Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954)

Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954)

"Four generations of the unique Barrymore family have been actors, and three of its members from the second generation, siblings John, Lionel, and Ethel, have had significant movie careers. While the Barrymore name is legend in the theater, it enjoys less renown in Hollywood circles. But while the theater saw the best of the Barrymores, the movies still caught a considerable amount of their talent, charm, and style. Maurice Barrymore (born Herbert Blythe) and Georgiana Drew were famous actors during their heyday on the American stage in the late 19th century. They gave birth to three children, Lionel (Blythe) Barrymore (1878–1954), Ethel (Blythe) Barrymore (1879–1959), and John (Blythe) Barrymore (1882–1942)." [2]

Lionel Barrymore once estimated that members of his famous family of the Drews and the Barrymores had appeared on the stage for 200 continuous years. He, himself, despite his protests that his interest in acting had arisen only from a necessity to eat, accounted for 61 of these years. Although he would have preferred to be an artist and composer, became an outstanding success of stage, screen and radio. His yearly radio interpretation of Scrooge in Dickens' Christmas Carol became traditional.

Little Boat Yard Venice by Lionel Barrymore

His reluctant stage debut came at the age of 6 when the Barrymores were on tour. He was pressed into action when a child actor became ill. When he followed up his cue with a good cry instead of his lines, he was retired from the stage by his famous parents until he was 15. At that time another of his family, his grandmother, the prominent Louisa (Mrs. John) Drew, ventured on the stage with him in The Rivals. His debut with the famous Mrs. Malaprop of her time was apparently successful, for he next appeared with her in The Road to Ruin. Despite his early stage success, Barrymore had little interest in becoming an actor, claiming in his book, We Barrymores, "I didn’t want to act. I wanted to paint or draw. The theater was not in my blood, I was related to the theater by marriage only; it was merely a kind of in-law of mine I had to live with."

He left the stage to study painting for three years. The attempt was not outstanding and he returned to acting, appearing in Squire Kate, Cumberland '61 and several plays with Nance O'Neil's company. He toured with the late J. A. Herne in Sag Harbor, was cast with his uncle, John Drew, in Second in Command, and by 1904 had appeared in many more works and was counted as a star.

Lionel Barrymore in 'The Claw'

In 1904, having married Doris Rankin, the young sister of his uncle Sidney Drew's wife, Lionel, still determined to become an artist, went to Paris with his bride where he continued his painting studies for several years. Returning to New York and still plagued with the need to earn a living, he heard of D. W. Griffith's movie-making enterprise in the Biograph Studios on Fourteenth Street. He asked for a job. Disclaiming an interest in "stars" Griffith, according to Lionel Barrymore's account of the incident, reluctantly hired the six-foot, dark-haired young man at $10 a day.

Lionel took the new moving picture medium far more seriously than either of his siblings. One of the first pictures made by him in those early days of silent movies was The New York Hat, with a young actress, Mary Pickford. The script, her first, was written by Anita Loos. Others of his co-workers were Mabel Norman, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mack Sennett and James Kirkwood. Many of the scripts of the first two-reelers were written by actors. Lionel Barrymore himself admitted to having written "dozens" at $25 apiece.

When, as he said, he was brought "kicking and protesting back to the stage," it was one of his most famous roles, that of Colonel Ibbetson in Peter Ibbetson, acting alongside his brother John in 1917. A New York Times review of Lionel Barrymore’s return to the stage called the performance "arresting and ingenious... an admirable thing." It was to see Lionel in this part that John Barrymore, the incorrigible brother, bought out the whole house of his own play, Peter Ibbetson, in which he was appearing in Hartford. It developed later that John's boss, Lee Shubert, had refused to let John pay for the expensive $3,000 ticket to his brother's opening night.

Barrymore followed this role with another play, The Letter of the Law. Alexander Woollcott, reviewing the play for The New York Times, called Barrymore’s turn as a ruthless judge "a performance of consummate skill." Barrymore next turned to the silver screen, starring in The Copperhead (1920), described by American journalist Heywood Broun as "the best piece of acting I ever saw."

