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.
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.
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.
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.