The Barrymores

Treading the boards

It’s unfair to lump together the three Barrymore siblings — John, Lionel and Ethel — for they were such different performers. John, he of the “great profile,” was smoothly sexy and sly; Lionel, equally effective at playing avuncular and evil incarnate; and Ethel, often remote, occasionally maternal, ever indomitable. Their vast filmographies (especially Lionel’s) preserve their iconic status, but they earned their reputations on the stage, as did their forbearers going back at least as far as the mid-18th century. Ethel studied with Henry Irving, was the original object of the term “glamour girl” and declined Winston Churchill’s marriage proposal. But whereas she triumphed on the stage, Lionel was a comparative failure. His gift for characterization, though, allowed for a thriving Hollywood career, which from 1938 he remarkably managed from crutches or a wheelchair. John was the problem child, much married and an alcoholic, but his “Richard III” (1920) and “Hamlet” (1922) were the stuff of legend, inspiring Olivier, among others.

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