Two traits are often mentioned alongside the name John Barrymore: First, that he is one of the greatest American actors who ever lived. And secondly, that he was an alcoholic who lived a highly publicized and tumultuous life. Like many great artists, Barrymore was plagued by an inner darkness that ultimately led to his demise. But if there is anything I’ve learned about the great John Barrymore through Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., it is that he truly was a class act. In a sense, Barrymore was a real life Jeckyll and Hyde. For Douglas, he shunned away his worst traits and presented an illusion of greatness to the young devotee.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., was one of Barrymore’s greatest fans in the 1910s and 20s. To Fairbanks, he was the greatest actor to ever grace the stage and silver screen and was one to be emulated. Fairbanks recalled, “In the case of Jack Barrymore, I tried, with a widely noted lack of success, to look like him, dress like him (loose, wide collars), keep my hair long, use my hands like him, and wiggle my eyebrows at appropriate moments.”1 Fairbanks was enraptured with Barrymore ever since he’d seen him in Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920. He recalled attending the movie theater over and over again to see Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. It was not long before he could imitate the scene in which Barrymore transforms from Dr. Jeckyll into the monstrous Mr. Hyde (which he later demonstrates superbly in Our Modern Maidens). It is evident in Fairbanks’ early roles that he is taking cues from Barrymore – not only in his style of dress but also in his intensity.
Like so many of us, Fairbanks dreamed of one day meeting his idol. His opportunity finally came when he discovered that Barrymore was living at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City where he and his mother were also living at the time. Fairbanks was full of excitement and nervousness as he watched Barrymore stroll into the hotel lobby to meet Tallulah Bankhead. Fairbanks approached him and asked that he perform his famous Mr. Hyde characterization. He recalled, “It was the most terrifying evil expression, evolving from a face as nearly perfect as a Greek god’s, that one could imagine.” He goes on to describe that when Barrymore gave him that personal performance of Mr. Hyde in the hotel lobby, “I screeched in delighted terror and backed off.”2
Only a few years later, after the success of Stella Dallas, Fairbanks was offered a role in Women Love Diamonds. Accepting the role was a smart career move for a number of reasons. Women Love Diamonds was an MGM film directed by the very talented Edmund Goulding and starred Pauline Starke and Owen Moore. But most importantly to Fairbanks, Lionel Barrymore had a major part in it. Fairbanks was out of his mind with excitement to be able to act alongside his screen idol’s brother. He recalled, “I still remember with great shivers of embarrassment, actually going too far by asking Lionel if he thought I looked like his brother. His gruff answer acknowledged that question without answering it.”3 Aside from Women Love Diamonds being his first and only role with a Barrymore, Fairbanks didn’t have much to say about the film except that it was “rotten.”4 Audiences agreed with this assessment and the film is now nearly impossible to get a hold of.
Around the time of Women Love Diamonds, John Barrymore invited Fairbanks on numerous occasions to visit the set of his latest picture The Beloved Rogue. Fairbanks often brought along his friend Genie who was also a Barrymore super fan. He recalled how Barrymore made an effort to live up to the image that he and Genie worshiped. He later wrote, “Whenever Jack saw us, he dropped all his bawdy manners and talk, his offstage sloppiness, and even his deliberate ‘image-spoiling’ habit of deeply and leisurely picking his classical nose.” Fairbanks remembered him as gentle, kind, considerate, and rarely ever drunk. He wrote, “He wanted us to preserve our illusions about him even though he knew that we knew that was all they were.”5
Barrymore and Fairbanks developed a friendship as Douglas reached adulthood. There was even a period in which they were inseparable while Barrymore was dating Dolores Costello and Fairbanks was romancing her sister, Helene. Fairbanks was shattered when his love affair with Helene came to an abrupt end upon the shocking announcement that she’d been secretly married to Lowell Sherman. Rather than confide in either of his parents about his first heartbreak, Fairbanks turned to Barrymore for advice. “For the brief period following this drama, he became a surrogate father and brother. I called on Jack, and his pet monkey, Clementine, in his bungalow….He calmed me and counseled me and when with youthful intensity I proposed to drown my depression in drink, he adamantly refused to let me make a tragedy of my crashed romance: ‘No drinks for you, you poor son-of-a-bitch!'”6
Several years later, around 1940, Fairbanks opened up the newspaper and saw that Barrymore was in town appearing in a play called My Dear Children. He was anxious to introduce his new wife, Mary Lee, to his friend and idol despite being aware of Barrymore’s worsening drinking problem. Fairbanks filled Mary Lee with excitement with stories of their friendship and how well Barrymore maintained his larger-than-life appearance around the young Fairbanks. But he was to be disappointed. Fairbanks described the play as “stupid” and “carelessly designed to exploit Barrymore’s autumn-spring romance with Miss Barrie, to give him some moments to dress up as a pathetically decayed Hamlet and to ham through a couple of that play’s more familiar soliloquies.”7 In a moment that became all too commonplace with Barrymore, he shocked the audience and cast alike by making a random announcement in the middle of the play that Fairbanks was in attendance. Barrymore told the crowd, “‘When young Doug Fairbanks was a boy, he loved to see me make faces from Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde – like this . . . !’ Where upon he crouched over, pulled his hair over his eyes, and screwed his face into the most malevolent weird shape imaginable.”8 Fairbanks reluctantly stood up and bowed as quickly as he could.
After the show, Fairbanks and Mary Lee headed backstage to visit Barrymore. Fairbanks hoped that Barrymore would be on his best behavior after boasting about him to his wife. When they entered his dressing room, it was clear that Barrymore had been drinking. Despite his drunkenness, Barrymore was in an amused state. The four-letter words were flying out of his mouth and he made several lewd jokes. An embarrassed Fairbanks attempted to change the subject several times and was relieved when the visit finally came to an end. They said goodbye and Fairbanks promised to see him again soon but it was evident to him that Barrymore was no longer the man he had once idolized and looked up to years ago.
The interview below was filmed by Pathe News when Barrymore arrived in New York City for My Dear Children in 1940:
The beautiful thing about John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s, relationship is that it sheds a new light on Barrymore as a man. Despite the image portrayed in the tabloids, or the notorious drunkenness and bawdy lifestyle, Barrymore ensured that his young fan only saw him in a positive light. He was aware that Fairbanks was emulating him and was determined to be a good role model for him. As Fairbanks recalled, “He knew I had developed a boyish theatrical hero-worship for him and he always remained particularly kind and well behaved with me. As I grew up, our lives ran curiously parallel for a period and in those days he behaved as a sober and responsible friend. It was a facet of Jack Barrymore’s character that few saw or would even believe existed.”9 And even though Fairbanks was aware of Barrymore’s drinking and controversial lifestyle, he continued to protect his image and legacy by remembering him to others as a great man, friend, and mentor, who never let him down.
***This post was written for The Second Annual Barrymore Trilogy blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click below to read the entries:
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., The Salad Days: An Autobiography (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 111.
- Ibid, 68.
- Ibid, 112.
- Ibid, 111.
- Ibid, 117.
- Ibid, 334.
- Ibid, 67.