Lionel Barrymore

Lionel Barrymore

Lionel Barrymore (April 28, 1878November 15, 1954) was an American Academy Award-winning actor of stage, radio and film.


Personal life

Barrymore was born Lionel Herbert Blythe in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of actors Georgiana Drew and Maurice Barrymore (née 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 was married to actresses Doris Rankin and Irene Fenwick, a one-time lover of his brother John. 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 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.

Stage career

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 (with brother John) (1917), 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 He Who Get's Slapped with his second wife Irene Fenwick. This play would later be made into a silent film starring Lionel's friend Lon Chaney

Film career

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 never made a movie in 1908 with this title and alas Lionel and Doris were in Paris at this particular time where Lionel was attending art school and where he claims, in his autobiography We Barrymores, that he and Doris were in France when Bleriot flew the channel on July 25 1909. Lionel also entered films the same year(1911) his uncle Sidney Drew began his film career at Vitagraph which might have had an influence on Lionel trying movies. With Griffith Lionel made such titles as The Battle(1911), The New York Hat(1912) & 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, and also was 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 and 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 and 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. Although 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), he was, during the 1930s and 1940s, stereotyped as grouchy, but usually sweet, elderly men in such films as The Mysterious Island (1929), Grand Hotel (1932, with John), Dinner at Eight (1933, the film also featured brother John, but they had no scenes together), 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 (1945). 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.

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1724 Vine Street.


Year Film Role Other notes
1911 Fighting Blood Directed by D. W. Griffith
The Battle wagon driver Directed by D. W. Griffith
''The Miser's Heart Directed by D. W. Griffith
1912 The Chief's Blanket Directed by D. W. Griffith
Heredity woodsman
The New York Hat minister
Friends Grizzley Fallon (Dandy Jack's friend)
1913 The Tender Hearted Boy
The Work Habit The father
Oil and Water In First Audience/In Second Audience/Visitor
The Strong Man's Burden John
Almost a Wild Man In audience
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch
1914 Judith of Bethulia extra
Strongheart Billy Saunders
1921 The Great Adventure Priam Farll
1924 I Am the Man James McQuade
1926 The Bells Mathias
The Temptress Canterac
1927 The Show The Greek
Body and Soul Dr. Leyden
1928 Sadie Thompson Alfred Davidson
West of Zanzibar Mr. Crane
1929 Madame X director
The Unholy Night director
The Mysterious Island Count Dakkar
1930 The Sea Bat director (uncredited)
1931 A Free Soul Stephen Ashe, Defense Attorney Academy Award for Best Actor
The Yellow Ticket Baron Igor Andrey
Mata Hari Gen. Serge Shubin
1932 Grand Hotel Otto Kringelein
1933 Dinner at Eight Oliver Jordan
Should Ladies Behave Augustus Merrick
One Man's Journey Eli Watt
1934 Treasure Island Billy Bones
Carolina Bob Connelly
The Girl from Missouri Thomas Randall 'T.R.' Paige
1935 The Personal History, Adventures,
Experience, and Observation of David
Copperfield, the Younger
Dan’l Peggotty
Ah, Wilderness! Nat Miller
The Little Colonel Col. Lloyd
Mark of the Vampire Professor
1936 The Devil-Doll Paul Lavond
The Gorgeous Hussy Andrew Jackson
Camille Monsieur Duval
The Road to Glory Pvt. Moran
1937 Captains Courageous Disko
A Family Affair Judge James K. Hardy
Navy Blue and Gold Capt. 'Skinny' Dawes
Saratoga Grandpa Clayton
1938 Test Pilot Howard B. Drake
A Yank at Oxford Dan Sheridan
Young Dr. Kildare Dr. Gillespie
You Can't Take It with You Grandpa Martin Vanderhof
1939 The Secret of Dr. Kildare Dr. Leonard Barry Gillespie
On Borrowed Time Julian Northrup (Gramps)
Calling Dr. Kildare Dr. Leonard Gillespie
Let Freedom Ring Thomas Logan
1940 The Stars Look Down Narrator voice, uncredited
Dr. Kildare's Crisis Dr. Leonard Gillespie
Dr. Kildare Goes Home Dr. Leonard Gillespie
Dr. Kildare's Strange Case Dr. Leonard Gillespie
1941 Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day Dr. Leonard Gillespie
The People vs. Dr. Kildare Dr. Leonard Gillespie
The Bad Man Uncle Henry Jones
The Penalty 'Grandpop' Logan
Lady Be Good Judge Murdock
1942 Tennessee Johnson Thaddeus Stevens
Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant Dr. Leonard Gillespie
Calling Dr. Gillespie Dr. Leonard Gillespie
Dr. Kildare's Victory Dr. Leonard Gillespie
1943 A Guy Named Joe The General
The Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith Gramps
Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case Dr. Leonard Gillespie
1944 Dragon Seed Narrator voice, uncredited
Since You Went Away Clergyman
Three Men in White Dr. Leonard B. Gillespie
1945 The Valley of Decision Pat Rafferty
Between Two Women Dr. Leonard Gillespie
1946 Duel in the Sun Sen. Jackson McCanles
The Secret Heart Dr. Rossiger
It's a Wonderful Life Henry F. Potter
Three Wise Fools Dr. Richard Gaunght
1947 Dark Delusion Dr. Leonard Gillespie
1948 Key Largo James Temple
1949 Down to the Sea in Ships Capt. Bering Joy
Malaya John Manchester
1950 Right Cross Sean O'Malley
1951 Bannerline Hugo Trimble
1952 Lone Star Andrew Jackson

See also

Further reading

  • Menefee, David W. The First Male Stars: Men of the Silent Era.


External links

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