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Battle of the Barrymores


Guest Alix

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Guest finnie12, moira

It's tough for me to choose only one of the Barrymores as "the finest", Alix,--especially since they each had such distinct personas: John--a fascinating actor and a sad spectacle. He had movie star glamour in spades,especially evident in "Dinner at Eight" and "Grand Hotel". He also gave a few character performances that proved his range, such as "Svengali" and "The Great Man Votes"('39),(probably one of his last good performances, though at that time his memory was so impaired that his lines needed to be written on on blackboards hidden around the set). Lionel--character actor par excellence and sometimes, a terrible ham! Though kind of dated, his performance in "A Free Soul" is still moving to me. He's also terrific in later work such as "On Borrowed Time" and "Key Largo". I find some of his work in the Dr. Kildare series and other movies to be embarassing to watch. Ethel--as beautiful and sad as the last rose of summer, her otherworldliness and mysterious Mona Lisa smile could be interpreted as warm-hearted or malevolent. I find her to be the most intriguing of the siblings-- especially in "None But the Lonely Heart", "The Great Sinner", "Portrait of Jennie", and "The Story of Three Loves". If she's in a movie, I'll almost always watch it, even if it makes me late for work! Too bad their only work together on film, "Rasputin and the Empress" wasn't a better movie. Did you see the A & E biography of the Barrymores? Interesting and very telling that none of them ever really wanted to be actors, don't you think?

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Guest jeannecooper

I only caught 1/2 hour midway through on A&E last night. And was mad that I had other things to do instead of sitting down and watching it. I've enjoyed John in "Dinner at Eight" and "Grand Hotel", but was shadowed by his waste of such wonderful gifts. Too bad he felt compelled to continue at something that caused him such destructive tendancies. Side note - did you see the brief glimpse of a very young Mary Astor in the clip from "Don Juan"? Lionel might have been a ham - but he was in top form -like "Gramps" in "On Borrowed Time" - he was honey glazed as well. I share Moira's opinion of Ethel. Maybe it is because her appearances were so infrequent in her early career, that it is a treat to watch her in later years. I loved her in "The Farmer's Daughter" and others. Her enigamtic half smile always lead me to believe that her characters had had somewhat of a hidden past, and she was the wiser for the experience, and willing to let the young ones learn it for themselves.

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It's a toss up between Ethel and Lionel. Usually when I see their name in the credits I know I'm in for a treat. Of Ethel's films my favorites are "The Spiral Staircase", "Pinky", "The Secret of Convict Lake", "Kind Lady", "It's a Big Country" (cameo), "Young at Heart" and "Johnny Trouble" her final film. Of Lionel's I like "Grand Hotel", "The Devil Doll", "Captains Courageous", "On Borrowed Time" (a big favorite), "Since You Went Away", "It's a Wonderful Life", "Duel in the Sun" and "Key Largo".

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In my opinion, the finest Barrymore was Lionel. Oh yes, John had the looks, but Lionel was the better actor. I liked him in A FREE SOUL, DINNER AT EIGHT, ARSINE LUPIN, DINNER AT EIGHT, and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. I even enjoyed him in a 1936 movie, DEVIL DOLLS, where he appears in drag! "Character" parts are often more interesting than the "leading man" roles. I think that's what attracts me to Lionel's work. Ethel just doesn't phase me one way or the other. And I agree it's a shame that the only movie all three were in was a borderline dud (although I thought of the three, Lionel is the one who shines). Again, the part of Rasputin was a meatier role than the one either Ethel or John had. Thank goodness no one mentioned Drew Barrymore as the greatest Barrymore. Isn't she John's great-great granddaughter? My vote goes to Lionel.

