A Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
For many today, the name John Barrymore means little – except, perhaps, that it shares the same surname with Drew Barrymore (yes, there’s a relation). But in his day, John Barrymore’s work elicited the admiration of many beholders, including Orson Welles. In fact, Welles once declared that John Barrymore was the best actor to have ever played Hamlet. Murray Pomerance and Steven Rybin, along with 15 other contributors, announce their wholehearted agreement with this praise in Hamlet Lives in Hollywood: John Barrymore and the Acting Tradition Onscreen (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). In these pages, Pomerance and Rybin make a significant contribution to the woefully small amount of scholarship on Barrymore by revealing him to be a distinctive and complex performer who’s still worthy of remark.
The book begins with a lively introduction by Pomerance and Rybin, written in a style more common to essays in the Oxford American than academic publications. Afterward, Pomerance and Rybin arrange the book’s chapters in a more or less chronological account of Barrymore’s life and career. Curiously, they don’t organize these chapters into clearly delineated sections that correspond to different periods in Barrymore’s film work. Perhaps the propriety of this editorial decision is small beer, but the inclusion of these sections would have made selective reading easier for those coming to this book with a particular period of Barrymore’s career already in mind. Nonetheless, one can discern the presence of three unofficial sections, and referring to them as such will be useful for evaluative purposes.
The chapters in the first section concern Barrymore’s early life, onstage performances, and silent film appearances. Chapters such as Philip Carli’s “The Pre-Bard Stage Career of John Barrymore” sketch a young Barrymore who was ambitious and dedicated to his artistic pursuits. Many of the chapters also offer keen analyses of Barrymore’s early film roles and how he constructed his star persona and earned the sobriquet “the Great Profile.” In Colin Williamson’s chapter on Barrymore’s role in Sherlock Homes (1922), for instance, he explores the ways in which early-20th-century audiences negotiated their expectations of Barrymore as a celebrity with their expectations of such a popular literary icon as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hyper-observant detective. In all, these chapters show that Barrymore wasn’t simply a facile performer who effortlessly attracted a loyal fan following, but instead was a dedicated artist who underwent intensive theatrical and vocal training to become the actor and star we know today.
The second section covers Barrymore’s transition into sound film and early star vehicles. Of the chapters addressing this period, Diane Carson’s “The Power of Stillness: John Barrymore’s Performance in Svengali” is exemplary. What separates Carson’s chapter from the others is her limpid, methodical approach to her subject matter, something that’s absent from a few contributions in this book. (Indeed, some chapters at times seem more concerned with poetical flourish than clear expression.) Combining theories from choreography and kinesiology, Carson makes the convincing case that what makes Barrymore’s performance so disturbing in Svengali isn’t just his makeup or the crazed psychology he brings to his character. Rather, it’s the way in which he used sudden, arthritic movements to distinguish himself from his co-stars, whose gestures are typically more fluid and involve their entire body (94).
But these same expressive movements have led some to accuse Barrymore of being a ham actor. Some of these chapters take up this charge directly. They recognize that by contemporary Western standards, this appears to be a fair evaluation. After all, he never discarded his pantomimic gestures from his theatrical and silent film days, which made him stand out from some of his more contemporary co-stars (one need only watch him as an inebriated Larry Renault in Dinner at Eight  or a drunken Ahab in Moby Dick  to see this performative excess on full display). But these chapters advance a more nuanced view of Barrymore’s acting style. For example, George Toles’s “Prospero Unbound: John Barrymore’s Theatrical Transformations of Cinema Reality” argues that Barrymore inhabited a borderland between theatrical and filmic performance styles and, by doing so, challenged the way audience members consume and evaluate filmic texts (99). Similarly, in his chapter on Beau Brummel, Martin Shingler says that the foreign quality of Barrymore’s acting style is due to his attempt to fuse “the acting styles of his ancestors and idols while appealing to modern spectators” (56). Ultimately, these chapters encourage readers to reject this popular charge against Barrymore and to understand that he was an artist who was at once aware of contemporary acting standards and trying to transcend them.
The third section addresses Barrymore’s later film roles and attendant professional and personal decline. As these chapters aptly show, by the end of his career Barrymore was firmly set in his alcoholism, constantly evading creditors, and trudging through yet another turbulent marriage. He was able to secure a few acting gigs. But many of these attempted to capitalize on Barrymore’s “washed-up” reputation, with box-office duds such as The Great Profile (1940). R. Barton Palmer’s “Barrymore Does Barrymore: The Performing Self Triumphant in The Great Profile” offers one of the best evaluations of Barrymore’s later work, showing that these films, although financial flops, provide key insights into Barrymore’s virtuosic ability to both incorporate and distance himself from dramatizations of events mirroring his own personal troubles.
Overall, this is a solid piece of work that merits a place on any serious Barrymore fan’s bookshelf. But the challenge with reviewing books on key cinematic figures, especially those who’ve receded from popular attention, is figuring out the kinds of readers they’d likely appeal to. (The high price of the hardcover edition of this book compounds this challenge, though it should be available in paperback in the coming months.) The case is no different with Hamlet Lives in Hollywood. With a few exceptions, many of these chapters spend little to no time giving much biographical detail on Barrymore and launch almost immediately into close textual analyses, often with the aid of some rather specialized disciplinary perspectives, such as star studies, performance studies, film history, and adaptations studies. This is understandable, of course, since the book doesn’t claim to be a soft introduction to Barrymore. As a result, the prime readers for this book are likely those who already know who Barrymore is and why he’s so important to classical Hollywood cinema.
And so arises a divide in this book’s potential readership. For fans, this book will further articulate why Barrymore was a masterful performer and amplify their preexisting reverence for the Great Profile. For uninitiated readers, it may be best to watch some of Barrymore’s films and, if they’re still interested, read biographies such as John Kobler’s Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore and Gene Fowler’s Good Night Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore before consulting this book. Regardless of which of these two camps one finds oneself in, Hamlet Lives in Hollywood is sure to be a delight to anyone wanting to explore Barrymore and know what cinema (and audiences) lost when, as Pomerance and Rybin put it, he was taken by Death (2).
Brandon Konecny is a regular contributor to Film International and an attorney. His work has appeared in Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, The Enquirer-Journal, NCCU Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Law Review, Journal of Fandom Studies, Journal of Religion and Film, Film Matters, and Jurnal de Chișinău.