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John Barrymore

The Matinee Idol

With the advent of motion pictures in the early 20th century, acting became more accessible to the American viewing public. Where stage troupes once had to arrive in cities in order for people to see acting, motion pictures allowed audiences to see stories performed more often and at cheaper rates. Actors in films where becoming household names throughout the United States and John Barrymore was the perfect example of the acting legend. Motion pictures could bring his performances to all corners of the country and give him the name renown that the stage was unable to do. He was truly an actor, compared to other screen performers, and his looks conveyed well onto the silver screen. Motion pictures would prove to be the perfect medium for the acclaimed actor, along with providing him with a steady and profitable income. Along with his two siblings, who also found their niche in films, John would dominate many of the more reputable films that were being produced in Hollywood.

When John began his film career, movies were still silent and were only able to project his emotive style and handsome looks. When he was cast in the talkies, his success proved even more pronounced with the advent of sound. When he was first seen and heard it was in a compilation style film called The Show of Shows which premiered in New York City on November 20, 1929. The film consisted of varied notable actors and actresses performing what they did best with the accompaniment of sound. John was placed in the format between Ted Lewis playing his trumpet and the dog Rin Tin Tin barking. John delivered the soliloquy from Act III, Scene II from Richard III. His resonant voice was heard by many in the audience for the first time and was to guarantee him, for the remaining years of his life, a successful second act in film work. But his film work would prove to be a double-edged sword in regard to the critics’ admiration of his acting. His acting on film never gave him the critical lauds that were heaped upon his stage work. While films gave him the wide popularity and profits that he so craved, they also relegated his acting to what many reviewers thought of as selling out on the true form from the stage. Hollywood also made it easy for him to imbibe on alcohol and to womanize to his heart’s content. His taste for drink and his ability to charm the women made him almost more legendary for his personal lifestyle than for his work on film.

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