Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Keeping up with the Barrymores: If Reality TV Was Around Then!

This is my contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click HERE for more great posts about this Royal Family of stage and screen.

Kardashians? Nah - if I am going to spend reality time with a Hollywood family, Id much rather spend it with a clan like the Barrymores. Now there's a family worth following!

Episode One:  Dramatic Beginnings

Herbert Arthur Chamberlain Blythe (1849-1905), the son of a surveyor for the British East India Company, here's the call of the theater and adopts the stage name Maurice Barrymore to spare his respectable family the shame of having a child on the stage. He made his way from India to England to Broadway, where he met, fell in love with and married the actress, Georgiana Drew (1856-1893). Georgiana came from acting family, John and Louise Lane Drew. Louisa was a thrice-married woman, quite scandalous at the time. 
The Dashing Maurice Barrymore
I'm sure there was much chatter about that over the mutton chops.
The Lovely Georgiana Drew Barrymore
Georgiana and Maurice had three children (Ethel, Lionel and John) and were happy at first, but, alas, hubby possessed a wandering eye and the marriage became yet another unhappy theatrical venture.  His rumored amours were: Helena Modjeska, Mrs. Fiske, Mrs. Leslie Carter, Lillian Russell and - gasp! - Lily Langtry. Take that, George Clooney!! Poor Georgiana died of tuberculosis at age 36, leaving her children in the care of her mother in Philadelphia. Maurice, who had limited contact with his children until their teens, continued to act. At the time of his death (from syphilis), he was playing vaudeville. 
Georgie with children Ethel, Lionel and John.
There are no known photos of Maurice with his 3 children.
Juicy, no? Stay tuned for Episode 2 of Keeping Up With the Barrymores! 

Episode 2: Oh those kids!

While mama and papa Barrymore were colorful characters, they couldn't hold a candle to their world-famous progeny. Bursting with intelligence, talent beauty and and unsurpassed thirst for life, Lionel, Ethel and the great John Barrymore made sure that their famous name would never be forgotten.


Lovely young Ethel began working on stage while still in her teens. Before long she was the toast of London and soon men were falling at her dainty feet. One famous suitor was Winston Churchill and, while Ethel decline to marry him, she maintained an intimate "friendship" with old Winnie for the rest of her life. 

The lovely young Ethel: no wonder the boys were mad for her

Her fame abroad paved the way for a triumphant return to the states and a deserved reputation as a great Broadway star in the early part of the 20th century. While she dabbled in silent cinema, she is chiefly remembered by film fans for her later roles in such films as "The Spiral Staircase" (1946) and "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932) in which she appeared with brothers Lionel and John. 
The Great Lady of the Theater
Ethel also dipped her dainty toes in radio and TV, but lest you think this lady a bit of a prig, she was a Barrymore by blood and that meant she was a lusty lass. Besides Churchill, she raised quite a romantic rumpus across pond, breaking the hearts of a Duke and several famous actors. She finally married Russell Colt (of the Colt firearms fame) in 1909. It was a rocky marriage that ended in divorce in 1923. While she never remarried, it is hard to imagine Ethel being lonely. She passed away in 1959 at age 79, her reputation as a great lady of the theater carved in stone.


Big brother Lionel was the non-glamorous Barrymore. He began his career on the stage, as all good Barrymores do, but Lionel took to the new medium of film with gusto. From the earliest days of silents with D.W. Griffith to the golden age of the big studios, Lionel Barrymore was a distinguished and reliable (if sometimes grouchy) presence.

An intense Lionel Barrymore
Although Lionel was a talented actor, artist and composer, his private life was a little tame compared to his flamboyant family. He did enter into a squabble with brother John over the "honor" of his wife, actress Irene Fenwick. It seems Irene had dallied with wild brother John before she settled down with Lionel for a happy marriage in 1923 that lasted until her untimely death in 1936. 

The meanest man in town
Later in life Lionel suffered from health problems that caused him to suffer great pain while walking and eventually landed him in a wheelchair from the late 1930s until his death at age 76 in 1954.


The best known Barrymore, the best looking, the greatest star of the family and by far the biggest hell raiser, the legend of John Barrymore is larger than life. His reputation as a great actor is well known, but if this reality show is going to make it to episode 3, we need to follow JB on his off-stage and off-screen exploits. 
The Great Profile: a heart throb of the stage and screen
Already an alcoholic as a teenager, his reputation as a carouser and a ladies man was epic. As the baby of the family, John was a handful and the apple of his grandmother's eye. It seems women could not resist him from the start. He thought he might like to be an artist, but the lure of the stage was too great for him to resist. Before his great stage success, an early important love was the notorious and beautiful Evelyn Nesbit. 

Once Barrymore turned his attentions full-time to the theater there was no denying his beauty, presence and talent. He was the matinee idol deluxe, but decided to marry socialite Katherine Corri Harris in 1910. He soon described the union was a "bus accident." Katharine said he drank too much. The couple divorced in 1917.

During this time John began dividing his time between the stage and silent films. While the stage claimed his heart, films were a good source of much needed income. He also found time to romance the married writer, Blanche Oelrichs, who published poetry under the name "Michael Strange." Blanche became pregnant in 1920 and she managed to divorce her husband and marry John 6 months before daughter Diana was born.

Barrymore as Hamlet

Meanwhile, Barrymore had hit his stride on stage and screen. The legendary performances as "Hamlet" and "Richard III" wowed the critics and film fans were mesmerized by his "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." As his second marriage began to crumble, Barrymore began an affair with his 17-year old "Beau Brummel" co-star, Mary Astor. However, it was his co-star in 1926's "The Sea-Beast" that won his heart. Falling head over heels in love with beautiful Dolores Costello, Barrymore divorced his second wife and embarked on his third marriage. Sadly, alcoholism destroyed this union, as well.

