Billboard Magazine, in collaboration with Google, has one of the best online archives available, however it couldn't help me with this post as they only date back to 1942. I came across mention of Billboard's having named the five greatest performers in living memory back in 1941 inside Jerome Lawrence's biography of Paul Muni, sourced heavily in a recent article on the site.
Lawrence wrote of the irony of Hollywood no longer wanting Muni after the flop of Hudson's Bay (1941) while around the same time Billboard released the results of the poll naming the "five greatest performers within the memory of living man" (262). Obviously Paul Muni is one of the five, each of whom is pictured on this page. The others: John Barrymore, Charles Chaplin, Helen Hayes and Enrico Caruso.
I'd really wanted to learn more about this poll so I was thrilled to have my NewspaperArchive.com subscription come in handy yet again when I tracked down the April 9, 1940 edition of the Lowell Sun, a Massachusetts newspaper, containing a section not only on the top five, but many others as well as notes about how the voting worked and who actually voted!
Billboard polled 86 voters from the theatrical world asking for their preferences for top five performers listed in order with the votes then weighted for a final score (5 points for a first place vote, 4 for second, 3 for third, etc.) and then added all of the participants' votes together.
Among the voters were George Abbott, John Barrymore, Eddie Cantor, Frank Capra, Harry Carey, Joe Cook, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Eddie Dowling, Daniel Frohman, Lee Garmes, Frank Gillmore, George Jessel, Leonard Lyons, Glenn Miller, Mary Pickford, Billy Rose, Damon Runyon, Louis Sobol, Ed Sullivan, Lawrence Tibbett, Rudy Vallee, David Warfield, and Orson Welles.
Not exactly a group of lightweights!
Lest you think Barrymore aided his own cause in entering the top 5 the article makes sure to mention that his vote, in order, was for Henry Irving, David Warfield, Charles Chaplin, Eleanora Duse, and Marie Dressler.
The actual Top 5, in order:
5 - Enrico Caruso
4 - Paul Muni
3 - Helen Hayes
2 - Charles Chaplin
1 - John Barrymore
Followed by ...
This is the presumed order of finish. The news article listed this group as though it were presenting them in order and since the list is not alphabetical yet otherwise seemingly random I'm going to go ahead and say this is how they finished:
6 - Arturo Toscanini
7 - George M. Cohan
8 - Al Jolson
9 - Sarah Bernhardt
10 - Fred Allen
11 - Lionel Barrymore
12 - Katharine Cornell
13 - David Warfield
14 - James Barton
15 - Feodor Chaliapin
16 - W.C. Fields
17 - Otis Skinner
18 - Bette Davis
19 - Greta Garbo
20 - Anna Pavlova
The article then goes on to list all others who received more than 10 points in the poll, again, this may be in actual order of finish though I'm not sure: Marie Dressler, Will Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Sonja Henie, Ted Lewis, Spencer Tracy, Bert Williams, Marian Anderson, Kirsten Flagstad, Richard Mansfield, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Holbrook Blinn, Walter Huston, Edwin Booth, Bing Crosby, Harry Lauder, and Lily Pons.
The only commentary made beyond the rules and these lists of finishers was special mention to Barrymore and Chaplin and surprise at the fine result enjoyed by Enrico Caruso "who may be literally called immortal" it is noted as he'd been dead for 19 years at the time of the poll yet had stayed so alive in memory.
I found this list interesting on a couple of levels, 1. How one's peers view one another and sometimes anoint those unappreciated by the mass public; 2. How tastes have changed over the past 70 years. Look at the names that really stand out on that list, they're the screen stars. Not a lot of us otherwise have "living memories" of these same performers from 70 years ago.
Poor Warfield and Bernhardt, heck, even poor Helen Hayes who doesn't enjoy nearly the reputation today that she did back then with her live stage performances so integral to her legacy. Got to love how the movies have not only kept some of these legacies alive but have spun them into actual immortality far beyond what a 70 year old magazine poll could have ever imagined.