Magazine article USA TODAY

The Legend Lives On

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Legend Lives On

Article excerpt

IN 1930, George Cukor's popular film "The Royal Family of Broadway" appeared. Based upon the equally popular George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber 1927 Broadway play of the same name, public absorption was fueled by how closely the focus Cavendish family resembled the famed Barrymores. The most prominent of the clan then being John Barrymore (1882-1942), one of the 20th century's most celebrated actors, and the grandfather of today's Drew Barrymore (1975). John also had two acclaimed siblings, serious Ethel (1879-1959, who first threatened to sue the producers of said play), and Lionel (1878-1954), now best known as evil Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).

Now, as to who might be movie history's "Royal Family of Film," one certainly could repeat the name Barrymore. John is the key to the argument. While Orson Welles always said Barrymore's 1922 "Hamlet" was the greatest stage performance of the melancholy Dane during the last century, John already had aroused silent screen audiences with the unprecedented 1920 adaptation of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Paradoxically, he was the handsome "Great Profile" Barrymore, and starred in "Don Juan" (1926), the first feature-length movie to use a Vitaphone soundtrack.

In sound films, his good looks and superb voice made him a popular leading man in such major productions as "Grand Hotel" (1932, opposite Greta Garbo), "A Bill of Divorcement" (1932, Katharine Hepburn's screen debut), "Dinner at Eight" (1933, with brother Lionel), and "Twentieth Century" (1934, a watershed screwball comedy costarring Carole Lombard). However, in time, his age and a lifetime of excessive drinking began to limit him to supporting roles, though he still could be extraordinary, from a brilliant Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet" (1936), to a movie-stealing matchmaker in another screwball comedy classic, "Midnight" (1939).

Yet, his alcoholic raconteuring private life, often with another pickled performer (W.C. Fields), rivalized his movie triumphs, and makes him an ongoing part of "Hollywoodland" folklore. His most memorably repeated line occurred when he was forced to use a lady's restroom. "This is only for women!" a patron complained, and Barrymore politely replied, "So's this Mum, but every so often I have to run some water through it" Still, he sealed this mythic-like image with his last words, "Die! I should say not dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him." These sardonic sayings and many more were the basis for Christopher Plummer's Tony Award-winning one-man-show "Barrymore" (1997). John remains one of filmland's most iconic figures.

While his siblings never rivaled their brother's scintillating private life, they did contribute significantly to Hollywood history. While also active in silent film, Lionel would win an Academy Award for Best Actor in "A Free Soul" (1931). Though his signature Mr. Potter role tends to linger, he would serve out a long (into the 1950s) career as a character actor often stereotyped as a cantankerous yet loveable figure, ranging from the grandfather in Frank Capra's Oscar-winning Best Picture, "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), to Lionel's continuing role as Doctor Gillespie in MGM's very popular "Doctor Kildore" series of the 1930s and 1940s. …

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