BARRYMORE ON BARRYMORE: A Collection of John Barrymore Quotations

Compiled by Marty Norden, Professor of Communication, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

One of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, John Barrymore (1882-1942) had much to say about his life, particularly his stage and screen work. What follows is an anthology of Barrymore quotations, listed in the order in which they were first published. I should point out that some literary works published under Barrymore's byline were in fact written or co-written by others. Since these items bear his imprimatur, however, it is safe to assume that they do reflect his views even though he was not sole author in all instances.

On trusting his instincts as an actor:
"One sits down before one's dressing room mirror and reflects, 'after all, there's a fellow who understands a good thing; thank goodness, I can always carry him around with me.'" --JB quoted in "Some Hard Truths About the People-Out-Front," New York Times, 31 Dec. 1905, sect. 4, p. 4.

"Did you ever see the things I used to draw? I always had a deep respect for the editor who accepted my cartoons. He never acknowledged once that he did not know what they meant. There was in them always a horny, warty Frankenstein of a man crushing a humble citizen with meek and lowly whiskers. Always a precipice and a dragon or a ghoul in the splotches of doom in the distance. Some how they seldom varied, but were always accepted by the editor who craved more. I was probably the greatest wart artist of the century. The power of my cartoons lay in the number of warts I could distribute over a defenseless central figure. Father foresaw the peculiarity of my artistic passover and felt convinced that I ought to try acting or plumbing or millinery." --JB quoted in Amy Leslie, "John Barrymore, Wit," Chicago Daily News, 10 Aug. 1907, p. 7.

"There is nothing amusing in playing a juvenile lead for anyone but the audience. The 'lead' himself is working just as hard as if he were a tragedian. In some ways I think he works harder. To my mind there is no more difficult role than that of a leading juvenile. . . . If you cannot [be natural], you'll never succeed on the stage, least of all as a juvenile who, first, foremost and all the time must have his audience in his confidence. At that, even when you've worked hardest for a success, one cannot always act. Sometimes you catch a tone, an emphasis in your voice that pleases your hearers. You decide always to say the same thing that way. But the next time you find you cannot find that tone at all, and your meaning's not the same. . . . Some people think that because I come of an acting family my 'inherited talent' makes stage work easier for me. These will be surprised to learn that I had to work as hard to get a start as any stranger. There isn't any romance about how I went on the stage. I did it for just the same reason that a clerk gets a job in a store. I needed the money. I worked just like any clerk. I minded the 'boss'--in my case the stage manager--and learned my trade, that of the juvenile lead, by slow hard stages. It was no fun." --JB, "What Is a Juvenile Lead?," Theatre, June 1914, pp. 304, 317.

"Acting is the art of saying a thing on the stage as if you believed every word you utter to be as true as the eternal verities of life; it is the art of doing a thing on the stage as if the logic of the event demanded that precise act and no other; and of doing and saying the thing as spontaneously as if you were confronted with the situation in which you were acting, for the first time." --JB quoted in Helen Ten Broeck, "From Comedy to Tragedy," Theatre, July 1916, p. 23.

"Frankly, the inducement that the pictures held out for me was money. I felt much the same way at one time about the theater. I had wanted to paint pictures and I looked upon the stage as nothing more than an opportunity to earn money." --JB, "John Barrymore Writes on the Movies," Ladies' Home Journal, Aug. 1922, p. 7.

On Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:
"I read the book again and again. I talked it over with the director hour after hour. I became saturated with the story and steeped in it. I was impressed with the eerie quality and hoped to transfer some of this to the screen. We had a good scenario, and yet when I saw the picture, as released, just one incident was right, and that the one in which Dr. Jekyll tells his valet that a man described as Hyde is to run his house." --ibid., p. 82.

"Hamlet was a normal, healthy, lusty young fellow who simply got into a mess that was too thick for him. . . . He was a great fencer, an athlete, a man who led an active, healthy life. How can you make a sickly half-wit out of a man like that? Can you imagine how this quick-witted young fencer made love to Ophelia in the Elsinore garden? Polonius was a wise father, when he warned Ophelia to watch out for that fellow." --JB quoted in William F. McDermott, "Greatest of the Hamlets Doesn't Think That 'Hamlet' is Much of a Play," Cleveland Plain Dealer, 27 Jan. 1924, Amusement & Feature sect., p. 1.

"Hamlet is a rotten play. Terrible. I don't see why some of you birds [i.e., critics] don't say so once in a while." --Ibid.

"The studio does away with the terrible repetition of a part. No one but an actor can realize how hard it is to go on playing the same part with any spontaneity or interest night after night. Except Hamlet. Every night I found new subtleties to the character of Hamlet." --JB, "John Speaks for Himself," Motion Picture Classic, Aug. 1925, p. 59.

"I feel I must set forth that I have a certain handicap that plays a most considerable part in my association with the theater. I am by nature and by the grace of God a very indolent person. Acting is a profession that requires infinite and intensive labor and patience, particularly in the creation of a character and the projection of a play. Because of my virtue of laziness, I have had to work doubly hard whenever I have accomplished anything at all in the theater. I have had to fight my own tendency to loaf as well as go through the very serious business of putting a play on." --JB [with Karl Schmidt], Confessions of an Actor (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1926), n.p.