Lionel Barrymore and wife Irene Fenwick

Barrymore’s string of successes ended when he took the lead role in a stage production of Macbeth. Margot Peters, in her biography of Barrymore, labels the play as "that season’s--that decade’s--most spectacular failure." The negative reviews served as Barrymore’s justification to return to the screen. Before he gave up the stage for good, however, Barrymore performed in The Claw, where he met and fell in love with Irene Fenwick. In 1922, Barrymore divorced his first wife, Doris Rankin, and, seven months later, married Fenwick. The marriage was known as a happy one. Before he "escaped permanently to California" in 1925, he had also played in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, The Piker and Man or Devil.

With negative reviews ringing freshly in his ears, Barrymore decided to forgo further stage productions and focus strictly on his film career. In 1925, Barrymore moved from New York to California, where he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.

"In the 1920s Barrymore appeared in dozens of films, among them America, directed by Griffith, Sadie Thompson, in which he played a self-righteous reformer, and Alias Jimmy Valentine, as the detective Doyle. The 1920s were a turning point in his career, for he began more and more to play character parts and older men, something he was to do for the rest of his life. Although in his younger days Lionel had resembled his younger brother John in his good looks, his jowlishness in middle age necessitated a switch to character parts when he was still relatively young. By the early 1930s Lionel usually appeared as a father-type or as a heavily made-up character, as in Rasputin and the Empress. That film marked the only time that Lionel, John, and Ethel Barrymore all played together in the same film." [2]

The three Barrymores as Rasputin, Alexandra and Chegodieff

During his first years at MGM, Barrymore directed as often as he acted. Although he received honors for his work behind the camera, such as a 1930 Best Director Oscar nomination for Madame X, a film in which a son must unknowingly defend his mother in court, it was his performance in front of the camera in A Free Soul that earned Barrymore the 1931 Academy Award for Best Actor (tying with Wallace Beery for The Champ). In this one he played a clever criminal lawyer whose daughter (Norma Shearer) falls in love with the gangster he’s just helped to acquit . His performance stands up well, as do many of his others of the period, such as Grand Hotel (in which he is memorably cast as the dying accountant attempting to squeeze every last drop of life). In 1933, Barrymore began a tradition of performing as Ebenezer Scrooge in a radio production of A Christmas Carol, a practice he continued annually until his death.

Barrymore was perhaps best known in the late 1930s and 1940s as Dr. Gillespie, playing the older physician throughout all 15 movies in the Dr. Kildare series, more than anyone else connected with the series. It was the kind of role he was best at playing - everyone’s kindly but crusty old uncle. "His first Dr. Kildare film, Young Dr. Kildare, opened in late 1938 and seemed ideally suited to Barrymore because he was by then afflicted with severe arthritis and could act only on crutches or while sitting down. The series accommodated his illness by allowing him to remain in a wheelchair yet be vital in his characterization. Dr. Gillespie was the definitive Barrymore combination of exaggerated moves, intensity, and emotional vacillation. He could be calm and tender with patients yet extremely agitated with everyone else.

Lionel Barrymore is Scrooge in Dickens' Christmas Carol as broadcast on 'Campbell Playhouse' over the Columbia Network in December 1939

A short time before the Dr. Kildare series began, Barrymore had appeared in the first of MGM’s Andy Hardy films as Judge Hardy in A Family Affair (1937). Barrymore gave an excellent, calm performance which in retrospect seems more realistic than the wise and overtly patient characterization given by Lewis Stone in the subsequent films.

Apart from the Dr. Gillespie role, Barrymore continued to act in dozens of films throughout the final years of his life, usually in a wheelchair or deskbound yet still dominating his scenes. His screen persona in the latter years was often the butt of nightclub impressionists who copied his unusually pitched and timed voice and grandiose hand gestures. Yet Barrymore’s career was a diverse one with as many calmly serious roles as flamboyant ones. It is unfortunate that the lasting impression he left is more that of Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1938) than the worried businessman in Dinner at Eight (1933) or the smart detective in Arsène Lupin (1932). He was a consummate actor who worked hard and gave almost 300 screen performances of wide diversity, a great accomplishment by any standard. His last appearance was in Main Street to Broadway in 1953; he died the following year from a heart attack." [2]

Lionel's autobiography

While he was gaining his reputation on the stage, screen and in radio, he also received recognition for his artistic and musical achievements. Several of his etchings were grouped with the Hundred Prints of the Year, and he was elected to the Society of American Etchers. In the summer of 1944, his symphony, Partita, was performed at Lewisohn Stadium by Fabien Sevitzky. In Memoriam, a tone poem in memory of his brother, John, who had died in 1942, was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Tableau Russe, another of his compositions, was presented in the Hollywood Bowl. The theme song for the Mayor of the Town radio feature, in which he played the sage and samaritan mayor, was also his composition. In 1952 another of his compositions was presented on records. This was a musical setting of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves with the composer as the narrator.

