What is a Juvenile Lead?
by John Barrymore -- 1914

There is nothing amusing in playing a juvenile lead for anyone but the audience. The "lead" himself is working just as hard as if he were a tragedian. In some ways I think he works harder. To my mind there is no more difficult role than that of a leading juvenile.
This being a "gay young dog" on the stage is a complicated proposition. In the first place, theatergoers have the idea that the juvenile lead is just a moderately agreeable young man who has the knack of making them laugh at regular intervals between 8:30 and 10:45.
I wish--Oh1 how I wish--that this were all he had to do. Just being funny is a comparatively simple task. This is all the straight comedian has to do, and he can do it in any way he chooses. He can sing, dance or 'scramble like an egg." He can make just as much of a clown of himself as he wishes, so long as he forces people to laugh. Ridiculous make-up, silly mannerisms will do no harm so long as it is all funny.

Can the juvenile do this? He cannot--most emphatically he cannot. And whether you ask why or not, I'm going to tell you. The reason is a good and sufficient one--it is a pretty girl.
And what has the pretty girl to do with it? you will ask. Listen, Rollo! She has just this much to do with it. The juvenile lead in every play that I can recall had to marry one of these nice little girl characters that are always put opposite juvenile leads. Now the public always takes a fatherly and motherly, and sisterly and brotherly interest in a pretty girl. They would never approve a play in which a charming girl was married off to a grotesque clown. No matter how many laughs he had extracted from them during the rest of the performance, they would feel sore. They want their pretty girl to "marry well," therefore the leading juvenile must not be too ridiculously funny.. He must maintain a certain amount of dignity or he will never hoop up with the wedding bells that every play with a juvenile head has to have.
For instance, if you had a pretty sister you wouldn't care to have her marry a circus clown who was born with a face that needed no make-up. Well, that is the way the audience feels about juvenile lead who is too grotesque.
No sir! no audience wants its pretty girl married to anything less than a regular hero. He can be an amusing here, if you will, but his humor must be mixed with just enough sterner stuff to make him eligible to be the husband of Gwendolyn.
It is this combination of heroism and comedy that baffles the juvenile lead. He must mix the two as carefully as a perfect cocktail. If he uses too much of anything, he will be either too clownish to be pleasing or too serious to win the necessary laughs. Thus the juvenile lead has to do some lively jumping from the sublime to the ridiculous and
back again. Photo is John with Clark Gable.
In "Believe Me Xantippe" I had just one dramatic moment. For a few brief seconds I had to pose as the brave rescuer of beauty in distress, or in grave danger of being in distress in a very short time. Just the right point at which to switch off the funny stuff and turn on the real "drayma" was not discovered until many hard rehearsals. within the space of half a minute the audience had to be carried from a mood of utter hilarity to a situation that was desperately serious, and then--bing! right back again to shrieking mirth. Believe me Xantippe, it is not easy.
Besides this there must be constant touches through the play to drive home the point that the young man on the stage who is so very, very amusing, is in reality not so much of a fool after all.
But youth and the ability to make one's audience feel its joy, weigh heaviest toward success in a juvenile lead. Youth on the stage is natural. to be natural is to be a good actor. The slightest touch of affectation will spoil a juvenile part quicker than any other mistake one can make. The juvenile lead can only get his character across the footlights by winning the friendship of the audience. He must make those "out front" take a real interest in him as a "nice young man," who is going through an amazing series of adventures leading to happiness ever after with the only girl in the world.
Only a man who is really young can do this. Youth cannot be simulated on the stage by men. Women can do it, but that is another story. Unquestionably, youth does much to make the success of a juvenile lead, youth and the enthusiasm that goes with it. An actor thus equipped can "get his stuff across," can make his audiences see things as he intends them to, better than one who is getting older and only "acts young." There has been a lot of talk about magnetism being the big thing in acting. Now I, for one, discount those accepted traditions about magnetism and charm and good looks making a way for a man on the stage. Anyone, man or woman, who is young, has enough of the beauty of youth to go ahead and act--if they can act. Just learn how to get your stuff over. Without that knowledge all the magnetism in the world won't make an actor and that knowledge is only gained by hard work. It is not an inspiration.
Being a leading juvenile is something like being funny to order. You may have both qualities in you and they'll come out if you are not self-conscious, but you are a sad failure trying to be either spontaneous and youthful or funny but the methods used with a monkey on a stick. There is one good rule, in my opinion, for the aspiring juvenile lead to follow. There's an old saying about good breeding. Apply it to acting. "What is the key-note to good acting?" "B-Natural."
That's enough. If you cannot do it, you'll never succeed on the stage, least of all as a juvenile who, first, foremost and all the time must have his audience in his confidence. At that, even when you've worked hardest for a success, one cannot always act. Sometimes you catch a tone an emphasis in your voice that pleases your hearers. You decide always to say the same thing that way. But the next time you find you cannot find that tone at all, and you meanings not the same.
A recipe for a successful juvenile lead is:"Acquire a trick of manner that establishes a warm bond of sympathy and reflected friendliness with your audience."
Some people think that because I come of an acting family my "inherited talent" makes stage work easy for me. These will be surprised to learn that I had to work as hard to get a start as any stranger. There isn't any romance about how I went on the stage. I did it for just the same reason that a clerk gets a job in a store. I needed the money. I worked just like any clerk. I minded the "boss"--in my case the stage manager--and learned my trade, that of the juvenile lead, by slow hard stages.
It was no fun. In fact I never knew any actor or actress that genuinely though acting fun except my wife--and she has been on the stage only a little while. Photo is of John with Madge Evans.