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Overview for Lionel Barrymore
Lionel Barrymore

Lionel Barrymore


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Also Known As: Lionel Blyth,Mr. Lionel Barrymore Died: November 15, 1954
Born: April 28, 1878 Cause of Death: heart ailment
Birth Place: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA Profession: Cast ... actor director composer artist author producer screenwriter vaudevillian


The eldest brother in an acting dynasty that included sister Ethel and brother John, Lionel Barrymore became one of his era's most popular thespians, despite vociferous claims that his profession was dictated by financial need rather than a desire to perform. Literally pushed onto the stage as a toddler, the young Barrymore began appearing in silent films like "The New York Hat" (1912), most frequently for director D.W. Griffith. Work on Broadway in such performances as "The Copperhead" also provided income until the actor gradually turned his full attention to Hollywood. "A Free Soul" (1931) earned Barrymore an Oscar for Best Actor, while appearances in hits like "Grand Hotel" (1932), "Dinner at Eight" (1933) and "You Can't Take It With You" (1938) made him a bona fide movie star. Wheelchair-bound due to arthritis, he originated Dr. Gillespie, a character he would reprise for more than a dozen sequels, in the medical drama "Young Dr. Kildare" (1938). Barrymore's most indelible character was arguably that of Henry Potter, the villainous town elder in Frank Capra's holiday classic "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), a portrayal balanced out by his turn as the irrepressible James Temple in the Bogie and Bacall thriller "Key Largo" (1948). A man of many talents and interests, Barrymore was also an accomplished artist, composer and author whose celebrated six-decades-long career, while born of necessity, provided audiences with dozens of memorable performances.

Born Lionel Herbert Blythe on April 28, 1878 in Philadelphia, PA, Barrymore was the eldest son of actors Maurice and Georgina Drew, who used Barrymore as their stage name. Along with his younger siblings, Ethel and John, the trio would comprise one of Hollywood's most prominent acting dynasties. Reluctantly brought into the family trade from the earliest of ages, he was made a part of his parents' stage act while still an infant. Having already performed in plays with his grandmother, noted actress Louisa Lane Drew, Barrymore made his Broadway debut with a small role in the drama "Sag Harbor" in 1900, then appeared alongside his uncle John Drew, Jr. in "The Second in Command" the following year and again in "The Mummy and the Hummingbird" in 1902. After marrying stage actress Doris Rankin in 1904, Barrymore shared the stage with his brother, John, in the one-act play "Pantaloon" before temporarily retiring from acting and moving to Paris for several years to study art and painting.

Financial realities eventually resulted in his return to America, where Barrymore began experimenting with the relatively new medium of film. His first cinematic roles were in dozens of D.W. Griffith shorts, beginning with "The Battle" (1911) and several others, including "The New York Hat" (1912), co-starring a young Mary Pickford. Before long, the enterprising Barrymore made his directorial debut with the silent short film "His Secret" (1913) for Biograph Studio. Over the course of the next decade, the actor divided his time between stage and screen with work in silent pictures like "The Millionaire's Double" (1917) and more roles in such Broadway productions as "The Copperhead," "The Jest," and a short-lived mounting of "Macbeth" in 1921. Barrymore had fathered two daughters with Rankin, daughters Ethel and Mary. Sadly, neither of the children lived beyond infancy and by all accounts their deaths were tragedies he struggled to recover from for years. Eventually, the strain soon took a toll on the marriage; in 1923, he and Doris Rankin divorced. At about the same time, Barrymore was garnering raves on Broadway for his performance as the tragic Tito Beppi in the drama "Laugh, Clown, Laugh!" Five years later, the role of Tito would be immortalized by the great Lon Chaney in a silent picture of the same name, much to Barrymore's disappointment.