He was narrator for an album of records made during World War II by the Armed Forces Radio service, entitled Great Music. He was active in community affairs, often appearing in benefits for special civic causes. At one time he was chairman of the national board of sponsors of the National Arthritis Research Foundation. Lionel Barrymore's political activity in behalf of Governor Dewey during the 1944 Presidential campaign was reported to have brought a protest from the Roosevelt family when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer announced him for the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the film The Beginning of the End, in 1946. He was withdrawn from the picture.

In May, 1951, Lionel Barrymore added writing to his creative achievements. His book, We Barrymores, written with Cameron Shipp, was published by Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. He also wrote a novel, Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale, published by Little, Brown & Co. The story was about a snake-oil peddling preacher.


  • Lone Star (1952)
  • Bannerline (1951)
  • Right Cross (1950)
  • Malaya (1949)
  • Down to the Sea in Ships (1949)
  • Key Largo (1948)
  • Dark Delusion (1947)
  • Duel in the Sun (1946)
  • The Secret Heart (1946)
  • It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  • Three Wise Fools (1946)
  • The Valley of Decision (1945)
  • Between Two Women (1945)
  • Dragon Seed (1944) (uncredited) (voice)
  • Since You Went Away (1944)
  • Three Men in White (1944)
  • A Guy Named Joe (1943)
  • The Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith (1943)
  • Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943)
  • Tennessee Johnson (1942)
  • Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (1942)
  • Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942)
  • Dr. Kildare's Victory (1942)
  • Lady Be Good (1941)
  • Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941)
  • The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941)
  • The Bad Man (1941)
  • The Penalty (1941)
  • Dr. Kildare's Crisis (1940)
  • Dr. Kildare Goes Home (1940)
  • Dr. Kildare's Strange Case (1940)
  • The Stars Look Down (1940) (voice) (uncredited)
  • The Secret of Dr. Kildare (1939)
  • On Borrowed Time (1939)
  • Calling Dr. Kildare (1939)
  • Let Freedom Ring (1939)
  • Young Dr. Kildare (1938)
  • You Can't Take It with You (1938)
  • Test Pilot (1938)
  • A Yank at Oxford (1938)
  • Navy Blue and Gold (1937)
  • Saratoga (1937)
  • Captains Courageous (1937)
  • A Family Affair (1937)
  • Camille (1936)
  • The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)
  • The Devil-Doll (1936)
  • The Road to Glory (1936)
  • The Voice of Bugle Ann (1936)
  • Ah, Wilderness! (1935)
  • The Return of Peter Grimm (1935)
  • Public Hero #1 (1935)
  • Mark of the Vampire (1935)
  • The Little Colonel (1935)
  • The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger (1935)
  • Treasure Island (1934)
  • The Girl from Missouri (1934)
  • Carolina (1934)
  • This Side of Heaven (1934)
  • Should Ladies Behave (1933)
  • Christopher Bean (1933)
  • Night Flight (1933)
  • One Man's Journey (1933)
  • Dinner at Eight (1933)
  • The Stranger's Return (1933)
  • Looking Forward (1933)
  • Sweepings (1933)
  • Rasputin and the Empress (1932)
  • The Washington Masquerade (1932)
  • Grand Hotel (1932)
  • Arsène Lupin (1932)
  • Broken Lullaby (1932)
  • Mata Hari (1931)
  • The Yellow Ticket (1931)
  • Guilty Hands (1931)
  • A Free Soul (1931)
  • Free and Easy (1930)
  • The Mysterious Island (1929)
  • The Hollywood Revue of (1929)
  • The River Woman (1928)
  • West of Zanzibar (1928)
  • Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928)
  • Road House (1928)
  • The Lion and the Mouse (1928)
  • Drums of Love (1928)
  • Sadie Thompson (1928)
