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Tuesday, March 21, 2006




A Barrymore/Welles Feud?


What could have been more degrading for the great John Barrymore than to be a stooge for fading crooner Rudy Vallee on his early forties radio program? That was the burning question among critics and columnists when The Great Profile submitted to the weekly airwave ritual of public humiliation as dispensed by Vallee and his writers, wherein Barrymore’s name and whatever was left of his reputation provided a handy punchline for every lame joke and situation. So just why did he do it? Well, according to Barrymore himself, it was the oldest reason in the world --- money. He described himself as a "whore" to brother Lionel, who would often pinch-hit for Jack on the Vallee show when sickness, or a hangover, made it impossible for him to go on. When he did, however, the Profile-lees of Profile-lees (as he’s described in the WB cartoon, Coo-CooNut Grove) went through an exhausting retinue of snorts, bellows, and guffaws as he traded quips with Vallee and various guests. The gags, of course, were generally at Barrymore’s expense. Sometimes they’d give him a brief spot for a little Shakespearean recitation, played more or less straight, though Jack was long past the point of doing that material justice. On one occasion, December 19, 1940 to be precise, guest Orson Welles engaged in a kind of dueling rendition of Julius Caesar with his old acting idol (he’d gone to see Barrymore on stage in My Dear Children dozens of times), and the two played a five or so minute excerpt with real gusto. Even unctuous Rudy was "thrilled" at its conclusion.


This being the end of 1940, Orson gets an on-air plug for the still-in-production Citizen Kane, and though he’s obliged to stage a "fued" with Barrymore for an extended comedy sketch, you can tell his heart’s not really in it. The debate seems to turn on the question of which man is the greater Shakespearean actor. No doubt the off-air Welles gladly ceded the honor to Barrymore, but for purposes of the easy laugh, he’s forced to swap put-downs with the older man here. That must have been tough on Orson, who despite a considerable ego of his own, did maintain respect for his elders, if not his betters. Of course, Barrymore was no stranger to insults in other media, as witness this ad for Playmates, in which "that son-of-a-gun of the Royal Family" has a go at Shakespeare with corn-pone bandleader Kay Kyser. That was 1942, the year Barrymore collapsed under the weight of it all --- sinking into Vallee’s arms during a rehearsal and rushed to the hospital where the final curtain awaited him. As for Orson Welles, how could he imagine that night in December 1940 that his own life story would have distinctly Barrymoresque parallels --- with a third act spent largely in tawdry films and television, with ad agency hucksters vying to trade on his good name. Knowing that history makes this particular Vallee show a fascinating listen --- a real lost-and-found moment in show-biz history.

1 Comments:

Blogger Harry "broadcastellan" Heuser said...

Welles seems to have delighted in being ridiculed on radio variety shows like Fred Allen's. The "Les Miserables" parody is quite good, compared to Vallee's dross (even though Joan Davis helped a bit by taking over the show). Radio wasn't all trash or cheap burlesque, of course. Barrymore's Streamlined Shakespeare series was an honest attempt at radio-readying the bard, don't you think? At least it allowed fading or failing actors to read rather than memorize their scripts. Just last week I watched Midnight again and noticed how fixed Barrymore's eyes were on the cuecards.

I very much enjoyed reading this essay. Cheers, Harry

1:00 PM  

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