Picks and Pans Review: The House of Barrymore

updated 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Margot Peters

There is an anecdote in this triple biography of Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore, the legendary acting siblings, that, though it concerns only Ethel, perfectly captures both the triumph and tragedy of this fabled theatrical clan.

In 1931, Ethel was going through a bad patch in her career and was drinking heavily, as did both her brothers. She was touring across the country with co-star Louis Calhern, also a heavy drinker, in a piffle of a play called Love Duel. Most nights, only one of them showed up soused. (If Calhern was in a stupor, Ethel would say her own lines I and then add. ""And I know what I would say in your position." and then deliver his.)

But one night they were both inebriated and sat onstage like two catatonic lumps. A prompter fed lines from offstage, to little effect. Finally, Ethel turned to the wings and I said in a loud, grand voice, "We know the line, young man. We want to know who says it!"

This incident could have happened to cither Lionel or John, although by 1931 they both had long since deserted the stage for movies. All the Barrymores insisted the show must go on (when it sometimes obviously should not have), possessed remarkable dignity—even in embarrassing circumstances—and were alcoholics.

Over the years, nearly a dozen Barrymore biographies and memoirs have been published, including a similar triple biography. The Barrymores, by Hollis Alpert in 1964. Doubtless there will be more in years to come. What makes Peters's contribution a worthy addition to the sagging Barrymore shelf is that she offers a comprehensive and compassionate look at the trio (Lionel, 1878-1954; Ethel, 1879-1959; and John, 1882-1942), illuminating their talents while at the same time ably dissecting their faults. And she has shown how they influenced each other. Her research is exemplary, her psychological insights ring true, and her prose is passable, though she sometimes adopts an overly officious tone, as when she writes, "And now it is time to talk about Ethel Barrymore's love affairs..."

Born into a theatrical dynasty, the Barry-more children were trained for the stage. All three became stars, with Ethel and John shining especially bright, since they attracted audiences as much for their looks and personalities as for their interpretations of parts. All three were high-living spendthrifts; when Hollywood beckoned with huge contracts in the mid-'20s, Lionel and John found the offers irresistible. (Ethel opted for full-time movie work only in the mid-'40s, when she became too old for the daily grind of performing onstage.)

Peters persuasively argues that the movies' gain was both the stage's and Lionel's and John's loss, since movies underused the brothers, exploiting them more for their marquee value than for their real talents.

Lionel, a morphine addict on top of being an alcoholic, spent 20 years shuffling through interchangeable supporting parts in which he played gruff-talking, kind-hearted uncles and grandfathers. John, whose self-destructive instincts were exacerbated by Hollywood, turned in a handful of classic performances, notably in Dinner at Eight and Twentieth Century, but most of his movies were designed merely to show off the Great Profile and. eventually, to lampoon it. It was a tragic waste.

John's Hamlet, performed on Broadway in 1922, is still considered by many theatrical historians to be the best American Hamlet of this century.

The three siblings never appeared on stage as a trio and made only one movie in which all three appeared. 1932's Rasputin and the Empress. It is a mediocre effort. Lionel chews the scenery, and John and Ethel, busily trying to undercut each other's performances, refuse to look at each other and do distracting bits of business when it is the other's turn to talk.

This was surely a sibling rivalry to end sibling rivalries. (Knopf, $29.95)

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