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The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Featuring:
Richard Barthelmess

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Early Richard Barthelmess 5x7 Fan Photo from the 1910sA more mature Richard Barthelmess on a 1936 R95 8x10 Linen PortraitRichard 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 Lillian Gish, 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 that this 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 1929-early 1930s Premios Trading Card featuring Richard Barthelmessthan 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).

1929 R94 card featuring Richard Barthelmess in The Patent Leather KidThe 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.
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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 tammystone444@yahoo.ca  with any questions or comments on her column.