audiences treat the play as comedy and Garrick is a roaring success. The plot echoes Twentieth Century in its view of the The-ater as a world occupied entirely by egomaniacs and buffoons; but it also hints at the less savory aspects of Barrymore’s life, such as his marital woes with his fourth wife, Elaine Barrie (who appeared with him in My Dear Children). As Mrs. Garrick, Hughes is far more delectably luscious than the real Mrs. Barrymore the Fourth; she’s plump and pouty, with the slightly tawdry air of a boardwalk beauty queen (per Garton, Hughes recalled Barrie referring to her as “the blonde bitch who is going to play my part”). Hughes is amusing in a blunt, tarty sort of way, but her playing lacks lightness, which this film sorely needs. I wish she could have cut loose with something like Carole Lombard’s giddy ferocity; as it is, she plays stolid Earth to Barrymore’s flippant Air.

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Air was Barrymore’s natural element, and he strives for it here, tossing balls into it to see how long they stay up. He displays all his comic tricks—bellowing a line and then suddenly dropping his voice, or dragging out the syllables—“spi-ri-tous liquors”—in effect, attempting to reprise Oscar Jaffe. However, the gags given Barrymore when Garrick gets drunk and mucks up the play, such as whooshing onstage in a wheel chair, tumbling backwards into the orchestra pit, and then rising like a bruised Triton to blow on a trumpet, just aren’t funny. It’s anything-for-a-laugh desperation, and it’s depressing to watch Barrymore slog through this. He manages to look somewhat physically trim (hence my thoughts on the corset), but the once-handsome profile is long gone; the jawline sags, the great burning eyes are ringed and puffy like poached eggs. And the doppelganger remarks—such as Garrick being described as “a great artist destroying his talent with liquor, the spark gone out of him”—are too sad, too close to the real thing. It’s Barrymore himself being given, however unintentionally, the po-mo treatment: examined as a text, dissected and deconstructed for viewers who’ve probably come for the same reason audiences flocked to My Dear Children—to watch a colossus fall.

But not entirely fallen. The spark is still there, flashing like a tiny jewel in sunlight, pricking our eyes. As Welles said, Barrymore will tell you everything you need to know about acting.  The way he places a hand on his chest, the wrist curling like a petal before palm touches breastbone; or his pronouncing of the word “acacia,” making you hear the liquid flow of syllables—small flourishes, perhaps, but ones that let us know that Barrymore is still alive, still has mastery and self-awareness. He wasn’t yet in the utter dregs, as he would be in that Kay Kyser thing, where his recitation of Hamlet‘s soliloquy was propelled by exhaustion and nothing else.

If The Great Profile has any virtue, it’s that it shows that Barrymore, though near the end, was not yet finished. He’s a magnificent ruin. We might wince and try to turn away but we really can’t; Barrymore is always too fascinating, too wild, too intense. He never slackens or relaxes, he’s always DOING. With that sense of irony, of lightness, of airy play, he probably would have made a great Tartuffe, or, better yet, a great Mephistopheles, giving the Devil his due. He thought of acting as a game, as hypocrisy, as manipulation, as low art; and yes, it could be hell—but as hell it was sublime. When he was great, we watched him soar like Hermes, and when he wasn’t, we watched him fall like Icarus with melted wings. But even when scorched by the sun, he still caught its fire.

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This post is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please click here to read these great posts on the members of the Barrymore acting family.

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23 Comments

  1. Love, love, LOVE how you wrote this. Brilliant.

    Reply
  2. What a downright touching critique of the movie. I wrote about the book “Hollywood’s Hellfire Club” for the blogathon, and it was just sad to read how Barrymore’s prodigious talents got drowned in alcohol. You quietly make the same case for this movie. Nicely done.

    Reply
    • I read Greg Mank’s book on the Hellfire Club/Bundy Drive Boys, and he really shows how Barrymore seemed to embrace his decline, quite knowingly. Always so very sad to read about these self-destructive talents. At least Barrymore left us some great performances in his films. Thanks so much for commenting.

      Reply
  3. Dan

     /  August 15, 2015

    Welles once conjectured that Barrymore, whose farther died in an asylum back when mental illness was a social stigma, suffered from dementia and feigned drunkenness to conceal it. I don’t necessarily believe it, but it’s an interesting thought….

    Reply
    • That is an interesting theory from Welles. Both dementia and alcoholism can be hereditary, so it’s possible that Barrymore might have inherited one or the other trait from his father. Barrymore was known to drink, however (per eyewitnesses), so that seems more plausible.