Beautiful Dolores Costello: John's third wife
and Drew Barrymore's grandmother
Barrymore's beautiful speaking voice made the transition to talking films easy. He was aging, but still managed to play the lover, notably to Garbo in 1932's "Grand Hotel." But his days as the ideal lover were coming to close. The physical deterioration due to alcoholism was becoming increasingly noticable and the great Barrymore now began playing a parody of himself - the washed up has-been. His performance in "Dinner at Eight" is almost too sad to watch. He still managed a home run or two (1934's "Twentieth Century" is still a favorite of classic film fans), but it became well known that he was increasingly unable to remember his lines and was holding up productions. In 1934 he suffered a collapse and Costello was granted a divorce in 1936. By then, Barrymore, the jolly, witty bon vivant, had become a shadow of the man he once was.  

"The Twentieth Century" - one of Barrymore's greatest roles
He continued to work (with the aid of cue cards) as a supporting player in such A-list films as "Marie Antoinette" (1938) and "Romeo and Juliet" (1936), and even managed one last, great starring role in 1939's "The Great Man Votes," but time was running out. With his last wife, Elaine Barrie, he toured in a dog of  play called "My Dear Children." The show was a success primarily because Barrymore, unable to remember his lines, made up new ones every night and freely let the expletives flow. Sometimes he was drunk. The actor who set the theater world on fire with his Hamlet was but a memory.

His final performances were on radio, continuing with the self-parody that had become his stock in trade. In 1942 he died of cirrhosis of the liver. Legend is that fellow hell-raisers Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh stole Barrymore's embalmed body before his funeral to share one last toast with their departed friend. Biographer Gene Fowler denies the legend, but it sure would make for a great show.

Episode 3: The Curse, the Legacy and Hope

Diana Barrymore

Poor Diana Barrymore. The daughter of John and Blanche, she never had a chance. The child of divorce, she did not have a close relationship with her father until she was an adult. Her famous name and her pretty face got her on the cover of a magazine and a role in a play on Broadway. Hollywood wanted her, too, but she had inherited her father's weakness for alcohol. In 1942 she was called the year's "Most Sensational Screen Personality." By 1950 she was broke, depressed, a drug addict and an alcoholic. In 1957 she published her autobiography, "Too Much Too Soon," and by 1960, after 3 marriages, she ended it all with a handful of sleeping pills and an alcohol chaser.

John Drew Barrymore

The son of John and Dolores, John Drew Barrymore was a stranger to his father. His famous name and good look assured his opportunity in film. He was afforded some good roles, but the Barrymore curse followed him as surely as it had his father and his half-sister, Diana. He became better known for public displays of drunkenness and arrests for drug use and spousal abuse.

He managed to find work on television, but by the 1960s his addictions and mental problems were so great that he was unable to function, much less work. Married four times,he had four children. His last child, Drew, cared for him until his death in 2004 from cancer.

Drew Barrymore

Can the curse be broken? Finger crossed, because Drew Barrymore has shown herself to the family member who can beat the odds. A little bit of Ethel and a little bit of Dolores, she's the cute kid who beat the booze and is living the life that can bring some luster and respect back to the Barrymore name. You go girl - you've done it and you never let the world forget you're a Barrymore, a member of the theatrical Royal Family. We are all staying tuned for episode 4!


The Lady Eve said...

This would've been a reality show worth watching. Along with plenty of high drama and scandal, most in the Barrymore clan had that magic ingredient sorely lacking among the Kardashians - TALENT!

Gilby37 said...

Very clever approach! I agree Drew may be the Barrymore who gets the happy long life. She's a real talent and has shown resilience. Poor John, I read that Bette Davis tried hard to get him the role in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" but his poor memory even with her prompts in the audition sunk him.

Caftan Woman said...

Tragedy, comedy, scandal, money - yes indeed, I'd green light this project of yours. It will run for years!


Wow, this is a reality show I'd certainly watch!
You had a clever approach to the familiar trajectory and tragedy. Much has been said, but nobody told the Barrymore's story better than this post.
And, yes, fingers crossed for Drew to break the curse!

FlickChick said...

Many thanks for stopping by, Patty. And you're not kidding about talent (although those Kardashians do have a talent for getting attention).

FlickChick said...

Gilby - that was so sweet of Bette to try and keep John working. His last years were so sad.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, CW - they were sure a drama-filled bunch both o and off stage.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Le - so sweet! I'm rooting for Drew, too - and things look good for her.

Leah Williams said...

Loved this post. What a show it would have been! (Especially compared to the Kardashians, who are so dull.) I think your writing here--a great blend of comedy and pathos--really gives us a sense for that great family too:)

Silver Screenings said...

Brilliant post! I love how you wrote this.

I agree – Kardashians, who?

FlickChick said...

Thanks so much, Leah - it's a show that would write itself.

FlickChick said...

Hi Ruth. Yes, the Barrymores would wipe the floor with those Kardashians!

Anonymous said...

Loved this! I would watch the Barrymores over the Kardashians any day of the week, and I don't watch reality tv at all!

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Jennie - off to read your post now!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon. I've only just got around to reading the entries now, and yours was highly worth the wait. Excellent article, with lots of great photos.

I've also announced a new blogathon, that I would like to invite you to participate in. The link is below with more details

Anonymous said...

Love this post. Surely the Barrymore's would've made great TV - although maybe it might've changed our current view of them. In this case, I think truth really was stranger (and more interesting) than fiction!

FlickChick said...

Thak you, Crystal, for hosting a very fun event!

FlickChick said...

HI Girls - I agree, maybe too much TMI here, right?