This biopic is essentially a filmed play, and is at its best when it remembers that fact. When Christopher Plummer takes centre stage, there is a happy medium between film and theatre as the camera moves about, assuming prime position to catch each next phase of his superb performance. However, when the roles are reversed and Plummer follows the camera, off-stage and up the stairs, the whole enterprise falters.
The opening titles inform us that it is 1942 and John Barrymore is preparing to audition for what he hopes will be a triumphant return in Richard III. Aided and cajoled by his prompter Frank (the only other actor in the film), Barrymore entertains us with anecdotes about his family and career while waiting for his mastery of Shakespeare to fight its way through an alcohol induced haze.
Filmmakers have few options in adapting a play such as this. They can either open-up the play to redefine it as a piece of cinema, or they can film the play basically as is. The problem with this biopic is that it tries to have it both ways. Sometimes Plummer is performing in front of a live audience while other times he may be gazing upon a Venetian vista. Rather than open out the play, these cinematic flourishes have the effect of distancing the audience from its inherent intimacy.
To quote Shakespeare, the film is "where every something, being blent together turns to a wild of nothing."
This play on which this film is based is a piece of fiction, insomuch that John Barrymore did not hire out a theatre in 1942 to audition for potential backers.
Apart from duplicating Barrymore's performance in Show of Shows, Plummer also recites the Hamlet soliloquy while seated, just as Barrymore did in his final film Playmates.