Death in Hollywood: Barrymore, John, 60–Alcoholism

Group shot of six in Renaissance costume; the three central figures hold swords together, Three Musketeers-style

Barrymore, as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet (1936).

In the very late 1930s, most studios were unwilling to employ John Barrymore due to his alcohol dependence.

However, with George Cukor’s strong support, MGM risked casting him in the role of Mercutio in their 1936 film Romeo and Juliet.

To minimize disruption to the schedule, the studio put Barrymore in Kelley’s Rest Home, a sanatorium for alcoholics, but he continued to drink covertly and was disruptive on set. Basil Rathbone, who was playing Tybalt, later recounted that “he was drinking and unreliable on the set … It was sad to see him in such a state.”

Opinions on his portrayal were divided. Some critics, such as Welford Beaton of the Hollywood Spectator, thought “Barrymore is an acting gem,” although Gielgud was critical, writing to Peggy Ashcroft that “Barrymore, who is like a monstrous old male impersonator jumping through a hoop, should really have been shot.”

Word about Barrymore’s problems on and off the set spread around the industry, and he did not work on another film for over a year until he had supporting role in the musical film Maytime.

His divorce from Costello was finalized in October 1936, and he married Barrie in November the same year. The couple had heated argument in public, and he again spent time in Kelley’s Rest Home and hospital, which cost him about $800 daily, draining his finances. When he came out, he collapsed on the Maytime set.

On January 15, 1937, he was served with divorce papers, and a month later he filed for bankruptcy protection, with debts of $160,000. The divorce was granted in April, but the couple reconciled before it was finalized.

Barrymore worked on more Shakespeare roles. In June 1937, he signed with NBC Radio to produce a series of six episodes under the name Streamlined Shakespeare, which also featured Barrie. The first program was Hamlet, which was well received by critics. The New York Times commented that “Shakespeare’s lines uttered dramatically by the voice of John Barrymore sweep through the ‘ether’ with a sound of finality; it seems they are his words and no one else could speak them with such lifelike force”.

Peters disagrees however, and considers that “because he was desperate, he pressed too hard and ended by caricaturing, not capturing, his great Shakespearean acting.”


Publicity shot of a noticeably older, heavier Barrymore, wearing a fur coat; side on, facing slightly to his left

Barrymore in Marie Antoinette (1938), in which he used cue cards as memory aid.

Throughout the NBC series, Barrymore had been reliable, sober and responsible, and the studios reacted positively with offers of work. This led to appearances in nine 9 films in 1937 and 1938, including as Colonel Nielson in three Bulldog Drummond films, and roles in True Confession and Marie Antoinette.

He was offered predominantly supporting roles, but he worked conscientiously on the films and as a result was able to honor his debts. His memory was still problematic, and he used cue cards as aid; his fellow actors and the directors of the films were sympathetic to his condition. When he filmed his last serious role, Gregory Vance in the 1939 The Great Man Votes, director Garson Kanin ensured that the cast and crew addressed him as “Mr. Barrymore” as a mark of respect.

Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard and Barrymore making funny faces behind prison bars; MacMurray and Lombard fiercely show their teeth, while Barrymore crosses his eyes goofily

(l to r), Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard, Barrymore in True Confession, (1937)

Barrymore and wife appeared in supporting roles in the 1939 screwball comedy Midnight, her only film role.

The New York Times thought the film was “one of the liveliest, gayest, wittiest and naughtiest comedies of a long hard season” and that Barrymore, “the Lou Gehrig of eye-brow batting, rolls his phrases with his usual richly humorous effect”.

The film was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2013.

Barrymore and wife appeared in the stage farce My Dear Children, in March 1939 at Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre. He played the lead role, Allan Manville, an aging hammy Shakespearean has-been.

Due to his failing memory, Barrymore ad-libbed throughout the show. In some points the new additions were an improvement, but he also greeted friends in the audience, and used profanities freely. Nevertheless, the show was a success. Life magazine wrote that “People flock to see Barrymore, not for polished performance, but because he converts the theater into a rowdy histrionic madhouse. Sometimes he arrives late. Sometimes he is tight drunk. Usually he forgets his lines. But he always puts on a great show.”

When the show reached Broadway, Life wrote that “Barrymore’s return to Times Square was a huge professional triumph”.

Brooks Atkinson, writing for The N.Y. Times thought Barrymore was “still the most gifted actor in this country. … Although he has recklessly played the fool for a number of years, he is nobody’s fool in My Dear Children but a superbly gifted actor on a tired holiday.”

Barrymore and his wife continued to argue during the play’s run, and she left the play part way through the tour. They attempted a reconciliation when the production reached New York, but the couple divorced in late 1940.

In 1940, Barrymore appeared in The Great Profile, a spoof of his life in the months prior to My Dear Children. Barrymore played Evans Garrick, modeled on his own experience, and Mary Beth Hughes played his wife.

The critics reacted harshly, and to Barrymore’s association with it. The NY Times wrote that “As a play it is a feeble thing, hardly matching the spectacular public accounts of his amours … for all of Mr. Barrymore’s shenanigans and devastating wit, The Great Profile is more than little pathetic. In the Winter of his Discontent Mr. Barrymore is selling his talent at cut-rate”.

Barrymore’s Final Film

His final film, Playmates (1941) “amply illustrated the depths to which he had fallen; he played an alcoholic Shakespearean ham named John Barrymore.”

In October 1940, Barrymore returned to the NBC Radio network to work on Rudy Vallée’s show, now called the Sealtest Show. Barrymore recorded 74 episodes of the program, continuing in the vein of self-parody, with jokes about his drinking, declining career and marital issues.

On May 19, 1942, while recording a line from Romeo and Juliet for the show, Barrymore collapsed He was taken to Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital. He died there on May 29, from cirrhosis of the liver and kidney failure, complicated by pneumonia.

Shortly before his death, Barrymore returned to his childhood Catholic faith.

Errol Flynn’s memoirs claim that film director Raoul Walsh “borrowed” Barrymore’s body before burial to leave his corpse propped in a chair for drunken Flynn to discover when he returned home.

Gene Fowler, a close friend of Barrymore, stayed with the body all night and denied the story.

However, in a 2020 interview for the YouTube series Hot Ones, John’s granddaughter Drew Barrymore claimed the Flynn account was accurate.

John Barrymore was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles on June 2.

In 1980, Barrymore’s son had his father’s body reinterred at Philadelphia’s Mount Vernon Cemetery.