      Reply
  4. The beginning of your post is great. I never thought about how good Barrymore was playing actors – nor the post-modern thing nor the memory loss. You made me think!
    This film sounds odd, but I’d watch anything with John Barrymore. But I want to focus on one thing: that portrait in the paper is the craziest photo I’ve seen printed.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!
    Le

    Reply
    • The newspaper photo in the screen cap that you mention is from the movie itself, and is obviously meant as a gag. No doubt Barrymore was posed deliberately for it. Thanks for visiting!

      Reply
  5. Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I’ve only just got around to reading the entries now, and yours was highly worth the wait. It was very well written. Loved it. Thanks

    I would also like to invite you to participate in my new blogathon. The link is below with more details

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/in-the-good-old-days-of-classic-hollywood-presents-the-lauren-bacall-blogathon/

    Reply
  6. This is a wonderful tribute to John Barrymore – one of your best pieces yet. I do eventually want to see all his films that I can get hold of, but must admit this is one I’ve been a bit reluctant to track down, as with his other late-career self-parodies. I can see from your review, though, that he does have his moments even in this.

    I love your description: “We might wince and try to turn away but we really can’t; Barrymore is always too fascinating, too wild, too intense.” His intensity is the thing that makes him one of the greatest actors, and it’s always there, even in comedy, simmering under the surface.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your kind comment, Judy. I’m a great admirer of John Barrymore, and even when he’s self-parodying, he’s worth watching. As you note, it’s his full-blooded intensity that makes him so watchable.

      The Great Profile is on Youtube in a not-too-bad print (though still a bit fuzzy). I don’t know if UK Youtube is the same as the US one (and I also don’t know if the film is a public domain one or not and in danger of being yanked off the Internet at any moment). The film is disheartening but it’s also manic and performed at top speed by all involved, and it does have some good actors (Mary Beth Hughes, Anne Baxter, John Payne). If you’re curious, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjOCy5UwLbw

      Reply
      • Thanks for that link – just checked and it does work over here too, so I will pluck up the courage to watch it soon!

  7. Such an enjoyable write up of a film I’ve always wondered about, but have never seen. Your terrifically amusing descriptions (the poached eggs eyes got me) make it sound like a “must see” merely because it seems to offer so much running commentary subtext on the life and career of Barrymore.
    I’ve only ever seen him in “Dinner at Eight” and “Grand Hotel” – two films i adore, but they never inspired me to seek out any of his other work. Maybe “The Great Profile” isn’t the best place to start, but your wonderful essay sure makes a compelling case!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much, Ken, for your kind comment. I found The Great Profile an uncomfortable film in many ways to watch–Barrymore is obviously in decline, but he’s mesmerizing, like a fabulous train wreck, to see. The film’s commentary on his life is weird, since the events were so recent (at the time) and probably all audiences were aware of them (and I’m sure Barrymore was aware of it, too); that’s what makes the film seem post-modern before its time. You can watch the film on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjOCy5UwLbw – I think it’s public domain.

      If you’d like to see essential John Barrymore performances, the one film I would recommend is Twentieth Century – it’s probably his greatest one, and it’s a must-see (it’s hilarious, and also stars a staggeringly beautiful Carole Lombard). The film is on DVD and available. Another would be his performance in Svengali (1931), a strange, now-creaky horror film, but Barrymore is funny and moving and outrageous in the way only he could be. It’s available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84JCixjULkk

      Reply
      • Thank you very much for the links to these movies. I still tend to forget what a wealth of forgotten films YouTube can be. I’m looking forward to seeing Barrymore more in his prime!
        By the way, all this talk of fading stars appearing in movies which exploit or play off of their real-life personas is an interesting topic about a kind of cringe sub-genre of film. Would make an interesting article.

      • I’m astonished at what I’ve found on Youtube; it’s an unofficial source of hard-to-find cinema. I think you can also find Barrymore’s silent (1922) version of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, which had a memorably creepy scene (done in double exposure) of what looks like a giant tarantula melting into Barrymore’s body. Ugh!

        I agree, stars parodying themselves in their movies would make for a great article (or maybe even a blogathon). When I recently saw Yul Brynner in Westworld, wearing the same outfit he wore in The Magnificent Seven, and essentially playing a riff on his character in that earlier, classic film, I had a sense of how much his career had stalled at that point if he now had to play send-ups of himself–and maybe for audiences who never even saw him in the original film. Kinda made me wince.

  8. Hi. I would like to invite you to participate in my next blogathon. The link is below with more details

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2015/09/24/announcing-the-silent-cinema-blogathon/

    Reply
  1. THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON HAS NOW ARRIVED | In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.
  2. THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON: A BIG THANK YOU TO ALL PARTICIPANTS | In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

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