Many actors have laid claim to the title of the Biggest Ham in Hollywood over the years—Wallace Beery, Christopher Walken, William Shatner, Jack Nicholson, even Laurence Olivier when he was bored and phoning it in—but few at their peak were as deliciously hammy as John Barrymore.
Bad ham acting takes no especial skill other than a lack of talent and self-awareness, and bad ham actors, whose numbers would fill a football stadium, take you right out of the action, start you looking for the exits and are either quickly forgotten or wind up making miniseries on the Lifetime Channel. "[A] bad ham actor," writes "Greg" at Cinema Styles, "is a bad actor period, someone who overplays, overemotes and overinflects every move, tear and shout. They're bad, they don't know how to do anything else.
"But a great ham actor is also a great actor who is in possession of so much skill and talent they know when to go over the top and how far to take it."
Great ham acting is an underappreciated art form and great ham actors, so few we can nearly name them all, last for years, energize the mundane, create a giddy sense of the possible. And with Dinner At Eight, John Barrymore put the capstone on a career that featured some of the best ham acting in the history of Hollywood. His Larry Renault—like Barrymore, an alcoholic ham on the downside of his career—was, as TV Guide put it in its 5-star review, "a bitchy casting idea, chilling to watch," but Barrymore was open to taking himself to task on screen, and though it was all downhill after this, he played the part to perfection.
The action opens as Park Avenue socialite Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, in a performance that would establish her chirpy screen persona) frantically puts the finishing touches on an important dinner party she's planned for that evening. Absorbed with trivial worries about aspic and ice sculptures, she's oblivious to the crises mounting around her—her ailing husband (Lionel Barrymore) finds himself on the verge of losing everything to a rapacious tycoon (a particularly boorish Wallace Beery), her daughter is about to marry a man she no longer loves, and old friend Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an over-the-hill actress, needs money fast.
Add to the list of the desperate a last-minute substitution on the guest list, Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a one-time silent film star now fallen on hard times thanks to his outsized ego and fondness for the bottle. Reduced to pawning his cufflinks for cabfare, he's in New York hoping to make a comeback on the Broadway stage. "The play's not much," he says, "but I think I can put it over. I play the only male character," then shrugs, "oh, there's a small male part for a bit actor ... but I dominate that."
Perhaps you can guess how this is going to turn out for him, even if he can't.
Dinner At Eight is usually billed as a comedy, and it is, but only in the same sense that Anton Chekhov's masterpiece of endless Russian gloom, The Cherry Orchard, is a comedy. That is, it's a tragedy about foolish people in relentless pursuit of the ephemeral, behaving as if they'll live forever and discovering too late that they won't. You see this same comedy played out, in high places and in low, every day, and always with the same ending.
The cast of characters neatly divides into those who, either through careless living or bad luck, find themselves at the end of their ropes; and those who prey upon them, both wittingly (Beery) and unwittingly (Burke). (That Jean Harlow, playing a low-rent Billie Burke in training, proves to be an angel of mercy for one of these desperate souls gives us the only hopeful moment in the entire movie.)
In the self-contained universe of the New York blue bloods who populate Dinner At Eight, it perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise that Renault is sleeping with Mrs. Jordan's nineteen year old daughter Paula (Madge Evans in a part originally offered to Joan Crawford). For her, Renault represents a chance to escape the spiritually-empty and empty-headed future her mother has so carefully planned for her; but for him, Paula is a last taste of the life he has wasted and she's too young to understand why he feels only anxiety when what she feels is bliss.
"You're young and fresh," he tells her, "and I'm burned out."
For Renault, it's an all-too-infrequent moment of clarity that lends poignancy to his plight—it's one thing to spiral into the abyss in ignorance, quite another to watch yourself do it—and Barrymore is at his best in these moments, quiet, still, a great actor inhabiting a burned-out shell without resorting to showy actor tricks. Then as Renault puffs himself up with self-pity, paranoia and memories of past glory, Barrymore reaches for just those hammy touches that a bad actor would use on a stage when playing a part too big for his talent.
Ultimately, the moral of Dinner At Eight is "adapt or die," a timely message in 1933 for both out-of-work actors and a nation suffering through the fourth year of the Great Depression, but advice Renault is incapable of following. He may be a high-functioning alcoholic, immaculately dressed and able dip into his bag of acting tricks just enough to fuddle his way through a speech or two—watch Barrymore dial up the ham factor as he demonstrates Renault's "acting" ability—but he can't keep his delusions of grandeur in check and, like a man on a ledge with an uncontrollable urge to jump, each moment of clarity turns into self-pity and another excuse to take a drink.
Whether the bottle has kept him from acclimating or he turned to the bottle because he couldn't (it doesn't really matter; an alcoholic doesn't need a reason to drink), Renault is a man frozen in time. He still fancies himself an "important artist," a matinee idol, a big name. "$8000 a week is what I got," he says, "and I was gonna get ten until the talkies came in, so don't think you're doing me a favor by asking me to play in your ratty little show because I'm doing you one." But the sad fact is, he's a forgotten has-been and when he finally grasps the truth, it's brutal to watch.
