The House of Barrymore
By Margot Peters
- Alfred A. Knopf New York, 1990
- Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
- Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.
The House of Barrymore begins in the 1860s with Louisa, Mrs. John Drew, the greatest comedienne of her time, mother of the brilliant Georgiana (“Georgie”) Drew Barrymore, and mother-in-law of the vaudeville star and matinee idol Maurice Barrymore. But it is the children of Georgie and Maurice who are the heart of the book—Ethel, Lionel, and John, the most extraordinary members of an extraordinary family, the first great actors of the American stage to become, as well, great stars of American film.
1912 – 1916
FIVE dollars!” said little Lillian Gish after making her first movie. “For doing so little!” Mary Pickford also agreed that movies were great between stage jobs: “I’m earning more than I ever have before—much more!” “I saw you in the picture play,” said Frohman to his star Marie Doro. “What a lot of money you make!” And there is no use pretending that movies meant much more than easy money to the actors who gravitated to the decaying brownstone where D. W. Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer ground out the one-reelers that were making cinematographic history. Some of the Broadway actors who condescended to a few days’ work at the Biograph studio treated the whole business with contempt. “But from the moment he stalked through D.W.’s door,” said Mary Pickford of Lionel, “we liked him!” His very presence at Biograph reassured Lillian and Dorothy Gish: movies couldn’t be too sinister if a Barrymore was involved. Lionel made his first picture, The Battle, in 1911 with Blanche Sweet, then friends with Pickford in 1912. Despite studio opposition, Griffith had Bitzer move his camera in to shoot Mary waist-up, eliminating stereotyped posing and gesture but outraging the men who owned Biograph and didn’t care about art: they paid Mary $100 a week and they wanted every inch of what they paid for. Loathing them, Griffith went ahead, his way.
Griffith had a stable of performers chosen to portray the five standard ingredients of the one-reeler: Heart Interest, Drama, Danger, Comedy, Rescue. Blanche Sweet, Claire McDowell, Florence Lawrence, and Mae Marsh were Heart Interests, but Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford were more important because they photographed “young.” Henry B. Walthall, Owen Moore, and Bobby Harron were Heroes to the Rescue. Lionel, Harry Carey, Donald Crisp, and James Kirkwood provided Drama, Danger, and Comedy—though Lionel, said Lillian Gish, could play any part.
Griffith respected the legitimate stage and felt deeply the conflict between it and the motion picture, but he also recognized his calling. Overhearing an actress sneer at “flickers,” he exploded. She wasn’t working in some third-rate theatrical company now, he told her. “What we do here today will be seen tomorrow by people all over America—people all over the world! Just remember that the next time you go before the camera!” Lillian Gish was one of the performers Griffith could leave trembling; Lionel tried to comfort her. It wasn’t so long ago, he explained, that Griffith himself had talked scathingly of “flickers” and “galloping tin types.” But now he was convinced that he was pioneering in a new art. That was why he drove his players—and himself—so hard.
1924 – 1925
Movies offered less work and far more money. They also offered wider recognition to a man who could be disgusted when restaurant patrons did not recognize him. Once in New York he had fought through crowds to the Lyric Theatre to see Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood.
Though he was America’s greatest actor and no stranger to films, he found himself disconcertingly just one of the crowd. In front of the theatre he watched the limousines draw up: Valentino, Richard Barthelmess, and Lillian Gish had arrived. The crowd rushed toward them. “Sure, that’s him!” a female screamed in his ear. Had he been recognized at last.” No, she was jabbing her finger at the handsome Barthelmess. Hollywood would cure the recognition factor.
1935 – 1936
In England an important new actor had emerged, an actor who played not only Hamlet, but Romeo, Orlando, Richard II, Oberon, Hotspur, Macbeth, Prospero, and Lear. His theatrical lineage was impeccable: he was a Terry. As long as John Gielgud kept his Hamlet on the other side of the Atlantic, John’s went unchallenged. But in the autumn of 1936, Gielgud, supported by Lillian Gish as Ophelia and Judith Anderson as the Queen, opened on Broadway. The actor’s rich voice, his poetic delivery of Shakespeare’s verse, and the intellectual strength of his whole conception brought cries that here was the greatest Hamlet of them all. The run was extended again and again, until finally Gielgud with 132 performances achieved a new record for Shakespeare, for Hamlet, and for Broadway.
