The Greatest Film Performance that Never Was? John Barrymore’s Lost Hamlet

jackEvery film buff has his or her pet candidate for the Greatest Movie Never Made, from Sergei Eisenstein’s aborted An American Tragedy to Buster Keaton’s proposed Grand Hotel send-up to Sergio Leone’s dream of a Gone with the Wind remake.

These ghostly might-have-been films haunt us, tantalizing the director of the mind that lurks within all cinephiles. The impossible possibilities dare us to imagine them, to make the movie in our heads, despite the knowledge that such a thought experiment will doubtless result in more pain than pleasure.

But what exquisite agony it is to imagine!

I am fortunate in my chimera of choice, because a morsel of the project was realized and survives as a clip that every lover of cinema, of Shakespeare, or of great acting needs to see.

Now, I’d get myself into a hell of a fight if I asserted that John Barrymore was the greatest Hamlet of the 20th century, so, to be diplomatic, I’ll just argue that he was one of the greatest Hamlets of all time. The waggish among you might make a crack about borrowing my time machine, because—duh—I’ve never seen Barrymore perform Hamlet onstage.

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Instead I base this praise on two short fragments: one is a bitterly ironic clip from a show biz parody, the other from a rare screen test for a film that never materialized. To tell the full story of what makes that masterpiece manqué so poignant, I need to make a few detours through the story of an extraordinary life.

In the film Twentieth Century, Barrymore, playing hammy Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe, castigates his protégée for working in Hollywood: “Those movies you were in! It’s sacrilege throwing you away on things like that. When I left that movie house, I felt some magnificent ruby had been thrown into a platter of lard.” One has a similar feeling 455px-Portrait_of_John_Barrymorewatching much of Barrymore’s filmography.

Attracted to Hollywood by the unprecedented money and the prospect of respite from the rigors of the stage, Barrymore wrote, in 1926, “The most wonderful accident that ever happened to me was my coming to this God-given vital, youthful, sunny place.”

It took less than a decade for the “wonderful accident” to seem more like a car crash, one which attracted the avid rubbernecking of audiences.

As depression and alcohol ate away at Barrymore’s professionalism, his films, in the words of the astute critic Richard Schickel, “now offered a kind of horrified fascination—had the star slipped another notch, was he holding his own in his battle with this lingering illness of spirit or was he, as sometimes happened… actually rallying?” Despite the virtuosity of some silent performances, a few suave early 1930s leads, and his gut-busting comic bombast in Twentieth Century, Barrymore’s screen career devolved into painful self-parody.

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At the low point of his career, literally playing his washed-up self, Barrymore was called upon to deliver Hamlet’s most famous speech. The film, Playmates (1941), would be his last. Get yourself a tissue and watch the scene now:

If a great artist is this great at his worst, one would need astronomical terms to describe his talent at its zenith. The lines that we’ve all heard so much sound both natural and theatrical in Barrymore’s voice; he turns a tune that viewers know by heart into an utterance that drives home man’s universal battle with—and longing for—death.

He makes us forget that he’s reciting the soliloquy in the midst of a somewhat lackluster grab bag of actors. This is Brahms playing in the brothel. This is Tasso scribbling away in prison. In the midst of mediocrity, Barrymore the buffoon delivers the artist that was Barrymore and the genius that is Hamlet—parallel figures representative of all inscrutable greats humbled and confined for what the gods gave them. Denmark is a prison, Hollywood is a prison, the world is a goodly enough prison for Hamlets everywhere.

I’ll admit that I’m pirouetting on the edge of cliché here, so I’ll give you someone else’s much more articulate assessment of Barrymore:

“That was a highly complicated man… a golden boy, a tragic clown grimacing in the darkness, gritting his teeth against the horror—a gallant old acrobat limping over the abyss on a tightrope that was badly frayed,” as Orson Welles told Peter Bogdanovich. Welles’s films might’ve questioned the value of remembering a man after he’s gone, but, in real life, he knew how to eulogize a brother genius.