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Guest finnie12, moira

Sandy K.- Here's a synopsis of what I know about Ethel, Lionel and John's career path--they weren't just destined for dramatic greatness, from their viewpoint, they were born for their inevitable fate as great actors and troubled people: All the children became actors because that was the family business and financial crises dogged each of them from an early age, especially since their impossibly handsome and profligate father, Maurice, was unwilling and unable to support them from the time they reached their early teens. Their beloved maternal grandmother, Mrs. John (Louise) Drew was a legend in the American theater and she is said to have steered each of the children to the stage after their mother Georgie's death at the age of 38-- Ethel longed to be a concert pianist, and studied it seriously until her formal education ended abruptly after the death of her mother. Poor Ethel was with her mother in Santa Barbara when she died of a bronchial hemorrhage. Ethel had to travel east by train, alone with her mother's coffin from the west coast. She was 13 years of age. No wonder she was universally described as "very mature for her age". Ethel often blended her love of the piano into her numerous theatrical tours, incorporating musical interludes into such plays as James M. Barrie's "The Twelve Pound Look". John always wished to be an artist. He loved to draw and paint from an early age, though his increasingly dark turn of mind and subject matter made it impossible for him to make a living as an artist, though he did work as an illustrator for the NY paper, The Evening Journal, beginning in 1900. This same paper fired him after he submitted a political cartoon that was too grotesque for public consumption and the editors taste. John drew all his life and formed lasting friendships with many artists, including James Montgomery Flagg. Lionel, who may have been the most gifted of the siblings in some ways, also had a musical gift and pursued it as an avocation for many years. His compositions were performed publicly during his lifetime, including one performance of a piece entitled In Memoriam by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy on April 22, 1944. It was written for his brother John, incorporating gypsy strains and a song called Blue Forget-Me-Nots that the two brothers used to listen to at the Café Boulevard in New York when they were just starting out in life. He was also a serious artist and as a married man with a family and a thriving stage career he escaped from his fate from 1906 to 1909 to study painting fulltime in Paris (financed by a very generous Ethel). His etches are still auctioned occasionally and, if you ever get to Manhattan, the Morgan Librarys collection may still include some of Lionels work, which I saw on display there a dozen years ago. After checking the A & E website, it appears that the family biography isn't scheduled for another showing this month, though A & E usually repeats biographies again. If youd like to read the best bio Ive ever come across about the family, you might like the wonderfully researched and readable The House of Barrymore by Margot Peters. The following website also has some good Barrymore info: http://www.barrymore.com/history.html It would be great if TCM could devote a month to featuring all three of the Barrymores movies, don't you think?

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Guest finnie12, moira

Jeane, In retrospect, I think I expressed myself too harshly about Lionel's hamminess--what I find hard to watch are the roles he played,(for monetary reasons, mostly), that were beneath his talents. He was a very gifted man, and not just as an actor! I just remembered how good his radio version of "A Christmas Carol" was too--hope you've had a chance to hear it. He was slated for the '38 film version but was too ill to appear and suggested his friend, Reginald Owen for the plum part of Ebenezer Scrooge instead. Lionel, like Ethel, had a generous spirit, apparently. Mary Astor, as you pointed out, was in "Don Juan" with John and, according to her autobiography, they had an affair that they tried to hide from her parents--oh, wasn't she beautiful? Like a Leigh Hunt painting of a medieval beauty...have a good weekend. ( :

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Guest jeannecooper

No, I thought your points were valid on his some of his theatrical stylings. I cannot remember where I heard this story - but once he and John were acting in either a play or movie. John had all the lines, Lionel was just to react wordlessly, and then exit out a door. John advised the director his brother would somehow steal the scene, despite his lack of verbal communication. Not possible, he was told. Just wait, he answered. The scene goes as planned, Lionel turns to begin his exit and just before the door - he pauses, thoughtfully takes his upstage hand and slowly scratches his left buttock as he takes his exit. Game, set, match to the elder brother. Have a good weekend yourself. I'm off to better myself at my stain glass. The screams of frustration you hear are mine!

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Guest K, Sandy

Thanks moira, that was a fabulous post! I will check out the book you suggested. The first that I ever heard of the Barrymore family was when a friend of my mother's was in a community theatre production of "The Royal Family," the play based on the Barrymores. I was fascinated to find out that such a wonderful family actually existed!

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Guest K, Sandy

Hey, Alix, I like Drew Barrymore! She's done some fluff, but I thought her performance in RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS was quite good. I believe that she's actually John's granddaughter? Her father was John and Delores Costello's son, whose name was also John, I believe. Anyone know if that's right? I like John very much in GRAND HOTEL, but I LOVE Lionel in that film. I also think he's great as Mr. Potter in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. The man you love to hate!

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Guest son, jery

The Lost Barrymore. Hey, great discussion. Can anyone remember that "lost Barrymore"--Diana? I wrote a lot about her in the folder,"Movie Books," because she was the unlucky one who inherited neither talent nor looks. After she was named "Debutante of the Year" in l938, she did a stage play and then went to Hollywood in l940 and worked for Universal. From all accounts, she was a typical Barrymore--arrogant as hell, temperamental, but she had no talent to go with it. I watched her in a Universal B, "Nightmare" with Brian Aherne. There wasn't anything there. She looked hard, heavy and sullen. She'd already started drinking heavily. You've gotta read her memoir, "Too Much, Too Soon." She admits her career was over by the age of 24. By the way, John is my favorite. What a tragic Adonis!

