Richard Barthelmess has suffered the
same fate as many of his contemporaries from the Golden Era of silent filmmaking:
he had a string of successes and at the time was one of the first slate of
rising stars. However, time has not been as kind to him as it has to people like
Mary Pickford and many more of the names we
remember well today. This is why it’s important that we revive as many of these
personalities and their stories as possible. When the early silent films were
made, the star system was being born, and when we consider the enormity of the
output of these silent films, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that for
every film, there was a star. Richard was one, a self-made man who achieved the
kind of cinematic glory that could well be envied today among the myriads of
youth clamoring to be famous in the age of reality TV.
Richard was born on May 9, 1895 (the
year the cinema was born, it’s worth repeating) in New York City. His location
of residence alone was auspicious; the new medium of the pictures was largely
based on the East Coast. His mother was also a stage actress of some note at the
time, making it all but inevitable that Richard would be exposed to the world of
performance. After high school, he left New York to go to Trinity College in
Connecticut, Massachusetts, and while there, he became a stage actor himself.
In 1916, Richard was on vacation when he
made the acquaintance of actress Alla Nazimova, a friend of his mothers and a
Russian actress of note who is perhaps best known today for her title role in
1923’s Salome. Alla was about to start production in her first feature
film, War Brides and asked Richard if he would be interested in appearing in the
film. Though the pictures were entirely new to him, something must have told him
was an offer he shouldn’t refuse, and a career was about to begin.
Over the next three years, Richard
played varied roles an many films, including: War Brides; Snow White
and Just a Song at Twilight (1916); The Streets of Illusion;
Camille; Bab’s Burgler; Nearly Married and The Seven Swans
(1917); Sunshine Nan; Rich Man, Poor Man; Wild Primrose and
The Hope Chest (1918).
By 1919, Richard, who liked to be known
as Dick, was sought out by none other than D.W. Griffith, a magnate of the
burgeoning business of filmed entertainment. Griffith had a razor sharp eye for
talent, and he must have seen something special in Dick, because he first
cast the handsome actor in Broken Blossoms, starring none other
Lillian Gish. He instantly became one of the most recognizable faces of his
generation. He was also particularly gifted at delving right into a role and
virtually embodying his character, an impressive feat given the characters in
those early short films were not nearly as fleshed out as characters would
become decades later; also, almost all of these actors, including Barthelmess, came
from a stage background where overt theatricality and superficiality – or at
least, materiality of expression – were the order of the day.
Probably due to the success of the first
collaboration between Barthelmess and Gish – she is known to have said that Richard had
one of the best-looking faces she’d ever seen – the two were paired up again in
1920’s Way Down East,
one of those rare films so groundbreaking that it sets the tone for a whole era
of filmmaking. Heartbreaking and romantic, the film is full of unforgettable
moments, including one where our protagonist literally walks on water – in the
form of ice floes – to seek out his beloved as she veers toward destruction at
the waterfalls. He exuded romance, a fact attested to by the titles of the two
other films he made in 1920: The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower.
In 1921, Barthelmess formed his own
production company, and the first film he made under that banner is Tol’able
David, where consensus has it he crafted one of his best performances in this
David and Goliath story (Goliath, in this case, being the outlaws bent on
destroying the US mail).
The twenties was, for Richard
Barthelmess and many
other silent film stars, a ripe period for creating films in vast quantities.
Richard appeared in two or three films per year, including: Sonny and
The Bond Boy (1922); The Bright Shawl and Twenty-One (1923);
The Enchanted Cottage and Classmates (1924); New Toys and
Shore Leave (1925); Ransom’s Folly and The White Black Sheep
(1926); The Patent Leather Kid and The Drop Kick (1927); and
Wheel of Chance, Out of the Ruins and The Noose (1928). He
received Academy Award nominations for two of these films: The Patent Leather
Kid and The Noose. This decade also witnessed Barthelmess’s first
marriage, to Mary Hay, which lasted from 1920 to 1927 – they had a daughter,
Mary. A year after the demise of this marriage, he married Jessica Sargent, a
marriage which lasted the rest of his life.
The onset of the sound film spelled
disaster for many actors, and Richard Barthelmess was no exception. He acted in a few films
through the end of the twenties and mid-thirties, but the roles – in films like
Sons of the Gods (1930), The Finger Points (1931), Alias the
Doctor (1932), Heroes for Sale (1933), A Modern Hero (1934)
and Spy of Napoleon (1936) – got less interesting and prestigious. Soon
his hiatus from films became a relatively permanent situation.
Until 1939, that is. Also typical of the
era was the resurrection of silent film greats in the form of homage appearances
in films. A new generation of filmmakers, both American and European émigré,
were starting to redefine Hollywood, and their creativity would really hail the
second wave of classic American filmmaking. Many of them cast aging stars from
the silent era in their works; Barthelmess was cast in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels
Have Wings, one of the key Hollywood Classics. Soon after that, however, he
joined the Navel Reserve and after the war was over, he moved to Long Island,
not far from where he was raised, and retired. He lived off his career earnings
and also other investments he’d made, mostly in real estate.
Richard Barthelmess died of throat cancer on August
17, 1963, in New York. In some ways, you could say he came full circle. He was
an East Coast man who got to enjoy his latter years where his career started
out. It can only be hoped that as more and more preservation and restoration
work is done on films from the silent era, much of Richard’s work will be
salvaged so that modern audiences can have a taste of the charisma, talent and
ravishing good looks that made Richard so popular in his day.
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.
Tammy invites you to write her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or comments on her column.