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A sketch of Barrymore by Welles

Orson Welles actually saw Barrymore, a friend of his father’s, as Hamlet on Broadway in the early 1920s: “I used to stand in the wings when he was playing Hamlet—matinees, that is; I was a baby then—holding his private bucket of champagne.”

Absorbing the performance like the prodigy he was, Welles retained a vivid memory of Barrymore’s finest hour and cited it as the greatest Hamlet he had ever seen.

At the respectable other end of the auteur spectrum from enfant terrible Welles, Laurence Olivier also extolled Barrymore. Sir Larry lauded the Great Profile not only as a great actor, but also as a key figure in the revival of genuinely passionate portrayals of Shakespeare.

In On Acting, Olivier wrote “My Hamlets in later years owed a great deal to Jack Barrymore. It seemed to me that he breathed life into the character, which, since Irving, had descended into arias and false inflections—all very beautiful and poetic, but castrated. Barrymore put back the balls… When he was on stage, the sun came out.”

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In 1933, 51-year-old Barrymore—his Hamlet stage triumph over a decade behind him—performed a brief scene from the play as a test for a potential motion picture. Whoever approved the test clearly understood that he was preserving history, because the snippet was captured in expensive two-strip Technicolor.

Barrymore’s gifted voice coach Margaret Carrington and Broadway production designer Robert Edmund Jones contributed to the unusually polished screen test. With fine character actors Reginald Denny as Horatio and Donald Crisp as Marcellus, Barrymore acted out the scene in which Hamlet decides to follow what appears to be the ghost of his father. Here it is:

Certainly, this is a rather stagy echo of what the film—an early Technicolor period Hamlet—would’ve been. Yet, listen to the descant of dread and sadness Barrymore sings before the likeness of his father and the low scrape of desperation as he asks what the ghost could do to his soul. There’s immediacy to this man, the sense that he’s living two lives at once and feels suffocated by both. Despite the generally respectful tenor of this clip (I would’ve loved to see Barrymore take on some of Hamlet’s bawdier stuff), one still detects something “dangerous,” as Welles said, about this prince. He’s a time bomb, fuming poetry instead of smoke as his fuse burns down.

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Indeed, Barrymore irreverently described Hamlet in 1942 as “[a] ranting pious pervert! But clever, mark you, like all homicidal maniacs! And how I loved to play him. The dear boy and I were meant for each other.”

The story goes that the movie failed to move forward when Barrymore, at a dinner party with his financial backers on the project, began to recite one of the Dane’s speeches and faltered with a lapse of memory. Now, I don’t entirely believe that anecdote, because he could quote Shakespeare with fluency even in the darkest days of his “idiot board” promptings. So, I suspect that other film commitments, the liability of his alcoholism in general, and Barrymore’s own assessment of the limits inherent in his age probably drove the poisoned blade through this Hamlet. But we have an amazing color document—and on YouTube no less.

Please note that the color fragment is not the complete test. I have only been able to locate one more complete version of the test and it is in black-and-white with distracting timestamps. But here it is, for what it’s worth:

(I also recommend this audio-only recording of Barrymore reciting the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech.)

So watch these and re-watch them. Share them, please! Let Barrymore’s lost Hamlet production take on a new life in your mind. We are blessed to have this time capsule, the only moving images to survive as a relic of the immortal, yet ultimately ephemeral performance.

The rest is silence.

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Hamlet (1948): Spacing Out

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It’s not hard to understand why Laurence Olivier selected this abbreviated passage of Hamlet as the opening statement, the thesis, if you will, of his adaptation. After all, these few lines contain the most eloquent description of the tragic flaw that anyone ever wrote; well, duh, it’s practically Shakespeare analyzing Shakespeare.

If anything, the quotation slaps us across the face with its significance. We might even feel inclined to groan at its 9th-grade-English-class heavy-handedness, spliced right into the exposition of the film. But we would be wrong to do so, because it contains the central image of Olivier’s brazenly stripped-down vision of the literary masterpiece.