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You know, "Too much, Too Soon" could be the theme song for many young actors/actresses who rocket to stardom only to realize how fragile that stardom really is. Jery, how is Diana related to the other three Barrymores? Does anyone know if Ethel or Lionel had any children? I assume John did, since Drew is a great-granddaughter or something. If Ethel and/or Lionel did have children, did they pursue acting as a career? Was John married to Delores Costello? Gosh, I thought she was breathtakingly beautiful in LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY as "Dearest."

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Guest finnie12, moira

In answer to questions about the often confusing details of the tangled lives of the descendents of John, Ethel and Lionel. If I forget anyone or have some details wrong, I apologize...but here's the basic skinny, as far as I can tell: John Barrymore was the father of three children. Diana Barrymore, (1921-1960) was his daughter from his marriage to Michael Strange, (nee Blanche Oelrichs). John had two children from his marriage to Dolores Costello: Dolores Ethel Mae Barrymore, (known as DeDe), was born in 1931.As a young adult, she did not pursue a theatrical career after being chided for nerves by an acting coach, but married an industry executive. John Barrymore, Jr. (now known as John Drew Barrymore), was born in 1932. His career in movies was hampered by living in his father's shadow, his substance abuse and, in recent years, eccentricity and possible mental illness. John Jr. has had two marriages-one to Cara Williams in the 1950s and a second to Jaid Barrymore. Drew Barrymore is the grandaughter of John Barrymore and Dolores Costello. Her father is the John Drew Barrymore, (nee John Barrymore Jr.),mentioned above and her mother is Jaid Barrymore. That makes Lionel and Ethel her great aunt and uncle. John Drew Barrymore is also the father of John Barrymore III,(christened as John Blyth Barrymore) by way of his first marriage to actress, Cara Williams. JB III, after enduring his family's legacy of substance abuse, is sober and seeking work as an actor today. Ethel Barrymore had three children during her turbulent marriage to Russell Colt, a society figure and heir to the Colt gun fortune. Samuel Colt, (known as ****) was born in late 1909. Thanks to his wealth, he did not pursue a career, but escorted his mother until her death when he was age 50. He eventually married happily in 1981 and died in 1986. Ethel Colt, (called Sister or Chee-Chee)attempted a theatrical career but eventually found her way into a respected career as an opera singer. She sang with Beverly Sills in "Daughter of the Regiment" just prior to her death in 1977. Jackie Colt, the youngest, handsomest and wildest of her children can be seen briefly in the Ronald Colman movie, "A Double Life" as the stage manager. He was hired by director George Cukor at the behest of his mother, who feared that indolence would lead him to indulge in the family weaknesses. An athlete in his youth, Jackie became an alcoholic, retired from the stage and screen after receiving his Colt inheritance and lived in obscurity until his death in 1975 at 61. Lionel was married twice, to Doris Rankin in 1903 and Irene Fenwick in 1923. Lionel's children may have been Mary and Ethel, born during the first decade of the twentieth century. Both appear to have died in infancy, Mary at age 2 in Paris during Lionel's artistic sabbatical there, and baby Ethel in NYC in 1909 at eighteen months. Though the details of their loss are unclear, there is some evidence that Lionel and Doris Rankin's marriage never fully recovered from these blows. He left her in the early 1920s for Irene Fenwick, an actress and, embarassingly, a former paramour of brother Jack! P.S. I'm with Sandy K.--whether she's in fluff or not, Drew B. is one of those actresses I like. I also feel protective of her--she's come so far, so fast, I want things to work out for her. She also has a strong resemblance to her Aunt Ethel at times. Check out the opening scenes of her on the swing in the otherwise execrable "Poison Ivy"(1992) to see the likeness in a moment of repose.

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Guest K, Sandy

I caught a bit of A FAMILY AFFAIR this morning on TCM. It's the first entry in the Andy Hardy series. I was surprised to see Lionel Barrymore playing Judge Hardy! I rather liked him in the role! No disrespect to Lewis Stone, of course, who took over the role for the remainder of the series. I also caught AH! WILDERNESS with Lionel, Mickey Rooney, Spring Byington, Cecilia Parker, and Eric Linden, all of whom were in A FAMILY AFFAIR. Two views of family life in small-town America, 30 or so years apart. It even looked like they used the same house with different furnishings! Especially the dining room. Well, at least they recycled their sets back then.

