Lionel Barrymore

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Lionel Barrymore
Lionel Barrymore.jpg
Barrymore in 1923
BornLionel Herbert Blythe
(1878-04-28)April 28, 1878
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedNovember 15, 1954(1954-11-15) (aged 76)
Van Nuys, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Heart attack
Years active1893–1954
Notable work(s)A Free Soul
It's a Wonderful Life
Young Dr. Kildare
Political party
Spouse(s)Doris Rankin (m. 1904–23) (divorced)
Irene Fenwick (m. 1923–36) (her death)
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Not to be confused with Lionel Belmore.
Lionel Barrymore
Lionel Barrymore.jpg
Barrymore in 1923
BornLionel Herbert Blythe
(1878-04-28)April 28, 1878
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedNovember 15, 1954(1954-11-15) (aged 76)
Van Nuys, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Heart attack
Years active1893–1954
Notable work(s)A Free Soul
It's a Wonderful Life
Young Dr. Kildare
Political party
Spouse(s)Doris Rankin (m. 1904–23) (divorced)
Irene Fenwick (m. 1923–36) (her death)

Lionel Barrymore (April 28, 1878 – November 15, 1954) was an American actor of stage, screen and radio as well as a film director.[1] He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in A Free Soul (1931), and remains perhaps best known for the role of the villainous Mr. Potter character in Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. He was a member of the theatrical Barrymore family.

Early life[edit]

Lionel Barrymore was born Lionel Herbert Blythe in Philadelphia, the son of actors Georgiana Drew Barrymore and Maurice Barrymore. He was the elder brother of Ethel and John Barrymore, the uncle of John Drew Barrymore, Diana Barrymore, Dolores Barrymore, Sam, Ethel, and John Drew Colt and the grand-uncle of Drew Barrymore. Barrymore was raised a Roman Catholic.[2] He attended the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[3]

In her autobiography, Eleanor Farjeon recalled that when she and Barrymore were friends as toddlers, she would take off her shoes and he would kiss her feet.[4]

He was married twice, 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 Gladys both his aunt and sister-in-law.

Doris Rankin bore Lionel two daughters, Ethel Barrymore II (b. 1908) and Mary Barrymore (b. 1916).[5] Neither child survived infancy, though Mary lived a few months. Barrymore 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 about the same time as his two daughters and would have been about their age. When Jean died in 1937, Lionel and Clark Gable mourned her as though she had been family.

Stage career[edit]

Lionel Barrymore as a young man.

Barrymore began his stage career in the mid-1890s, acting with his formidable grandmother Louisa Lane Drew. He appeared on Broadway in his early twenties with his uncle John Drew Jr. 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 often acted together on stage. He proved his talent in many plays, including Peter Ibbetson (1917) (with brother John), The Copperhead (1918) (with Doris), and The Jest (1919) (again with John). Lionel gave a short-lived performance as MacBeth in 1921. The play was not successful and more than likely convinced Lionel to permanently return to films. One of Lionel's last plays was Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1923) with his second wife, Irene Fenwick. This play would later be made into a 1928 silent film starring Lionel's friend, Lon Chaney, Sr.

Film career[edit]

Barrymore began making films about 1911 with D.W. Griffith at the Biograph Studios. There are claims that he made an earlier film with Griffith called The Paris Hat (1908) but no such movie exists. Lionel and Doris were in Paris in 1908, where Lionel attended art school and where their first baby, Ethel, was born. Lionel mentions in his autobiography, We Barrymores, that he and Doris were in France when Bleriot flew the channel on July 25, 1909.

Entering films the same year his uncle Sidney Drew began a film career at Vitagraph, Barrymore made The Battle (1911), The New York Hat (1912), Friends 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 and first wife Doris(in rocking chair) in 1920 silent film The Devil's Garden.

In early 1920, Barrymore reprised his title role in the stage play, The Copperhead (1920), in a Paramount Artcraft film of the same name. [6]

Before the formation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, Barrymore forged a good relationship with Louis B. Mayer early on at Metro Pictures. He made several silent features for Metro, most of them now lost. He occasionally freelanced, returning to Griffith in 1924 to film America. His last film for Griffith was in 1928's Drums of Love.

With second wife Irene Fenwick in 1923

After Lionel and Doris divorced in 1923, he married Irene Fenwick. The two went to Italy to film The Eternal City for Metro Pictures in Rome, combining work with their honeymoon. In 1924, he went to Germany to star in British producer-director Herbert Wilcox's Anglo-German co-production Decameron Nights, filmed at UFA's Babelsberg studios outside Berlin.

Prior to his marriage to Irene, he and his brother John engaged in a dispute over the issue of Irene's chastity in the wake of her having been one of John's lovers. The brothers didn't speak again for two years and weren't seen together until the premiere of John's film Don Juan in 1926, by which time they had patched up their differences. In 1924, he left Broadway for Hollywood. He starred as Frederick Harmon in director Henri Diamant-Berger's drama Fifty-Fifty (1925) opposite Hope Hampton and Louise Glaum, and made several other freelance motion pictures, including The Bells (Chadwick Pictures 1926) with a then-unknown Boris Karloff. After 1926, however, he worked almost exclusively for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, appearing opposite such luminaries as John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, Sr., Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, his brother John and sister Ethel.