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The last time I watched this movie, a line from the epigraph tickled my brain: “Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason.” Because, what is “reason” if not a buffer, a barrier? Something that restricts our mind like a corset of scruples and holds it prisoner like a castle keep? Reason consists of a series of bulwarks that we erect between ourselves and madness in all of its forms, whether excessive melancholy, anger, desire… or insight.

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The nature of reason can aptly express itself in architectural terms, particularly medieval ones. We live inside our heads, besieged by armies of competing facts and moral codes. We probably lift the portcullis of our perceptions and prejudices to admit new ideas much less frequently than we think we do.

Okay, so I’ve over-extended my metaphor, but it’s all in the service of Olivier’s direction. His Hamlet seizes on that guiding conceit, the fortress of reason, and spins it into a space where Desmond Dickinson’s camera seems to ruminate like Hamlet’s troubled mind, forever roving and wandering.

The opening of Olivier’s Hamlet freezes time. No one moves, like they couldn’t even if they wanted to. Four men stand on the ramparts of a castle, bearing the Prince’s corpse. We begin at the end of the story. This isn’t exactly a spoiler, since we all know Hamlet ain’t getting out of this alive, but the funereal shot infuses the film with a distinct and surreal sense of dread from the start.

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But what fascinates me about this opening shot is how time seems to have stopped as the camera glides through air, arcing out of the fog towards the prince’s body. The camera shows us that while time might have stopped for the people of this tale, the dimension of space remains open—and the camera dances in it.

The contrast between still, inert humans and a living, moving perspective divorced from them, well, it spooks me. It’s the visual equivalent of the alarming question that begins Shakespeare’s play, “Who’s there?”

Who—or what—is swooping down to look at the funerary procession while mortals can’t budge?

The next shot flips me out even more. On that forbidding castle fort, those figures in mourning just dissolve into thin air, leaving the battlements empty of people. This transition reminds us of how easily we all eventually dematerialize: “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?”

The dissolve also reveals that the film conceives space as a psychological entity. This simplified, archetypal Elsinore, which initially appeared to have been lifted from a book of Charles Lamb’s tales or a Horace Walpole novel, actually exists in a place between Hamlet’s imagination and reality. The castle, though real, occasionally bleeds into the fortress of Hamlet’s askew reason.

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Nowhere is this link more clear than in Olivier’s staging of the play’s most famous monologue. Immediately after Hamlet rejects Ophelia for betraying him, the camera wooshes out of the room, up a staircase, and goes on one of its fugues, travelling up flight after flight of stairs—or actually, the same flight of stairs, cut together again and again.

Finally, the camera flies up to the sea, seen from the top of the castle, and then a track-back brings Hamlet’s head into sight from the bottom the frame. For my money, those M.C. Escher-ish repeated staircases convey the structure of rumination, of those repetitive thoughts that we can’t quite break away from. Hamlet’s mind is a lively, circular one, forever walking up and down the gloomy staircases of the Big Questions: why do we live? What is the good in staying alive? Is it worth it? Why? Why? Why?

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That sudden emergence of Hamlet’s head in the frame always surprises me a little. After a dissociative fit where we lose almost all sense of proportion on those abstracted staircases, we’ve returned to a man as the point of reference. The staggering switches in scope make the audience more aware of what I see as Hamlet’s flaw.

And Hamlet’s “problem,” in my humble opinion, is that the universe as a whole speaks to him.

He realizes his insignificance in the grand scheme of things; he cannot act because he questions the usefulness of any action at all. Hamlet combines self-absorption with self-effacement. He swims in the frightening space of the cosmos and wriggles in the prison of his own duties and life.

That crane shot, careening through the void, then returning to the melancholy prince suggests this push-pull, this paradoxical feeling that Hamlet is at once too much inside himself and too far away from himself.

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I love how Elsinore’s spaces reflect emotional nuances that a stage never could. For instance, the first crane shot down to focus on Hamlet cements our identification with him, with the thinker, the man left alone in the debris of pompous court ceremonies.

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Or consider how the long corridors of arches create a pathetic reciprocal gaze between Ophelia and Hamlet. The hallway inscribes and entombs their confused desire in stone.

