The Bootleg Files: John Barrymore’s Hamlet Screen Test

BOOTLEG FILES 697: “John Barrymore’s Hamlet Screen Test” (1933 test footage for a film that was never made).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Too short for a standalone release, not easy to fit into a larger production.


For every film that finds its way to the big screen, there are an infinite number of projects that got off the ground. Some of these are mere figments of conversation that failed to root into a serious endeavor, others consist of carefully constructed screenplays that never found their way into production, and other projects barely made into a very early stage of pre-production before being abruptly cancelled.

With the latter consideration, perhaps the most intriguing film that could have been made involved a Technicolor presentation of “Hamlet” with John Barrymore in the title role. Two scenes were shot as part of test footage to determine the viability of this project, but it was ultimately decided that the risks outweighed the rewards.

In the early 1920s, John Barrymore’s theatrical interpretation of Hamlet had become the stuff of legend – and even the two great Shakespeareans of the 20th century, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, lavished praise on Barrymore’s performance as being the apex of acting. Barrymore’s stage success brought him to Hollywood, where he quickly became a reigning star of the silent screen and the talkies.

By the early 1930s, however, Barrymore’s star was beginning to fray. Although he remained popular with audiences, his alcoholism and erratic behavior started to become an off-camera liability. During the filming of the 1933 “Counsellor at Law,” he had difficulty recalling his lines – this problem would worsen over time, requiring that he use cue cards to keep his performances in motion. Also in 1933, he suffered a career embarrassment when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer publicized the cancellation of its contract with the actor.

Then, a potential miracle seemed to be taking shape. RKO Radio Pictures and John Hay Whitney, the financier behind the independent companies Pioneer Pictures and Selznick International, were considering the potential for prestige feature films to be shot in Technicolor. Barrymore’s stage performance of Hamlet was still recalled with great admiration, and the actor was approached to shoot two scenes from the play to determine if the work could be successfully adapted to the screen.

The idea that the studio was willing to produce a Shakespeare – and in the expensive Technicolor process, no less – was fairly daring. While there were numerous film versions of Shakespeare’s work in the silent era, the sound era found almost no one willing to make a film from this source. The exception was the 1929 “Taming of the Shrew” with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, which was widely considered an artistic disappointment. Of course, Fairbanks and Pickford were their own producers, so they were able to gamble on that effort.

Barrymore recognized the opportunity presented to him and engaged voice coach Margaret Carrington to bring him back to his theatrical prime. Robert Edmond Jones, one of the theater’s most distinguished production designers, was tapped to direct the test footage, and gifted actors Donald Crisp, Reginald Denny and Irving Pichel were recruited to support Barrymore in the roles of Marcellus, Horatio and Claudius.

In retrospect, it might seem odd to have the 51-year-old Barrymore playing Hamlet, considering the character is a university student. But at the time, it was not unusual for mature actors to play youthful Shakespearean characters – up until Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 “Romeo and Juliet,” it was typical for the youthful lovers to be played by actors who were well past their teen years.

The first of the two scenes in the test comes from Act I Scene 4 in the play, when Hamlet first encounters the ghost of his father, the slain king. Barrymore’s Hamlet is in shock and awe at the ghostly presence (depicted as an ectoplasmic illustration) and fights off efforts from Crisp’s Marcellus and Denny’s Horatio to follow the spirit. Barrymore is framed in his trademark profile – and, for a man of 51 years with a long-running drinking problem, he looks and sounds damn good. His recitation of the dialogue is sharp and his ability to quickly turn from hostile rebellion against his would-be protectors to filial obedience to the ghost is remarkable.

The second of the scenes comes from Act III Scene 3, with Claudius seeking solace in prayer within a chapel while Hamlet debates whether to slay his uncle. This scene is much more subdued, with Barrymore occasionally looking directly into the camera to inform the viewer of his character’s thoughts. The line recitations are fine but the scene is oddly composed, with most of it shot before a heavy curtain with brief cutaways to Pichel’s Claudius praying before a giant cross in a minimalist chapel. And despite heavy make-up on Pichel, the two men look like contemporaries rather than rivals from different generations.

For a brief period, the idea of a Barrymore film version of “Hamlet” was considered a major coup, with no less a figure than Helen Hayes seeking out the role of Ophelia. (Some sources claim Gloria Swanson was also considered for the part.) But what went wrong? There is also a story that Barrymore was asked to recite a soliloquy from the play during a Hollywood party but forgot the lines, which was used as an excuse to cancel the film. But that seems unlikely, considering that Barrymore was still viewed as a major star with box office appeal.

Ultimately, the project never got the green light. The expense of a Technicolor feature coupled with the perceived commercial risks of putting a Shakespeare film into general release played against the project. Hollywood would eventually touch on Shakespeare with black-and-white epic interpretations of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1935 and “Romeo and Juliet” in 1936 – with Barrymore as Mercutio in the latter work. But both films were artistically cumbersome and barely successful at the box office, thanks primarily to their all-star casts. It would not be until Laurence Olivier’s “Henry V” (1944) and “Hamlet” (1948) that a Shakespeare film could be considered financially viable.

Barrymore’s test footage was preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the actor only returned to the character in a brief scene from the forgettable 1941 film “Playmates” where he offers a half-hearted recitation of the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The full Technicolor footage of both scenes from the screen test are not available for online viewing. A fraction of the encounter with the ghost is available on YouTube in a badly faded Technicolor print and both scenes can be viewed in their entirety in a duped black-and-white print marred with a time code and watermark. These may not be the best way to consider what a Barrymore “Hamlet” could have been, but at least they offer a tantalizing clue of what might have been a fascinating foray.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud.