04 February, 2009

Lionel Barrymore


Lionel Barrymore was an American Academy Award-winning actor of stage, radio and film.

Barrymore was born Lionel Herbert Blythe in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of actors Georgiana Drew and Maurice Barrymore (né Blythe). He was the elder brother of Ethel and John Barrymore, the uncle of John Drew Barrymore, and the grand-uncle (or great-uncle) of Drew Barrymore. Barrymore was raised Roman Catholic. He attended the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania.

During World War One Lionel staved off the deadly Spanish Influenza by taking cold alcohol baths as an antiseptic.

He was married to actresses Doris Rankin and Irene Fenwick, a one-time lover of his brother John. Doris's sister Gladys was married to Lionel's uncle Sidney Drew which made Doris Lionel's aunt as well as his wife.

Apparently Lionel did not abide by all of the rites of the Catholic Church to which his mother Georgiana had converted him and his siblings and broke tradition by marrying a second time. Likewise his brother John remarried numerous times but their sister Ethel never remarried after her 1923 divorce staying true to their mother's Catholic conversion. Doris Rankin bore Lionel two daughters, Ethel Barrymore II(b. 1908) and Mary Barrymore. Unfortunately, neither baby girl survived infancy, though Mary lived a few months. Lionel never truly recovered from the deaths of his girls, and their loss undoubtedly strained his marriage to Doris Rankin which ended in 1923. Years later, Barrymore developed a fatherly affection for Jean Harlow, who was born around the same time as his two daughters and would have been around their age. When Jean died in 1937, Lionel and Clark Gable mourned her as though she had been family.

Barrymore began his stage career in the mid 1890s acting with his grandmother Louisa. He appeared on Broadway in his early twenties with his uncle John Drew in such plays as The Second in Command (1901) and The Mummy and the Hummingbird (1902), both produced by Charles Frohman. In 1905 Lionel and his siblings John and Ethel were all being groomed under the tutelage of Frohman. That year Lionel appeared with John in a short play called Pantaloon while John appeared with Ethel in Alice-Sit-By-The-Fire. In 1910, after he and Doris had spent many years in Paris, Lionel came back to Broadway, where he established his reputation as a dramatic and character actor. He and his wife Doris often acted together when in the theater. He proved his talent in many other plays such as Peter Ibbetson (1917) (with brother John), The Copperhead (1918) (with wife Doris) and The Jest (1919) (again with John). Lionel gave a short lived performance on stage as MacBeth in 1921. The play was not successful and more than likely convinced Lionel to return to films permanently. One of Lionel's last plays was Laugh, Clown, Laugh in 1923 with his second wife Irene Fenwick. This play would later be made into a 1928 silent film starring Lionel's friend Lon Chaney.

Lionel entered films around 1911 with D.W. Griffith. There are claims Lionel entered films in 1908 for Griffith in The Paris Hat but Griffith did not make a movie in 1908 with this title. Lionel and Doris were in Paris in 1908 where Lionel was attending art school. Lionel claims in his autobiography We Barrymores that he and Doris were in France when Bleriot flew the channel on July 25, 1909.

Lionel entered films the same year his uncle Sidney Drew began his film career at Vitagraph, which might have had an influence on Lionel. With Griffith, Lionel made such titles as The Battle (1911), The New York Hat (1912) and Three Friends (1913). In 1915 he co-starred with Lillian Russell in a movie called Wildfire, one of the legendary Russell's few film appearances. He also made a foray into directing at Biograph. The last silent film he directed, Life's Whirlpool (Metro Pictures 1917), starred his sister Ethel. Lionel seemingly forged a good relationship with Louis B. Mayer early on at Metro Pictures and before the formation of MGM in 1924.

Lionel made numerous silent features for Metro, most of them now lost. Lionel was also in a position to freelance occasionally such as returning to Griffith in 1924 to film America. He would make his last film for Griffith in 1928's Drums of Love.

After Lionel and Doris divorced in 1923, he married Irene Fenwick. The two of them went to Italy for Metro Pictures to film The Eternal City in Rome, blending work and honeymoon in the famous city.

Prior to his marriage to Irene he and his brother John came to disharmony on the issue of Irene's past as one of John's lovers. In an effort to try to dissuade Lionel from marrying Irene John blurted out "I've f***ed her", angering Lionel to the point that the brothers didn't speak again for two years. They were next seen together at the premiere of John's film Don Juan in 1926 having patched up their differences. In 1924, he left Broadway for Hollywood permanently. Lionel made several more freelance motion pictures such as The Bells (Tiffany Pictures 1926) with unknown Boris Karloff. After 1926 however Lionel worked almost exclusively for MGM appearing opposite such luminaries as John Gilbert, Lon Chaney Sr, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo and his brother John. On the occasional loan-out he had a great success with Gloria Swanson in 1928's Sadie Thompson and the aforementioned Griffith film Drums of Love. Sound films were now a reality and Lionel's wonderful stage-trained voice recorded well in sound tests. Lionel in 1929 returned to directing films during this early and imperfect sound film period making the controversial His Glorious Night with John Gilbert, Madame X starring the beautiful Ruth Chatterton and Rogue Song Laurel & Hardy's first color film appearance. Barrymore returned to acting in front of the camera in 1931. In 1931, he won an Academy Award for his role of an alcoholic lawyer in A Free Soul (1931), after having been nominated in 1930 for Best Director for Madame X. He could play many types of characters, such as the evil Rasputin in the 1932 Rasputin and the Empress (in which he co-starred with siblings John and Ethel Barrymore) and the ailing Oliver Jordan in Dinner at Eight (1933 - also with John Barrymore, but they had no scenes together).However, during the 1930s and 1940s, he was stereotyped as grouchy, but usually sweet, elderly men in such films as The Mysterious Island (1929), Grand Hotel (1932, with John), Captains Courageous (1937), You Can't Take It with You (1938), Duel in the Sun (1946), and Key Largo (1948).

He played the irascible Doctor Gillespie in a series of Doctor Kildare movies in the 1930s and 1940s, repeating the role in the radio series throughout the 1940s. He also played the title role in another 1940s radio series, Mayor of the Town. Barrymore had broken his hip in an accident, hence he played Gillespie in a wheelchair; later, his worsening arthritis kept him in the chair. The injury also precluded his playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1938 MGM film version of A Christmas Carol, a role which Barrymore had played annually on the radio since 1934, and would continue to 1951.

Perhaps his best known role, due to perennial Christmas time replays on television, was Mr. Potter, the miserly and mean-spirited banker in It's a Wonderful Life (1946). The role suggested that of the "unreformed" stage of Barrymore's "Scrooge" characterization.

Barrymore died on November 15, 1954 from a heart attack in Van Nuys, California, and was entombed in the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California.

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