"The actor of to-day has an opportunity to get variety of work through acting in the films. In the beginning a great many persons of the theater and out of it looked upon the movies as an inferior art. It isn't. Pictures often go wrong just as stage plays do and are devoid of art. I was, myself, connected with what was probably the worst picture ever made [i.e., The Red Widow, 1916]. Not only did I play a part in this, but I had a great deal to do with the making of it. Come to think of it, it is quite a distinction that in all this great industry of the screen which has turned out so many bad pictures, I was largely responsible for about the worst picture I ever saw." --Ibid.

"Because I like to interlard work in the theater with the making of movies, which I thoroughly enjoy, I am back in Hollywood once more working upon a new picture [i.e., The Sea Beast]. It is made from a great classic of American literature, Melville's Moby Dick. This book appeals to me and always has. It has an especial appeal now, for in the last few years, both on the stage and on the screen, I have played so many scented, bepuffed, bewigged and ringletted characters -- princes and kings and the like -- that I revel in the rough and almost demoniacal character, such as Captain Ahab becomes in the last half of the picture after his leg has been amputated by Moby Dick, the white whale. What we are going to do for a love interest, I don't quite know. He might fall in love with the whale. I am sure, however, Hollywood will find a way." --Ibid.

"For me the movies are the more vital proposition today. Under present conditions they are more interesting creatively to an active-minded man. One works just as hard--I think a good deal harder--but it is more fun. I know no more intensive labor than climbing Mont Blanc." --JB, "Hamlet in Hollywood," Ladies' Home Journal, June 1927, p. 7.

On his grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew:
"I went in for theft as a kid. I appropriated my grandmother's jewels and hid them. While detectives were in the house questioning all of us, I looked rather too innocent and my grandmother, who watched the expression on my face and drew her own conclusions, got rid of the detectives and then used a well-worn slipper on me." --JB quoted in Harry T. Brundidge, Twinkle, Twinkle, Movie Star! (New York: Dutton, 1930), p. 39.

On The Royal Family, a play that featured Fredric March as a Barrymore-like character:
"If you saw Freddy March in that show, you saw a great deal more of John Barrymore as a youth than I like to confess." --JB [with Jerome Beatty], "Those Incredible Barrymores: Lionel, Ethel, and I, King, Queen, and Jack," American, Feb. 1933, p. 74.

On his London production of Hamlet:
"Money meant nothing to me. The important thing was that John Barrymore, once a wild, irresponsible, no-good comedian had pulled himself together, had worked so hard and so conscientiously and so effectively that London praised his performance of Hamlet! The most critical Shakespeare audiences on earth had applauded John Barrymore's Hamlet! God, what satisfaction!" --JB [with Jerome Beatty], "Those Incredible Barrymores: Blame It on the Queen," American, Mar. 1933, p. 118.

"I made a picture called The Mad Genius, and little children fled screaming from the theaters. I did Svengali, and the only effect it had upon audiences was to make them declare that John Barrymore had gone nuts." --JB quoted in "People," Literary Digest, 17 July 1937, p. 16.

"Hamlet's the hardest part to play; it must be played simply, as if when you said the lines that was the first time they had ever been said. After all, the audience knows the lines as well as you do; you've got to surprise 'em." --JB quoted in Gloria Harnick, untitled article, Schurz Times (Carl Schurz High School, Chicago), 13 Nov. 1939.

"Why should I let [Adolphe] Menjou imitate me? I know more about how much of a ham I am. Besides, my creditors need the money." --JB quoted in J. P. McEvoy, "Barrymore--Clown Prince of Denmark," Reader's Digest, Feb. 1941, p. 28.

On Richard III:
"I rather believe it was the first genuine acting I ever managed to achieve, and perhaps my own best. It was the first time I ever actually got inside the character I was playing. I mean I thought I was the character, and in my dreams I knew that I was he." --JB quoted in Gene Fowler, Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore (New York: Viking Press, 1943), p. 194.

"Kid, I'm going to give you the greatest lesson in acting. The best way to learn to be an actor is to read Walt Whitman's 'Two Strangers from Alabama.' It's a poem about two birds that come to Alabama in the spring; the female bird has come to make her nest and lay her eggs, and the male bird helps the female make the nest. They are both terribly excited at making their little home and looking forward to the birth of the baby birds. Then one day the male bird goes out in search of food and that night he doesn't come back. After the little female waits all day for him, in vain, she goes out in search of her mate, flying about in the wet, looking for him. But she never finds him. It's a very painful poem of lost love. . . . If you can read that poem in front of a mirror while you're sitting on the toilet, you'll be an actor. Seated on your throne, naked, performing your maleficent duties, recite that poem. If you can forget that you're defecating and get lost in the beauty of the words, then you are an actor." --JB quoted in Anthony Quinn, The Original Sin: A Self-Portrait (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), p. 207.

"You know, most actors, when it's a stage play, all they want to see is how many pages of dialogue they have, how many 'sides,' it's called. They want to know how many long speeches they've got. And they will go through a motion picture script and see how many scenes they are in. Hell, I don't give a damn about that. There's only one thing that I want to know. I want to know who does the suffering." --JB quoted in Eric Sherman, Directing the Film: Film Directors on Their Art (Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1976), p. 165.

Click here for information on Marty Norden's reference book, John Barrymore: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995).

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