Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Exhibit Review: ‘The Royal Family’ of Broadway, Hollywood—and Fort Lee, NJ

In the late 1920s, when the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber comedy The Royal Family played to packed audiences at the at the Selwyn Theater, audiences knew that the group in the title were not Britain’s Windsors but an American acting dynasty strongly resembling the Barrymores. When Paramount Pictures adapted the play for the big screen in 1930, the studio felt it best, considering the many non-theater aficionados outside the Big Apple, to tack “of Broadway” at the end of the title.

Over the last century, with siblings John, Lionel, and Ethel filming one classic after another—and with John’s granddaughter Drew making her own contribution to the industry as an actress-producer—the Barrymores could just as easily be called “The Royal Family of Hollywood.” Now, with an exhibit about the multi-generational thespians now running in a film center named for them in northern New Jersey, they could also be labeled “The Royal Family of Fort Lee.”

In a late January blog post of mine that related my discovery of the Barrymore Film Center, I promised that I would discuss a first-floor exhibit on the family that runs through the end of March. It really is must viewing for anyone interested in film and theater history—even, more broadly, New Jersey and Fort Lee history.

The exhibit curators have scoured far and wide for photos, posters, sculptures, props, and other materials associated with John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore. Separate walls tell the story of each sibling—all loaded with talent, looks, and money, but also with more than the normal share of offstage drama that actors often encounter.

The dynasty started not with this trio but with John Drew, who became an actor and theater manager after emigrating from Ireland in the 1830s. In turn, his daughter Georgiana, herself an actress, wed Herbert Blythe, an Indian-born British stage actor professionally known as Maurice Barrymore. It is he who, in effect, became the patriarch of “The Royal Family.”

A talented comic actor who became one of the first Broadway stars to star in vaudeville, Maurice did well enough financially to buy a summer cottage in what is now the Coytesville section of Fort Lee, several blocks from the film center. (Despite ardent efforts by film buffs, that house was demolished 22 years ago.)

As the museum chronicles, Fort Lee, because of its proximity to Broadway, the Hudson River and Palisades, became the de facto birthplace of the American film industry. It’s appropriate, then, that three of Maurice’s acting progeny, all of whom spent much of their youth in the town—Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore—came as close as you can get to being present at the creation of this narrative art form.

(Oddly enough, though the three had more than 300 screen appearances among them, they only appeared together once on the big screen—the 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress. A poster for that movie, part of the exhibit, is the image accompanying this post.)

Moviegoers of the past few decades are likely to be familiar with the four decade career, as actress, producer, talk-show host, and gossip-page fixture, of Drew Barrymore. But her triumphs and travails pale in comparison with the great sibling triumvirate who dominate the Barrymore Center exhibit.

Still, you’ll likely be in for something of shock when you first enter the exhibit room to see a photo of a young woman who bears a startling resemblance to the current best-known member of the family. But it’s not Drew but Ethel Barrymore—a similarity all the more surprising because Ethel was Drew’s grandaunt rather than, more directly, her grandmother.

Among the items that depict Ethel here are a photo, a portrait, a bust of the actress, and a poster from her first movie, The Nightingale, shot in 1914 right in Fort Lee.

Unlike her brothers, “The First Lady of the American Theater” worked primarily on the stage, as she followed in the tradition of her grandfather, John Drew, as star and manager of Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theater, which the Shubert Organization created as a vehicle for her.

A guide at the museum told me that her favorite member of the family was Lionel Barrymore, and the artifacts on display make a compelling case for his versatility.

Then in their toddler stage, films in the silent and early talkies era left Lionel and many other denizens of Hollywood skeptical about their cultural potential—even when, as in his case, he went behind the camera to direct, rather than his usual position in front.

(He is best known, of course, for his performance as miserly Mr. Potter in the Yuletide classic It’s a Wonderful Life—a kind of American counterpart to his annual radio broadcasts over two decades as Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.)

The creative instinct that Lionel couldn’t display, even as a well-compensated contract player for MGM Studio, he satisfied by picking up a paintbrush or playing the piano and oboe. While walking through the gallery, you’ll hear his First Piano Concerto and Memoriam on the Death of John Barrymore.

Although Ethel and Lionel displayed more self-discipline, John Barrymore has always fascinated me the most of the trio. His talent was matched by an appearance that gave rise to the nickname “The Great Profile.”

Unfortunately both were exceeded by a raucous lifestyle that spawned a million anecdotes—most, remarkably enough, true. (When asked if the very young Romeo and Juliet had a physical relationship, he cracked, “They certainly did in the Chicago company.”)

Committing his father to Bellevue in 1901 was a searing experience for John, but he could not escape the family propensity for substance abuse—and he seems to have passed this genetic inheritance to children Diana and John Drew Barrymore and the latter’s daughter, Drew.

By the early 1930s, John was having trouble showing up on time for studio work and memorizing his lines. Within a decade, as a has-been Shakespearean actor in the stage comedy My Dear Children, he verged close to self-parody.

But the exhibit also includes evidence that John at his best was an electrifying, even pioneering, actor, such as the chair and dagger he used in a 1920 stage production of Hamlet (proclaimed for years as the best many had seen) and the suit of armor he donned for Richard III.

If you have a chance, see the Barrymore exhibit before it closes March 26. Both aficionados of this legendary family and those with only the slightest inkling of what they once meant to the early film industry will come away with greater appreciation for this trio who left their unmistakable marks on American entertainment.

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