Barrymore in David Copperfield trailer, 1935

On the occasional loan-out, Barrymore had a big success with Gloria Swanson in 1928's Sadie Thompson and the aforementioned Griffith film, Drums of Love. Talkies were now a reality and Barrymore's stage-trained voice recorded well in sound tests. In 1929, he returned to directing films. During this early and imperfect sound film period, he made the controversial His Glorious Night with John Gilbert, Madame X starring Ruth Chatterton, and Rogue Song, Laurel & Hardy's first color film. Barrymore returned to acting in front of the camera in 1931. In that year, he won an Academy Award for his role as an alcoholic lawyer in A Free Soul (1931), after being nominated in 1930 for Best Director for Madame X. He could play many characters, like the evil Rasputin in the 1932 Rasputin and the Empress (in which he co-starred with siblings John Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore) and the ailing Oliver Jordan in Dinner at Eight (1933 – also with John Barrymore, although they had no scenes together).

During the 1930s and 1940s, he became stereotyped as grouchy but sweet elderly men in such films as The Mysterious Island (1929), Grand Hotel (1932, with John Barrymore), Captains Courageous (1937), You Can't Take It with You (1938), On Borrowed Time (1939, with Cedric Hardwicke), Duel in the Sun (1946), and Key Largo (1948).

AFRS "Concert Hall" Radio Show, circa 1947
As the avaricious Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, 1946.

In a series of Doctor Kildare movies in the 1930s and 1940s, he played the irascible Doctor Gillespie, a role he repeated in an MGM radio series that debuted in New York in 1950 and was later syndicated. He also played the title role in the 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.[7] The injury also precluded his playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1938 MGM film version of A Christmas Carol, a role Barrymore played every year but two (1936, replaced by brother John Barrymore and 1938, replaced by Orson Welles) on the radio from 1934 through 1953.

His final film appearance was a cameo in Main Street to Broadway, an MGM musical comedy released in 1953. His sister Ethel also appeared in the film.

Perhaps his best known role, thanks to perennial Christmastime replays on television, was Mr. Potter, the miserly and mean-spirited banker in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) opposite James Stewart. The role suggested that of the "unreformed" stage of Barrymore's "Scrooge" characterization. Lionel's wife, Irene, died on Christmas Eve of 1936 and Lionel did not perform his annual Scrooge that year. John filled in as Scrooge for his grieving brother.


Barrymore registered for the draft during World War II despite his age, to encourage others to enlist in the military.[8] He loathed the income tax. He expressed an interest in appearing on television in the 1950s but felt compelled to remain loyal to his old friend and employer, Louis B. Mayer and MGM.[9][10]

Barrymore was a Republican. In 1944, he attended the massive rally organized by David O. Selznick in the Los Angeles Coliseum in support of the Dewey-Bricker ticket as well as Governor Earl Warren of California, who would become Dewey's running mate in 1948 and later the Chief Justice of the United States. The gathering drew 93,000, with Cecil B. DeMille as the master of ceremonies and with short speeches by Hedda Hopper and Walt Disney. Among the others in attendance were Ann Sothern, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Adolphe Menjou, Gary Cooper, Eddy Arnold, William Bendix, and Walter Pidgeon.[11][12]

Medical issues[edit]

Several sources argue that arthritis alone confined Barrymore to a wheelchair.[13][14] The onset of the arthritis is not clear. Film historian Jeanine Basinger says it was serious by at least 1928, when Barrymore made Sadie Thompson.[15] Screenwriter Anita Loos claimed that the arthritis was so bad by 1929, Barrymore was taking large quantities of morphine.[16] Film historian David Wallace says it was "well known" that Barrymore was "addicted" to morphine due to arthritis by 1929, when Louis B. Mayer hired Barrymore to direct Redemption (a film from which Barrymore was removed).[17] A history of Oscar-winning actors, however, says Barrymore was only "suffering" from arthritis, not crippled by it.[18] Marie Dressler biographer Matthew Kennedy notes that when Barrymore won his Best Oscar award in 1930, the arthritis was still so minor that it only made him limp a little as he went on stage to accept the honor.[19] Despite these rumors Barrymore can be seen being quite physical in late silent films like The Thirteenth Hour and West of Zanzibar where he can be seen climbing out of a window.

