Legendary actor, Lionel Barrymore, was born Lionel Herbert Blythe on Apr 28, 1878 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Barrymore appeared in over 215 film roles. His best known films include A Free Soul (1931, as a drunken defense attorney), Rasputin and the Empress (1932, as the evil Rasputin), Dinner at Eight (1933, as the ailing Oliver Jordan), Grand Hotel (1932, as the terminally ill Otto Kringelein), Captains Courageous (1937, as the tough but wise Captain Disko), You Can't Take it With You (1938, as the lovable Grandpa Vanderhof) --- and probably most memorable of all -- It's a Wonderful Life (1946, as the villainous Mr. Potter). As an interesting side-note, voice actor Allen Swift impersonated Lionel Barrymore's voice for Simon Bar Sinister, the villainous mad scientist, in the Felix the Cat cartoon series. Barrymore died at the age of 76 on Nov 15, 1954 in Van Nuys, CA and was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetary Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.
Early Life and Career
Lionel Herbert Blythe was born on April 28th, 1878 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to one of the most respected families in acting history and was the oldest son of Maurice and Georgiana Drew, who took the stage name of Barrymore. He, along with his younger siblings John and Ethel would continue to build upon the Barrymore name and add to the families acting dynasty. Since early infancy, Lionel was thrust into the acting spotlight thanks to his parents. He would continue to act on the stage with his family members and his local school productions, most notably with is famed grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew. In 1893, at the age of 15, Barrymore went on tour with his grandmother, performing in the play The Rivals. Thanks to his great performance in that play, he was asked to once again go on tour in his grandmother's next play, The Road to Ruin. In 1900 Barrymore made his Broadway debut with a small role in the James A. Herne play Sag Harbor. The next year he would appear opposite his uncle, John Drew, Jr., in the Charles Frohman comedy The Second in Command. They work together again in the 1902 production of Isaac Henderson's The Mummy and the Hummingbird and the young Barrymore received critical acclaim. He continued to act for the next few in plays such as The Best of Friend and The Other Girl.
Despite his parentage and success on the Broadway Stage, Barrymore's passion did not actually lay in acting but rather in the arts. After completing his tenure in the one act play Pantaloon opposite his brother, John, the elder Barrymore headed east to Europe. He and his wife, Doris Rankin, would remained their for a few years while Barrymore studied painting in Paris, with the dream of earning a living as an artist. However, when the pair returned to New York and were in dire need of money, Barrymore had no choice to go back to his bread and butter of acting. Rather than simply falling back on the theatre, Barrymore took an interest in the new rising medium of film.
Early Film Career
By 1910 Barrymore began taking interest in D.W Griffith's New York production studio, Biograph Studios and approach the bourgeoning director for a job. He was soon signed to put under contract for a mere $10 a day. In 1911 he made his film debut in the short film Fighting Blood. Barrymore would become quite busy for the next two years, appearing in over thirty films in his first two years at Biograph studios. He starred in a number of Griffiths works, such as The Battle, The New York Hat, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, The Wanderer, The House of Darkness and The Ranchero's Revenge. Always interested in exploring new challenges in his artistic mediums, Barrymore made his directorial debut with the 1913 short film His Secret. The next year Griffith moved his film studio out west to Hollywood. Barrymore, however, remained in New York, working on films such as The Romance of Elaine, The Flaming Sword, The Upheaval and The End of the Tour.
In 1917, after much external prodding, Barrymore returned to the stage to star in Peter Ibbetson opposite his brother, John. The play was a massive hit, with much of the praise going towards Lionel's arresting performance. For the next several years, Barrymore would split his time between the stage and the screen, continuing to garner critical acclaim on Broadway with the performances in plays such as The Jest, The Cooperhead and The Letter of the Law. In 1920 Barrymore revived The Copperhead on the big screen to similar critical acclaim but his string of critical success would end in 1921 with the Arthur Hopkins Broadway production of MacBeth. The play was released to disastrous reviews and low tickets sales, closing after only a month. Barrymore then concentrated exclusively his film career for the next few months, starring in films like The Great Adventure, Jim the Panman, and Boomerang Bill. Although he had more stage success with plays such as The Claw and Laugh, Clown, Laugh!, Barrymore found himself more committed to the medium of film and in 1926 finally made the move west.
