Classic Hollywood #69 – The Barrymore Family

The Barrymore Family Reunion – 1932

Here is the early 20th century’s royal family of acting, the Barrymore’s, Lionel, Ethel and John.

Each a star in their own right, first on the stage and later in films. Yet the trio only appeared in one movie together, Rasputin and the Empress (1932).

The Clan Barrymore

When John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore came together to play in M-G-M’s “Rasputin”, it made possible the first reunion of the entire family. Above photo shows the Barrymore reunion in Hollywood. Left to right- front row: Mrs. Lionel Barrymore (Irene Fenwick), holding John Blythe, son of John Barrymore; Lionel Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, Mrs. John Barrymore (Dolores Costello) with Ethel Dolores Barrymore, her daughter; and Ethel Barrymore Colt, daughter of Ethel Barrymore. In rear are left to right: John Barrymore Colt (left) and his brother, Samuel Colt, with John Barrymore standing between the two. credit: Acme  9/20/32

This photograph was taken at John Barrymore’s home in early September 1932.

Interestingly before this film, the three actors had never even appeared together in the same play.

Rasputin and the Empress as the film was re-titled, marked Ethel Barrymore’s (1879-1959) first talking film. Her stage popularity was such that she wouldn’t appear in another film until 1944 (None But The Lonely Heart). After 1944 Ethel would appear regularly in motion pictures, making 20 more movies until her retirement in 1957.

After MGM signed Ethel Barrymore to appear in Rasputin, brother Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954) was asked to comment and said, “Great! And tell me what poor benighted and unlucky individual is to direct this opus in which all three of us are to act together?”

Lionel was half-joking that all three Barrymore’s were known for being temperamental and additionally might try and steal each others scenes. When John Barrymore (1882-1942) did try and upstage Lionel he would have no part of it. While filming a scene, John Barrymore used an old acting technique of putting his hand on Lionel to draw attention to himself. Lionel asked permission to leave the set. He then went out to the back lot and found a telephone. Lionel placed a call to  the set and told director Charles Brabin that “he’d better advise Mr. John Barrymore to not place his hand on me at the close of this scene, lest I lay one on him!” John did not touch brother Lionel’s arm again.

Lionel Barrymore was also prescient regarding the director. Charles Brabin was chosen to direct but during filming clashed frequently with Ethel Barrymore. Brabin was removed from his duties and replaced by Richard Boleslawski who received sole directing credit, even though a number of scenes in the final release were directed by Brabin.

Boleslawski found working with the Barrymore siblings to be a balancing act. “They know when they’re good,” Boleslawski said. “At other times when it is necessary to have something done differently or done over, we confer and cooperate.”

Despite the star power, Rasputin and the Empress received mixed reviews. MGM expecting a smash was disappointed that the film was only the 39th best grossing film at the U.S. box office for the year.

1 thought on “Classic Hollywood #69 – The Barrymore Family

  1. Kevin

    Funny how Lionel objected to John trying to upstage him, since Lionel himself was known for doing everything in his power to steal a scene, whether on stage or film.


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