  • The Thirteenth Hour (1927)
  • Body and Soul (1927)
  • Women Love Diamonds (1927)
  • The Show (1927)
  • The Temptress (1926)
  • The Bells (1926)
  • The Lucky Lady (1926)
  • Paris at Midnight (1926)
  • Wife Tamers (1926)
  • The Barrier (1926)
  • Brooding Eyes (1926)
  • Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) (uncredited)
  • Die Frau mit dem schlechten Ruf (1925)
  • The Splendid Road (1925)
  • Fifty-Fifty (1925)
  • The Wrongdoers (1925)
  • Children of the Whirlwind (1925)
  • The Girl Who Wouldn't Work (1925)
  • A Man of Iron (1925)
  • I Am the Man (1924)
  • Isn't Life Wonderful (1924)
  • Meddling Women (1924)
  • Decameron Nights (1924)
  • America (1924)
  • Wedding Women (1924)
  • The Eternal City (1923)
  • Unseeing Eyes (1923)
  • Enemies of Women (1923)
  • The Face in the Fog (1922)
  • Boomerang Bill (1922)
  • Jim the Penman (1921)
  • The Great Adventure (1921)
  • The Devil's Garden (1920)
  • The Master Mind (1920)
  • The Copperhead (1920)
  • National Red Cross Pageant (1917)
  • The Millionaire's Double (1917)
  • His Father's Son (1917)
  • The End of the Tour (1917)
  • The Brand of Cowardice (1916)
  • The Upheaval (1916)
  • The Quitter (1916)
  • Dorian's Divorce (1916)
  • A Yellow Streak (1915)
  • Dora Thorne (1915)
  • The Flaming Sword (1915)
  • The Romance of Elaine (1915)
  • The Curious Conduct of Judge Legarde (1915)
  • A Modern Magdalen (1915)
  • Wildfire (1915)
  • Under the Gaslight (1914)
  • The Exploits of Elaine (1914)
  • The Seats of the Mighty (1914)
  • The Span of Life (1914)
  • The Woman in Black (1914)
  • The Power of the Press (1914)
  • Men and Women (1914)
  • Woman Against Woman (1914)
  • Brute Force (1914)
  • Strongheart (1914)
  • Judith of Bethulia (1914)
  • The Massacre (1914)
  • Her Father's Silent Partner (1914)
  • Classmates (1914)
  • The House of Discord (1913)
  • The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)
  • All for Science (1913)
  • So Runs the Way (1913) (unconfirmed)
  • The Stolen Treaty (1913)
  • The Strong Man's Burden (1913)
  • The Crook and the Girl (1913)
  • The Work Habit (1913)
  • The Suffragette Minstrels (1913) (unconfirmed)
  • An Indian's Loyalty (1913)
  • I Was Meant for You (1913)
  • Under the Shadow of the Law (1913)
  • The Vengeance of Galora (1913)
  • The Mirror (1913)
  • The Enemy's Baby (1913)
  • A Gamble with Death (1913)
  • In Diplomatic Circles (1913)
  • Almost a Wild Man (1913)
  • The Switch Tower (1913)
  • Death's Marathon (1913)
  • The Well (1913)
  • Red Hicks Defies the World (1913)
  • A Timely Interception (1913)
  • The Ranchero's Revenge (1913)
  • Just Gold (1913)
  • The Yaqui Cur (1913)
  • The House of Darkness (1913)
  • The Wanderer (1913)
  • The Lady and the Mouse (1913)
  • A Misunderstood Boy (1913)
  • The Little Tease (1913)
  • The Perfidy of Mary (1913)
  • The Sheriff's Baby (1913)
  • Fate (1913)
  • Near to Earth (1913)
  • The Unwelcome Guest (1913)
  • A Girl's Stratagem (1913)
  • The Wrong Bottle (1913)
  • Love in an Apartment Hotel (1913)
  • A Chance Deception (1913)
  • Oil and Water (1913)
  • The Tender Hearted Boy (1913)
  • An Adventure in the Autumn Woods (1913)
  • The Telephone Girl and the Lady (1913)
  • Three Friends (1913)
  • The God Within (1912)
  • A Cry for Help (1912)
  • The Burglar's Dilemma (1912)
  • My Hero (1912)
  • The New York Hat (1912)
  • Brutality (1912)
  • The Informer (1912)
  • My Baby (1912)
  • Gold and Glitter (1912)
  • Heredity (1912)
  • The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
  • The Painted Lady (1912)
  • The One She Loved (1912)
  • The Chief's Blanket (1912)
  • So Near, Yet So Far (1912)
  • Friends (1912)
  • Home Folks (1912)
  • The Miser's Heart (1911)
  • The Battle (1911)
  • Fighting Blood (1911)
  • The Paris Hat (1908)