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Guest son, jery

I always thought Ethel would have been a great "dowager" type for 30s movies but from everything I've read, she was terribly arrogant about making "flickers." The only reason we got to enjoy her few movies in the 40s is that she was bankrupt. Lionel arranged a contract for his sister with MGM. That's how she finally got some money. Strangely, Ethel made a batch of silents back in the late l900s and early 1920s and was paid a fortune. She was forever berating her two brothers, Lionel and John, about making "flickers"--but she sang a different tune when she needed the dough.

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Thank goodness she needed the dough or else we would have been deprived of a sterling character actress. Most of her "flickers" were just dandy. My admiration for Miss Ethel Barrymore could also stem from my youth in Brooklyn when I use to help out an old lady in a wheelchair (ran errands, walked the dog, cleaned house, took her to the movies etc.). Her name was Henrietta Corse Brown Payton and she was once in show business, mostly on the stage. Utmost is that she resembled Miss Barrymore in her features and her mannerisms. Her husband Corse Payton made some early films and he is in the book "Who's Who in Hollywood". Mrs Payton and I spent many joyful moments together and I will never forget that grand ole gal.

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I was watching a tape of THE RACE TO SAVE 100 YEARS and they showed a 1915 film clip of "Miss Ethel Barrymore," as she is credited in the title card, and she looks lovely with her long hair and youthful appearence. The clip that was aired was a little on the "hammy" side, but I think pantomime can sometimes look a little bit that way. Anyway, she was very beautiful! I wonder how old she'd have been in 1915?

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Guest K, Sandy

Hey, how's this for serendipity? In looking over the October schedule, I saw some Ethel Barrymore movies coming up! Thursday, Oct. 3 8PM EST THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945) Monday, Oct. 21 10AM EST NIGHT SONG (1948) 12PM EST THE GREAT SINNER (1949) 2PM EST THE RED DANUBE (1949) Enjoy!

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Guest finnie12, moira

Alix, Ethel would have turned 36 in 1915 since she was born in 1879. Wish we could hop in the wayback machine and see her in the turn of the century play in which she first captivated American and British audiences, "Captain Jinks in the Horse Marines" at the age of 21. Her appearance was so enchanting that Winston Churchill sought her out, became friends and even asked for her hand in marriage. Sandy K., Thanks for the Ethel Alert! I'm so glad that TCM has added some new titles featuring her to their library, including one that you didn't mention--Portrait of Jennie (1949), to be shown on Oct. 30th at 1:30am. It probably helps to be a 14 year old girl (at least in your heart) to understand the appeal of this movie. Its probably too long and has almost too many colorful side characters, (including David Wayne as an Irish cabbie, and Cecil Kellaway as a gallery owner), but if you love New York City on film and Ethels eternally mysterious persona, this might get to you. Joseph Cotten is very good, as I recall, and Jennifer Jones is quite lovely. Debussy, Dimitri Tiomkin and an uncredited Bernard Herrmann contribute to the haunting score. Check out the cinematography by Joseph August and Special Fx by Clarence Slifer and crew. I trust TCM will show this with the Technicolor insert during the storm sequence that was put back in to the movie decades after it was removed. I also particularly like "The Great Sinner" that you cited above--a great, dark Dostoyevski story set in a French casino with Miss Barrymore as a gambling baby who needs new shoes--or does she? Frank Morgan is great in this one as a loser. Ava Gardner is a feast for the eyes in 19th century garb. Gregory Peck is kinda dense as the central figure. I guess I better get myself to the store for some blank VHS tapes!

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Guest son, jery

Moira, Ethel made a series of silent pics in the late l900s and early 1920s. I'd love to see them. She was paid a fortune. The reviews back then said her movies were merely filmed stage plays. You know the kind. Everyone stands around, emoting. But still--it'd be thrilling to see this legendary dame at her peak. And, Good God, would I love to have seen her father--the fabulous Maurice Barrymore! The stills I see from his plays showing a cross between Sean Connery (Sir Gorgeous) and Harrison Ford. Absolutely stunning! The women were wild for him. He was over six feet four. Jet black hair, moustache, beautiful teeth, drool-a-cious torso. But he went mad and it was Ethel who had to have him committed.

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Just watched an exceptional two hour BIOGRAPHY on A&E featuring The Barrymore's. With expert narration, stills, clips and recollections it played out the lives of Lionel, Ethel and John warts and all. It's amazing how John looked (and behaved) like his handsome father Maurice who started it all with his lovely wife Georgie the spitting image of Ethel. Although all three siblings had great success their trials and tribulations are heart breaking. In a prior post on this subject I picked Ethel and Lionel as my favorite Barrymore's and I stick by my choices since, unfortunately, brother John was a loser. The program is a must-see for all who are interested in the Barrymore's. Check your listings for repeat showings.

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