A friend of Lionel Barrymore’s was once invited to dine at the home of the Barrymore siblings’ maternal grandmother in Philadelphia where Lionel, Ethel and John were raised. The formality between Lionel and Ethel shocked the young dinner guest who exclaimed, “My God! Don’t you know each other?”
Ethel Barrymore recalls that incident in her book Memories: An Autobiography, which describes the relationship she had with her brothers. Sadly. I was quite moved by her description of them being “rather terrified observers” of their surroundings and the people in their early lives. They dared not opine or comment, it seems, but rather moved along as dictated by those who controlled the reigns in the family. That – certainly during their formative years – was their maternal grandmother, Louisa Lane.
What resulted from the formalities inherent in the Lane household was not only children who dared not speak, but – it seems – family members who did not share their lives. Outside of “choosing” the same profession that is.
As everyone is probably aware the Barrymore siblings were born into a prominent theatrical family. The trio’s grandparents, John Drew and Louisa Lane Drew managed Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theatre and were stage actors of repute. After John Drew’s death Louisa Lane Drew became the first female manager of a major American theater. Her thirty-one year career as manager of the Arch Street Theatre featured one of the most brilliant repertory companies in the history of the American stage as noted in the Philadelphia history page. By all accounts Mrs. Drew was a stern disciplinarian, a demanding boss and a tough cookie.
The Barrymore acting lineage (and I am barely touching the surface) continued with Lionel, Ethel and John’s mother, Georgianna Drew who was a fine comedienne and her brother, John Drew, Jr. was a popular playwright. And then there was the charming and handsome Maurice Barrymore, Lionel, Ethel and John’s father (who changed the family name from Blyth because Barrymore sounded theatrically grander) who was a reigning matinée idol in the late 1800s. And, of course, Maurice was also a life-long lover of the stage and performing. You may want to visit the Fort Lee Film Commission whose board has done a great job of spotlighting Maurice’s work in and around the Northern New Jersey town where his son John made his stage debut. There are several, exciting projects planned in honor of the Barrymores.
“I always hoped to be a pianist,” Ethel Barrymore once confided, “but I had to eat, and acting seemed like the natural thing to do since the family was already in it.”
That quote suggests that Ethel decided to pursue an acting career on her own, but in her biography she explains how terrified she was the first time grandmother Lane demanded she step on a stage to contribute to the family business when it fell on hard times. What is crystal clear is the huge shadow cast by Louisa Lane who was consulted on all matters and held firm to the many rules and regulations in her home – the only home the Barrymore siblings knew together.
Ethel recalls how she and her brothers never asked questions. If not forbidden it was certainly frowned upon to do so. She goes on to mention how they simply knew things they were told or heard. And among the things they heard constantly were lines from famous stage plays – “everything was a quotation of famous lines in our household” and the only time Lionel, Ethel and John were allowed to emote was on the stage. Ethel describes herself and her brothers as intensely emotional like their father whom she admired greatly, but secrets and feelings were never to be disclosed. Strong emotions “may be hurled with gusto at an audience,” however, which explains a lot of what would come to be recognized as the Barrymore acting style. Although the theatrics of young John are recalled with warmth by Ethel who describes her younger brother’s reaction when he was sent up to the dark, scary third floor of the Philly home as a young child. John could be heard throughout the house yelling at whatever may lurk in the dark as he ascended the stairs, “You can’t hurt me. I have wonderful power!”
The siblings had been sent to boarding school early and their life trajectory would keep them apart more often than not. As a result when they would meet at various times in their lives they were very formal with each other and “very, very polite.” Ethel mentions the politeness throughout her book, clearly a pain she carried throughout her life. When she recalls the moment when she learned of John’s death from Lionel who called her in Boston from California she knew immediately it was not good news. “Although I saw very little of Jack during our lives,” she wrote “I still miss him every day.” And in a letter to a friend…”I am feeling laid low. So many memories of my little brother, so long ago, when we were all so young and knew and expected so little, and it didn’t matter.”
Ethel Barrymore was a veteran of stage and screen by 1932, but had not had success in pictures since her brief period of film stardom in the teens. She was starring in “The Twelve Pound Look” on vaudeville when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) wanted her to co-star with brothers Lionel and John in Rasputin and the Empress, which depicts the intrigue during the last days of Russian Czar Nicholas II and the rise to power of the “Mad Monk” Rasputin.
The three Barrymores in one movie was a major coup for Metro and Ethel was delighted with the idea of working with her brothers on a film. Unfortunately it would be the only time she did so. In fact Ethel describes the making of the movie as “one of the few times the three of us were together after our early days,” which is quite sad. And as it turns out she wasn’t able to spend much time with her brothers at all other than on the set because as she describes, “work allowed for little extra time to see people.” A telling statement. Of course, John and Lionel had collaborated several times, including on the hugely successful Grand Hotel the previous year.
“It was great fun to be with them.”