"Look at those pouches under your eyes," says his long-suffering agent, steering Renault to the mirror. "Look at those creases. You sag like an old woman. ... You're a corpse, and you don't know it. Go get yourself buried."
Barrymore's Renault is by turns buffoonish, arrogant, reflective, bullying, anxious, humiliated, and ultimately, by remaining true to his idea of himself to the very end, somehow heroic. In a contemporaneous review of Dinner At Eight, Variety heralded Barrymore's performance as "a stark, uncompromising treatment of a pretty thorough-going blackguard and ingrate."
Recent reviews have echoed the sentiment: "John Barrymore is beautiful as the only honest man in the entire picture." (Movie Reviews UK) Renault is "played with the right touch of self-centered clownishness to undercut the pathos." (Slant Magazine) Barrymore's Renault, "the Profile in winter [is a] small, honest portrait of reaching the end of your tether." (Bright Lights Film Journal)
And me? I think it's possibly the best portrayal of an alcoholic in the movies before Ray Milland's Oscar-winning turn in The Lost Weekend twelve years later, certainly one of the few serious ones at a time when alcoholics in movies were almost always treated as comic relief. And as a portrait of a man at the end of his rope, Barrymore's performance would make a terrific double feature with his work from the year before in another glamorous MGM ensemble piece, Grand Hotel.
Director George Cukor later said of Barrymore that he had no vanity and noted that many of the ideas for Renault's character came from Barrymore himself:
"[Renault] found out that another actor got the job that he desperately needed," Cukor recalled, "And he'd say, 'I can be English. I can be as English as ahnybohdy.' Then he'd say, 'Ibsen, Ibsen. I can do Ibsen,' and he had just heard vaguely of Ibsen, and he would strike this absolutely inappropriate pose and he said, 'Mother dear, give me the moon.' Whereas the Ibsen line was, 'Mother, give me the sun'—to show that he'd gone over, he'd become mad.'"
Yet as good as Barrymore's performance was, it almost didn't happen.
According to Frank Miller, writing for Turner Classic Movies, MGM Studio chief Louis B. Mayer objected to the casting of Barrymore. "He was worried about Barrymore's drinking and erratic behavior," Miller writes, "but Cukor assured him that they had developed a good working relationship on A Bill of Divorcement (1932). On the set of Dinner at Eight Barrymore was cooperative and helpful. Far from resisting comparisons between himself and his character, a fading matinee idol succumbing to alcoholism, he suggested playing up the similarities. At his instigation, [Frances] Marion and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz added references to his profile and his three wives. On the set, he even improvised imitations of faded actors he'd run into in New York."
Born John Sidney Blyth in Philadelphia in 1882, John Barrymore was the youngest sibling of an acting dynasty that included Oscar-winners Lionel and Ethel (they took their stage name from their father, who performed as Maurice Barrymore). While Lionel and Ethel took to the stage at an early age, John began as a painter, and only followed his siblings into acting at their urging. Despite his late start, he was a major Broadway star by 1909. His Broadway performance in the title role of Hamlet in 1922 purports to be one of the best in history although no recording of it exists and recreations nearly two decades on are marred by Barrymore's shameless mugging.
Although he may have appeared in films as early as 1912, his first confirmed role was in An American Citizen in 1914. Known as "The Great Profile," Barrymore was a star throughout the silent era, appearing in such films as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922), Beau Brummel (1924) and Don Juan (1926).
Barrymore made the transition to talkies successfully, and I'm not convinced playwrights George Kaufman and Edna Ferber (Marion and Mankiewicz handled the screenplay chores) had Barrymore in mind when they wrote the part—he was still a star even if his drinking and ego were already the stuff of legend, and the story of the silent era matinee idol reduced to penury with the coming of the talkies was so commonplace as to be a cliche. Still, I couldn't help wondering as he studied his aging, alcohol-ravaged face in that last, painful scene, whether Barrymore saw his own future writ large in the mirror.
Aside from his terrible thirst, I get the impression Barrymore's biggest problem was not so much an oversized ego, as a lack of regard for the art of motion pictures—much like Marlon Brando after him, he rarely thought of the movies he made as worth the effort. "Watching Barrymore on screen," Dan Callahan wrote, "we are always waiting to see whether he will engage with his material; if he does, he's capable of large-spirited magic, and if he doesn't, he merely moves his face and pops his eyes, wearily, as if he's trying to be amused."
"My memory is full of beauty," Barrymore once quipped, explaining why he hadn't bothered to learn his lines before filming a scene, "Hamlet's soliloquies, the Queen Mab speech, King Magnus' monologue from The Apple Cart, most of the Sonnets. Do you expect me to clutter up all that with this horseshit?"
For a while at least, until the effects of indolence and alcohol caught up with him, Barrymore could still reach down for worthy films such as Grand Hotel, A Bill Of Divorcement, Counsellor-at-Law and Dinner at Eight and produced a good performance. The rest of the time, though, he was content to give the people what they wanted, a parody of himself.
"I like to be introduced as America's foremost actor. It saves the necessity of further effort."
John Barrymore died in 1942 of pneumonia as a complication of cirrhosis of the liver. He was sixty years old.
[To read my take on Jean Harlow's performance in Dinner At Eight, click here.]