1945 – 1949
Toward his sixty-seven-year-old body Lionel displayed typical Barrymore contempt. He refused to discuss his health, became savage when anyone inquired after it. Except when he was in front of the camera, eating, or asleep, he had a cigarette between his lips. He ate enormously: potato salad, malts, hamburgers, cookies. He consumed barrels of beer. Although he told numerous people he had kicked his cocaine habit. Gene Fowler was present one fire-burning winter evening in Lionel’s den at Chatsworth when Lionel suddenly began rummaging through his desk drawers and pulled out a bag of cocaine. Propelling himself to the fireplace, he hurled the bag on the fire. “If I need this goddamned stuff to live,” he growled, “then I don’t give a goddamn about living!” Fowler, who knew a good scene when he saw one, suspected it was not the finale—and there are other stories about Lionel “discovering” bags of cocaine and dramatically renouncing the habit forever.
At the same time, he could drive himself to physical limits. Selznick signed him to play Senator McCanles, the hard-nosed cattle baron of Spanish Bit in an 1880s epic western meant to eclipse Gone With the Wind. Duel in the Sun featured “three really hot and really new personalities”—Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, and Joseph Cotten—as well as premier actors playing second string—Lionel, Lillian Gish, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, and Charles Bickford: the worn-out illusion that an all-star cast and a huge budget (an unprecedented $7.5 million) will make a great movie.
Lionel played most of his scenes in a wheelchair and for long shots had a double, but McCanles’s face-off with the railroad officials demanded the real man on horseback. With the assistance of a ladder and extras, Lionel managed to hoist himself onto a white horse, then endure hours of shooting in 110-degree Arizona heat under a director. King Vidor, who was driving Selznick crazy with his ambling pace. Lionel declined to be removed at lunchtime: “No, I’ll stay on, because when I get off I’m going home.” At the end of the afternoon’s filming Vidor asked Lionel whether the next day he would be willing to let himself be dragged by the horse. “All right,” said Lionel, “but do it today. You won’t see me around here tomorrow.”
They laid him down, roped his legs like a steer’s, then bounced him along the ground behind a car while the cameras ground. His grit drew cheers from the crew but, good to his word, Lionel disappeared for the next few days of shooting. His eyes gleaming slits, his mouth drawn down in discontent, Lionel is meaner in Duel in the Sun than MGM usually allowed, though naturally he turns out to have a heart in the end. Compared to his old Biograph co-player Lillian Gish, acting opposite him as his wife, Laura Belle, the years have dealt harshly with Lionel; he is crippled, bloated. When Vidor suggested that McCanles would not be the type to wear a wedding ring, Lionel’s gold band, buried in flesh, had to be surgically removed. With typical stoicism, he submitted silently to the violation of the sentimental symbol.
Gish, Cotten, Huston, and Lionel turned in excellent performances, but in Selznick’s own words Duel in the Sun cost him “great loss of prestige with the trade and press and public.” Raw-sex westerns weren’t really Selznick’s metier. As the half-breed Pearl, Jennifer Jones tried embarrassingly hard to smolder; the lurid publicity surrounding the film’s release broke all Selznick’s rules of dignity. But violently negative reviews only meant that the film was a hit with the public.
1949 – 1954
Lionel (Barrymore) was not invited to put his footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese. Never mind: there wasn’t the life-sized statue of D. W. Griffith on Vine that should have been there either—Griffith the master, whose very presence on the Duel in the Sun set had reduced both Lionel and Lillian Gish to nervous silence and whose funeral Lionel had reverently attended in 1948. Nor was his seventy-sixth birthday marked by any festivity: MGM was too embarrassed to note it and Lionel reported to the studio to rehearse “Hallmark Playhouse” as usual. He pretended not to care. “Barrymores don’t celebrate birthdays. I bet I don’t even get a phone call from Ethel.” Some Barrymores celebrated birthdays: Ethel’s seventy-fifth, hosted by George Cukor, was a poshly exclusive event with Ethel at the chief table between Cole Porter and David Selznick, and Elsie Mendl, Somerset Maugham, Lucille Watson, Orry-Kelly, Garbo, Hepburn, Elsa Lanchester, Zoe Akins, the Irving Berlins, and Constance Collier in attendance. Sammy was there too, and Lionel, seated between Hepburn and Ellin Berlin, an oddity in his high-button shoes.