someone who never wanted to act, Lionel Barrymore made a lot of movies, mostly
as an actor but as a writer/director as well. He even composed a film or two.
Without doubt a Renaissance man of the moving image era, Lionel seems to have
had entertainment in his blood, whether he wanted it or not, as part of the
ultimate royal family of cinema. The Barrymores, who have graced the screen
almost without interruption since the earliest days of silent cinema, have had
among the most illustrious and notorious careers in the history of the movies. A
lesser known fact is that the Barrymore siblings were grandchildren to John Drew
(1927 – 1862), a famous stage actor in his own day. This is a family with a
Lionel, oldest brother to John
(profiled on these pages) and Ethel, was born Lionel Herbert Blythe on April
28, 1878 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. He did not have the striking looks
of his siblings, which meant little to a man who grew up wanting to be an
artist. Now, most families don’t have “entertainment industry” as the family
business, but strutting on the stage was par for the course for the Barrymores,
and Lionel was expected to follow suit. And so he did. A career on stage was
From the start, character roles were his bread and butter –
after all, many of the meatier roles tended to go to those without matinee idol
looks. So, despite his young age, he was still playing the side characters,
among them figures of authority like the Father or the Military Officer. As we
know by now, this was the era of the stage, which provided both entertainment
and art. Movies were just a fledgling new industry, and considered a low-class,
populist entertainment. How things change! But for Lionel, it was considered a
huge disappointment and a step down when he was
forced, due to debts he had accumulated, to take on some film roles in order to
make ends meet.
This is how he came to the silver screen; specifically, the
Edison’s Biograph Company, in 1911. He appeared in a few films under the
direction of the legendary cinematic innovator D.W. Griffith (also known as the
“Grandfather of the Close-Up”), and had the opportunity, like many others did,
to work on the creative side as well. Lionel much preferred writing and
directing to acting, but as we know, is better remembered for his latter skills.
He acted in over 90 films in this period: The Battle (1911); Heredity
(1912); Almost a Wild Man (1913); Men and Women (1914); The
Flaming Sword (1915); The Upheaval (1916); and The Millionaire’s
Double (1917) is but the briefest survey. The movies were gaining momentum,
and Lionel was right there helping to make this happen.
A true multi-tasker, however, and a true man of the arts, he
had not fully segued into
film; he was still performing on the stage and in 1917, played the famed Colonel
Ibbetson in “Peter Ibbetson;” this performance
resulted in a great film role; that of Milt Shanks in The Copperhead
(1920). He moved audiences tremendously with this powerful role; his was a
presence that worked equally well on stage and screen.
Soon he was immersing himself more fully in the
still-emerging motion picture business. He signed a contract with MGM – one that
would ultimately last 25 years – and was hoping to do more directing than
acting. But he was a known face and MGM wanted him in the pictures. To appease
him, they let him oversee projects they didn’t much care about and that featured
actors who were notoriously difficult to work with. Some of these projects
include Life’s Whirlpool (1917), Confession and His Glorious
Night (both 1929), and 1931’s Ten Cents a Dance (1931).
Despite his best efforts at a career as a filmmaker, it was
Lionel the Actor audiences – and the studio – wanted to see. He made hundreds of
films, not only in the silent era, but through to the early 1950s. Highlights
from the MGM period of his silent era career are: The Master Mind and
The Devil’s Garden (1920); The Great Adventure (1921); The Face in
the Fog (1922); The Eternal City (1923); America and I am the Man
(1924); A Man of Iron and The Girl who Wouldn’t Work (1925);
Paris at Midnight and The Bells (1926); Body and Soul and
The Thirteenth Hour (1927); Drums of Love (1928); and his last of
this era, The Mysterious Island (1929).
A gifted actor, he made film after film well into the sound
age, finally winning an Academy Award in 1931, for his role as an alcoholic
lawyer in A Free Soul – a sound
also known for introducing Clark Gable to the
world. Unlike many of his peers, whose careers faded into oblivion the minute
talking became a necessity, Lionel’s booming voice and gruff, surly looks made
him the perfect contender to talk on film: indeed, his popularity soared in the
1930's as he made films like Mata Hari (1931);
Grand Hotel (1932, with brother
John) and Rasputin and the Empress (1932, with brother John and sister Ethel);
One Man’s Journey and Looking Forward (1933); Carolina and
Treasure Island (1934); The Personal Histories, Adventures, Experience
and Observation of David Copperfield, the Younger and The Return of Peter
Grimm (1935); The Devil-Doll (1936);
A Family Affair and Saratoga (1937).
In 1937, Lionel was suddenly stricken by arthritis in a bad
way, and remained in a wheelchair for most of the rest of his life. But he was
very much a known public figure, and a revered one to boot. He was doing an
annual radio appearance as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and continued to do his
Dr. Gillespie role in the film series Dr. Kildare (an MGM production). In terms
of film, he slowed down quite a lot, but shone if a few more character roles, in
films like 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life (which has since been
immortalized on TV) and the classic Duel in the Sun (1946) and Down to
the Sea in Ships (1949). His final film role was Main Street to Broadway
(1953), a film made a decade after brother John’s death, and in which Ethel also
appears. A fitting end for the royal family of movies.
He was largely shut out of the opportunity to blaze a trail
in the emerging medium of television thanks to his stringent MGM contract. He
circumvented this problem by
continually appearing on radio. He also went back to his original artistic
aspirations and spent much of his golden years making music (composing works
like “Partita” and “Ballet Viennois”), writing (for instance, the novel Mr.
Cartonwine: A Moral Tale) and engaging in the visual arts. But eventually his
arthritis got the better of him, and he had to slow down. But he couldn’t quite
stop; ambition should have been his middle name. The story goes that on the day
of his death he was getting ready to do his weekly performance on radio’s
Hallmark Playhouse. Instead, the show gave him a warm and well-deserved tribute.
It was November 15, 1954, and Lionel was 76 years-old.
Lionel was buried next to his
second wife and his brother John in the Calvary Cemetery in Hollywood. He never
wanted to be an actor, and openly admitted this many times over. Is it
an irony that it is this profession that has immortalized him, or another
example of the ill-fated life and times of almost every member of the Barrymore
clan? This is interesting to think about on the side; meanwhile we have his
many, many film roles to remind us that his gifts as an actor have truly stood
the test of time.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her
regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of
The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Lionel Barrymore Pages:
It's A Wonderful Movie by Stephen Schochet -- Another page right here on things-and-other-stuff.com