Irene Fenwick, Barrymore's co-star in the stage version of "Laugh, Clown, Laugh!" would become the second Mrs. Lionel Barrymore before the end of the production's lengthy run in 1924. Eventually, Barrymore made the commitment to the growing medium of film and after his final performance in the play "Man or Devil" in 1925, moved to Hollywood, where he worked primarily for MGM studios from 1926 onward. Just as movies were transitioning from "silents" to "talkies," Barrymore earned an Oscar nomination for his direction of the sound-enhanced "Madame X" (1929), a melodrama about a fallen woman (Ruth Chatterton) who murders a blackmailer in order to shield her son from her scandalous past. A talented composer in his own right, Barrymore wrote the original score for the romantic period drama "His Glorious Night" (1929), which he also directed. Originally planned as a silent film years earlier, the long-delayed "The Mysterious Island" (1929) eventually made its way to theaters, complete with sound, Technicolor and Barrymore as the vengeful Count Dakkar, an ersatz Captain Nemo. By now one of the more respected actors in the burgeoning Hollywood pantheon, he secured his reputation with an Academy Award for Best Actor in "A Free Soul" (1931) - the Norma Shearer film best known for making Clark Gable a star.

Barrymore went on to join the ensemble cast - which included brother John, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford - of the hugely successful drama " Grand Hotel" (1932) before appearing onscreen with John and Ethel Barrymore for the first and only time as the mad monk in "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932). More bravura performances came in a pair of films directed by George Cukor - the comedy of manners "Dinner at Eight" (1933) and the romantic drama "Camille" (1936) - each of which went on to be considered classics of their respective genres. He further honed the type of role that would become his signature as the tough-but-fair captain Disko Troop, opposite Spencer Tracy, in the thrilling adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's coming-of-age adventure "Captains Courageous" (1937). Forced to withdraw from the role of Scrooge in MGM's version of "A Christmas Carol" (1938) due to an earlier injury and severely advanced arthritis, Barrymore appeared on crutches in director Frank Capra's hugely successful "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), co-starring Jimmy Stewart. Now confined to a wheelchair, the device was incorporated into his role - as it would in all of his later performances - as Dr. Gillespie in the medical drama "Young Dr. Kildare" (1938). His portrayal of the outwardly gruff mentor to the titular Kildare (Lew Ayres) proved popular enough to be revived for a dozen more films and a long-running radio series of the venerable franchise.

Scattered amongst the Dr. Gillespie/Kildare movies were such efforts as "Tennessee Johnson" (1942), in which Barrymore played the political nemesis of 17th U.S. President Andrew Johnson (Van Heflin). In the woefully overlooked drama "The Valley of Decision" (1945) he effectively essayed Greer Garson's proud father, a union man injured years earlier in a steel mill accident. It was, however, his reteaming with director Frank Capra and star James Stewart that would bring Barrymore the role he would become most associated with. As the despicable slumlord and bank shareholder Henry F. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), Barrymore gave venomous life to a Christmas character that, unlike Scrooge, possessed no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Although not a box office hit at the time of its release, in the decades that followed, the film went on to become one of the most inspirational movies ever made. Nearly as toxic was his performance as the bigoted Senator McCanles, father of ne'er do well Gregory Peck, in the David O. Selznick-produced Western romantic-drama "Duel in the Sun" (1947).

Barrymore was far more likable as the feisty hotel owner opposite Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the classic crime drama "Key Largo" (1948). The following year he played a whaling captain in the final days of his career for director Henry Hathaway and opposite star Richard Widmark in the nautical adventure "Down to the Sea in Ships" (1949). Barrymore acted for the final time on screen playing Andrew Jackson in the historical drama "Lone Star" (1952), before making his last film appearance as himself in "Main Street to Broadway" (1953) and publishing a novel Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale. Later that same year, he delivered his final radio performance as Ebenezer Scrooge for the annual broadcast of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," something he had done nearly every year since the mid-1930s. Barrymore died of a heart attack on Nov. 15, 1954 in Van Nuys, CA at the age of 76.

By Bryce Coleman

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