Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties

By Edmund Wilson | Go to book overview

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF
JOHN BARRYMORE

IF you merely take a glance at Good Night, Sweet Prince, Gene Fowler biography of John Barrymore, you may suppose that it is a cheap journalistic job.

Certainly the style couldn't be more journalistic in a flowery old-fashioned way, which has sometimes a tinge of O. Henry, sometimes a tinge of Woollcott("A block to the east of the Arch Street Theatre lay the wise bones of Benjamin Franklin"). For Mr. Fowler, Broadway is inevitably "this street of fickle lustre," a distiller a "maker of spirituous delicacies," and Shakespeare"Stratford's first gentleman"; cigarette-smoking is "bronchial debauchery," hair on the chest "torsorial upholstery" and the men's washroom "ammoniac grottos" equipped with "cracked and homely porcelains." When he wants to convey the idea that some white mice were multiplying rapidly, he says that the "snowy rodents were fruitful"; and when Barrymore sets out to play Hamlet, or take on "the Danish assignment," Mr. Fowler says that he "announced . . . his decision to draw on the black tights of the classic Scandinavian." His notion of syntax and the meaning of words is also of the vaguest. When it is a question of anybody's conduct, the word "behaviorism" is always summoned: "After the passing of his grandmother he entered upon a bouncing behaviorism"; and when,

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