My favorite story related to Rasputin that Ethel recounts references when she arrived in Hollywood to make the picture. She tells of how she was advised to get off the train in Pasadena to avoid the press, but that they were all there waiting for her anyway as was Jack (as John was always called by the family). Ethel hadn’t seen Jack for a few years and was sure the press people thought he’d whispered how lovely it was to see her again when he embraced her. But what he actually whispered in her ear was “For God’s sake, get Bill Daniels,” referring to Greta Garbo’s favorite cameraman who Jack was sure would remove the bags from under his eyes. Jack informed Ethel that since she was new in Hollywood the MGM brass would be sure to comply with her request. He was right.
About the actual filming of Rasputin and the Empress Ethel explains how the script was written day by day right on the set sometimes on the backs of old envelopes. The pressure to learn new scenes on the spot left her with even less time to spend with her brothers, which she regretted. Ethel goes on to discuss the intense press coverage that surrounded the making of the picture, which for the most part mentioned constant quarrels between the Barrymores. “There was no truth in those nonsensical stories…we were all actors working at a job, and besides, we didn’t know each other well enough to quarrel.”
Several stories circulate to this day about the set of Rasputin and the Empress as being less than happy, but if those are true Ethel downplays them in her book. For instance there’s no mention of her “issues” with Charles Brabin, the film’s original director. The one thing she does mentions ever so briefly, which is corroborated by several sources is her complaining about particular scenes and plot points. Protests that went unheeded, by the way, and which subsequently cost MGM dearly. Both Ethel and Mercedes d’Acosta, a Russian hired to do research on the film, complained about the libelous fabrication of Rasputin raping the wife of his intended victim, Youssoupoff. The only thing MGM did after the two women brought this to their attention was change the couple’s name from Youssoupoff to Chegodieff, which proved inconsequential. After the film’s release, both Prince Yusupov and his wife sued Irving Thalberg and MGM and won a large settlement. The cost to MGM has been noted as over $1 million, which meant the strong reviews and box-office receipts of Rasputtin yielded little profit. To avoid further suits MGM also withdrew the movie from distribution for decades. And as a result of that lawsuit a disclaimer was added to all works of fiction in Hollywood, which states that “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”
The review of Rasputin and the Empress in ‘The New Yorker’ claimed that the Barrymores had produced their worst work to date in this movie. Otherwise the reviews were positive with most thrilled about seeing the three Barrymore together on-screen. And that’s just how I feel about the movie – it’s a thrill to see them overact together. Er…I mean act together. Although they share only a few scenes as a trio.
In truth – Ethel’s performance is fine, if a bit theatrical which is really just a sign of the times. John also delivers a decent performance. John’s quite sedate in fact in comparison to his older brother who leaves no piece of furniture unscathed. No one has to tell me Lionel enjoyed playing the Mad Monk because it comes across clearly on the screen. As the film progresses he becomes an oddity in gleeful deranged fashion. My grandmother’s favorite actor threw caution to the wind and went for it with aplomb. Sadly, the results are often laughable despite a beautifully designed movie in usual MGM style and a decent story, which ends with the death of the Nicholas family in a moving sequence. However, the scene that I’m not likely to forget for some time is one toward the end of the film, which features Barrymore hammery at its best! In the scene the Barrymore brothers are engaged in a fight that had me in stitches. Although Ethel writes in her book that the scene stealing stunts between Lionel and Jack were done for fun, “just as a joke” as she puts it, it’s clear that the competition between them existed and that it affects their performances. That particular fight scene may ultimately be the best reason to watch Rasputin because from my perspective it’s the greatest testament to the hamming it up Barrymore style ever committed to film.
Ethel Barrymore had been too busy with stage work to attend the premiere of Rasputin and the Empress; she would also not make another movie for twelve years. She finally caught up with Rasputin and the Empress in the early 1950s, when it aired on television. After finally watching it, she called her friend George Cukor to tell him she was surprised at how much she liked it, then added, in reference to her brother’s scene-stealing antics, “My, my! Wasn’t Lionel naughty?” (TCM)
“Since I have finished this book Lionel has died. I like to think that he and Jack are together – and that they will be glad to see me.” – Ethel Barrymore, Memories: An Autobiography.
Rasputin and the Empress Principal Cast:
John Barrymore (Prince Paul Chegodieff), Ethel Barrymore (Empress Alexandra), Lionel Barrymore (Rasputin), Ralph Morgan (The Czar), Diana Wynyard (Natasha), Tad Alexander (Alexis), Edward Arnold (Doctor). The rest of the cast and the crew list can be found here.
I thought it would be fun to include the images of the Barrymore siblings from one of my all-time favorite cartoons, Disney’s Mickey’s Gala Premiere from 1933, which features caricatures of everyone and anyone who was a Hollywood player at the time. The cartoon features the Barrymores dressed as their characters in Rasputin and the Empress…
This post is my submission to The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Be sure to visit the host site to read much more about the Barrymores in honor of Ethel Barrymore’s birth anniversary on August 15th.