The most prominent member of a multi-generation theatrical dynasty, he was the brother of Lionel Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore, and was the paternal grandfather of Drew Barrymore.
Barrymore specialized in light comedies until convinced by his friend, playwright Edward Sheldon, to try serious drama. Thereafter Barrymore created a sensation in John Galsworthy’s Justice (1916) co-starring Cathleen Nesbitt and directed by Ben Iden Payne. It would be Nesbitt who would introduce him to Blanche Oelrichs. He followed this triumph with Broadway successes in Peter Ibbetson (1917), a role his father Maurice had wanted to play, Tolstoy’s Redemption (1918) and The Jest (1919), co-starring his brother Lionel, reaching what seemed to be the zenith of his stage career as Richard III in 1920. Barrymore suffered a conspicuous failure in his wife Michael Strange’s play Clair de Lune (1921), but followed it with the greatest success of his theatrical career with Hamlet in 1922, which he played on Broadway for 101 performances and then took to London in 1925.
Barrymore entered films around 1913 with the feature An American Citizen. He or someone using the name Jack Barrymore is given credit for four short films made in 1912 and 1913, but this has not been proven to be John Barrymore. Barrymore was most likely convinced into giving films a try out of economic necessity and the fact that he hated touring a play all over the United States. He could make a couple of movies in the off-season theater months or shoot a film in one part of a day while doing a play in another part. He also may have been goaded into films by his brother Lionel and his uncle Sidney, who had both been successfully making movies for a couple of years. Some of Barrymore's silent film roles included A. J. Raffles in Raffles the Amateur Cracksman (1917), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924), Captain Ahab in The Sea Beast (1926), and Don Juan (1926). When talking pictures arrived, Barrymore's stage-trained voice added a new dimension to his screen work. He made his talkie debut with a dramatic reading of the big Duke of Gloucester speech from Henry VI, Part 3 in Warner Brothers’ musical revue ‘The Show of Shows’ ("Would they were wasted: marrow, bones and all"), and reprised his Captain Ahab role in Moby Dick (1930). His other leads included The Man from Blankley’s (1930), Svengali (1931), The Mad Genius (1931), Grand Hotel (1932) (in which he displays an affectionate chemistry with his brother Lionel), Dinner at Eight (1933), Topaze (1933) and Twentieth Century (1934). He worked opposite many of the screen's foremost leading ladies, including Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. In 1933, Barrymore appeared as a Jewish attorney in the title role of Counsellor at Law based on Elmer Rice’s 1931 play. As critic Pauline Kael later wrote, he "seems an unlikely choice for the ghetto-born lawyer...but this is one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His 'presence' is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor, and his zest."
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Note by the blog author
Barrymore’s film performances in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight are widely regarded as some of the very finest work by any American actor. The first time Dr. Jekyll transforms himself into the evil Mr. Hyde, Barrymore succeeded in the transformation through shaking himself and contorting his face – with no makeup and no special effects. The cameraman, while filming this scene, fainted.
Barrymore’s scenes with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and, especially, his brother Lionel Barrymore in Grand Hotel are stunningly excellent, virtually above criticism.