Upon his arrival in Hollywood, Barrymore signed with MGM studios where he would remain for the rest of his career. He immediately began working on film such as The Barrier, The Temptress, and The Thirteenth Hour. Thanks to his training as a theatre actor, Barrymore was able to make the transition from silent to talkies with relative ease. During this time Barrymore also jumped back into the directors chair and in 1929 earned a Best Director Academy Award nomination for the film Madame X. For the next two years, Barrymore would remain mostly behind the camera, directing films like The Unholy Night, The Rogue Song, and The Rogue Song. He also displayed his talents as a musician, both directing and composing the music for his 1929 film His Glorious Night.
Back on Screen
By 1930, however, Barrymore was once again seen mostly in front of the camera, acting in films such as Guilty Hands, The Yellow Ticket and Mata Hari. In 1931 he starred opposite Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard and a young Clark Gable in the pre-code crime drama A Free Soul. In the film, Barrymore plays alcoholic deference lawyer, Stephen Ashe, who works to keep his daughter away from the charms of one his most notorious clients. The film was a hit and for his efforts, Barrymore was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award. In 1932 he was cast in the ensemble piece The Grand Hotel opposite his brother, John, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery. The next year he would star with his other sibling, Ethel, in period piece Rasputin and the Empress. The film marks the only time the three Barrymore siblings appeared on screen together. In the film, Lionel played the mysterious religious figure, Rasputin, while his sister played Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. After starring a series of heavy dramas, Barrymore showed his comedic talents in light-hearted George Cukor comedy of manners, Dinner at Eight.
It was during this time that Barrymore developed his screen persona as a curmudgeon but usually good-hearted old patriarch. He also continued to remain busy, starring in an average of five films a years with some his most memorable including Treasure Island, David Copperfield, Captains Courageous, Camille and Test Pilot. By the mid-thirties Barrymore's advanced arthritis began taking a toll on his body. In 1938 his condition was so bad that he was forced to use crutches while acting in Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You. The film was a major hit and would go on to win the Best Picture Academy Award. By the time he was to begin shooting his next film, Young Dr. Kildare, Barrymore was confined to a wheelchair. Rather than hinder his career, the ailment was simple written the role. Barrymore's portrayal of the grumpy Dr. Leonard Gillespie proved so popular that it would spawn multiple sequels and a radio series.
As the new decade rolled in, Barrymore stayed characteristically busy and from 1940 - 1943 he starred in over a dozen Dr. Gillespie films. During this time he also appeared in films such as The Penalty, Tennessee Johnson, The Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith, and A Guy Named Joe. In 1945 he star opposite Greer Garson and Gregory Peck as proud, retired union man in The Valley of Decisions. The next year would bring the role that Barrymore is perhaps most associated with, the mean, old Mr. Potter Frank Capra's Christmas classic Its a Wonderful Life. In 1947 he starred in his final Dr. Gillespie film, Dark Delusion. That same year he played the racist father of Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotton in Duel in the Sun. In 1948 Barrymore starred opposite Humphrey and Lauren Bacall as the fiery hotel owner, James Temple, in John Huston's Key Largo. He finished out the decade with films Down to the Sea in Ships and Malya. Soon after, he would give his final silver screen performance in 1952's Lone Star portraying Andrew Jackson. Due to ailing health, he could no longer take the rigorous schedule of movie acting. Lionel Barrymore died on November 15, 1954 of a heart attack in Van Nuys, California. He was 76 years old.(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).
HONORS and AWARDS:.
Lionel Barrymore was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning one for Best Actor for A Free Soul (as Stephen Ashe) in 1930/31.
|1928/29||Best Director||Madame X (1929)||N/A||Nominated|
|1930/31||Best Actor||A Free Soul (1931)||Stephen Ashe||Won|
He was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the categories of Radio and Motion Pictures. In addition, Barrymore was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and was immortalized on a US postal stamp in 1982.
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