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Likewise, I treasure Olivier’s pirouette in the performance hall of Elsinore, shown in a long shot, as he exults, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”

In On Acting, Olivier described Hamlet as the sort of person who needs to enter into someone else’s skin to get anything done: “it’s a sporadic collection of self-dramatizations in which he always tries to play the hero and, in truth, feels ill-cast in the part.”

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Here, Hamlet’s ecstasy in a performance space exposes how much he yearns to escape his limitations—and in the cavernous great room, the euphoria of that small gesticulating figure rings false. The desperate spurt of joy that Hamlet feels on an empty stage space, play-acting only for himself, paints a sad portrait of this man who considers himself unfit for everything others expect from him.

Unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who never seriously doubt their capabilities, Hamlet mercilessly beats up on his character flaws. If anything, his flaw is that he’s too aware of his flaws.

In 1988, two psychologists, Taylor and Brown, found out something that Shakespeare’s Hamlet had been telling us for a long time. Namely, that people suffering from mild depression are far more in touch with the realities of life, death, and risk. By contrast, normal, healthy individuals tend think that they’re better, smarter, and safer than the “average person.”

Hamlet lacks the survival prejudices that would have allowed him to filter out all the reasons not to act, not to stay alive. He sees the world with depressive clarity: “nothing’s either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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So, indeed, reason consists of “pales and forts.” Reason usually provides a structure that protects us from ourselves. We live inside it, like happy guests in a castle, until something goes wrong, something that lets us understand that we are not immune to ugliness and pain.

Like Hamlet pulling back the arras to see that he has killed the wrong man, a person who finally sees the world as it is howls at the brutal disillusionment. And then all that reason turns from a bulwark to a prison. After a trauma, reason and logic start to encircle us with worries and perspectives that unhinge the unity of mind that one needs to do anything.

As Hamlet walks among the arches and pediments of Elsinore, he moves freely, but the walls close in upon him, pillars fragment the screen and crowd him. Unlike Ophelia, who in her craziness finds a state of mind akin to freedom and who drowns outside the castle walls, Hamlet struggles within them. The castle echoes back his angst—as does the Ghost, whose voice is actually a slowed-down recording of Olivier.

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Only imminent death, as Olivier notes, added the final ingredient to Hamlet’s character that enabled him to act. His own self-destruction fueled a newly personal need for retribution; he could kill the king only because he himself was dying.

After Hamlet dies, the camera pans to the region of darkness behind the chair where his head rests, as if in mourning for the blackout of his exquisite consciousness.

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In death, Hamlet still lies inside the ramparts of reason; the film ends where it began, but with a crucial shift. As the same four men seen at the beginning of the film carry the prince to the top of the castle, the camera snakes past the vestiges of the things that once preoccupied Hamlet: his place in court, the incestuous marriage bed, and a Christian altar. The men bear his body up the stairs to the top of the castle, where he meditated on his own mortality, and the camera swings back.

We experience a solemn elevation and a swelling fondness for the “sweet prince,” whose real kingdom was a state of mind. Not only did he accomplish his goal, he possessed that noblest and rarest of qualities: unflinching insight.

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The innovative spaces of Olivier’s Hamlet tap into the unique capacities of cinematic language. They transcend the glibness of symbolism, of “this equals that” imagery. Instead, the way the camera creeps around the architecture of Elsinore enables us to penetrate into what the intellectual Hamlet actually feels. The amorphous, psychological film-spaces blazed the trail for art films like Blow-Up (I’m thinking especially of that final enigmatic dissolve), Last Year at Marienbad, and The Shining, to name just a few.

But, most of all, the film’s benighted rooms and fortifications enable us to witness the birth of modern man, banging his head against the illusions implicit in normalcy and order.

The dread of mortality and failure may paralyze Hamlet. Yet, his greatness, his heroism, the reason why we weep for him resides in the very flaw that forestalls him: his sensitivity, his intensified sentience. The flexibility of the camera’s movements transmits the remarkable agility of his mind and the diversity of opinions that contend in his spirit. He would probably have been a terrible king, but he was a sublime human being.

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