Others claim that Barrymore's broken hip alone was the cause of Barrymore's incapacity. Paul Donnelly says Barrymore's inability to walk was caused by a drawing table falling on him in 1936, breaking Barrymore's hip.[20] Barrymore tripped over a cable while filming Saratoga in 1937, and broke his hip again.[21] (Film historian Robert A. Osborne says Barrymore also suffered a broken kneecap.)[22] The injury was painful enough that Donnelly, quoting Barrymore, says that Louis B. Mayer bought Barrymore $400 worth of cocaine every day to help him cope with the pain and allow him to sleep.[20] Author David Schwartz says the hip fracture never healed, which was why Barrymore could not walk,[23] while MGM historian John Douglas Eames claims that the injury was "crippling".[24] Barrymore himself said in 1951, that it was breaking his hip twice that kept him in the wheelchair. He said he had no other problems, and that the hip healed well, but it made walking exceptionally difficult.[25] Film historian Allen Eyles reached the same conclusion.[26]

However, Lew Ayres biographer Lesley Coffin and Louis B. Mayer biographer Scott Eyman argue that it was the combination of the broken hip as well as Barrymore's worsening arthritis that put him in a wheelchair.[27][28]

Syphilis has also been suggested as a cause of Barrymore's disability. Syphilis can severely affect joint movement. Barrymore family biographer Margot Peters says that close Barrymore friends Gene Fowler and James Doane both said Barrymore's arthritis was caused by syphilis, which they say he contracted in 1925.[29] Eyman, however, explicitly rejects this hypothesis.[28]

Whatever the cause of his disability, Barrymore's performance in Captains Courageous in 1937 was one of the last times he would be seen standing and walking unassisted.[30] Afterward, Barrymore was able to get about for a short period of time on crutches even though he was in great pain.[22] During the filming of 1938's You Can't Take It With You, the pain of standing with crutches was so severe that Barrymore required hourly shots of painkillers.[14] By 1938, Barrymore used a wheelchair exclusively and never walked again.[31] He could, however, stand for short periods of time such as at his brother's funeral being held by niece Diana Barrymore, much like FDR being held by one of his sons.[28]


Barrymore was also a prolific composer. His works ranged from solo piano pieces to large-scale orchestral works, such as "Tableau Russe". His piano compositions, "Scherzo Grotesque" and "Song Without Words", were published by G. Schirmer in 1945.

Graphic artist[edit]

Barrymore was a skillful graphic artist. For years, he maintained an artist's shop and studio attached to his home in Los Angeles. His etchings and drawings are prized by collectors around the world.


Lionel 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.[32]

Lionel Barrymore is honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in the motion picture and radio categories. He is also a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame, along with his siblings, Ethel and John.[33]

Popular culture[edit]

Partial filmography[edit]

1911Fighting BloodDirected by D. W. Griffith
The Battlewagon driverDirected by D. W. Griffith
The Miser's HeartDirected by D. W. Griffith
1912FriendsGrizzley Fallon (Dandy Jack's friend)Directed by D. W. Griffith
The Chief's BlanketDirected by D. W. Griffith
HereditywoodsmanDirected by D. W. Griffith
The New York HatministerDirected by D. W. Griffith
1913The Tender Hearted BoyDirected by D. W. Griffith
Oil and WaterIn First Audience/In Second Audience/VisitorDirected by D. W. Griffith
Almost a Wild ManIn audience
The Work HabitThe father
The Strong Man's BurdenJohn
The Battle at Elderbush GulchDirected by D. W. Griffith
Death's MarathonThe Financial BackerDirected by D. W. Griffith
1914Judith of BethuliaextraDirected by D. W. Griffith
StrongheartBilly Saunders
1917The Millionaire's Double
1920The CopperheadTitle role
1921The Great AdventurePriam Farll
1923Enemies of WomenPrince Lubimoff
1923The Eternal CityBaron Bonelli
1924I Am the ManJames McQuade
1925Fifty-FiftyFrederick Harmon
The Woman Who DidAllan Merrick
1926The BellsMathias
The TemptressCanterac
1927The ShowThe Greek
Body and SoulDr. Leyden
The Thirteenth HourProfessor LeRoy
1928Sadie ThompsonAlfred Davidson
West of ZanzibarMr. Crane
1929Madame Xdirector
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Director
The Unholy Nightdirector
The Mysterious IslandCount DakkarThis film began production in 1927 as a silent. It was completed and released with sound and talking sequences in 1929.
1930The Sea Batdirector (uncredited)
1931Ten Cents a Dancedirector
A Free SoulStephen Ashe, Defense AttorneyAcademy Award for Best Actor
Guilty HandsRichard Grant
The Yellow TicketBaron Igor Andrey
Mata HariGen. Serge Shubin
1932Broken LullabyDr. Holderlin
Arsène LupinDet. Guerchard
Grand HotelOtto Kringelein
Rasputin and the EmpressRasputinincludes John, Ethel, and Lionel
1933Dinner at EightOliver Jordan
One Man's JourneyEli Watt
SweepingsDaniel Pardway
1933Should Ladies Behave?Augustus Merrick
1934CarolinaBob Connelly
The Girl from MissouriThomas Randall "T.R." Paige
Treasure IslandBilly Bones
1935David CopperfieldDan’l Peggotty
The Little ColonelCol. Lloyd
Mark of the VampireProfessor
Public Hero No. 1Dr. Josiah Glass
Ah, Wilderness!Nat Miller
1936The Voice of Bugle AnnSpring Davis
The Road to GloryPvt. Moran
The Devil-DollPaul Lavond
The Gorgeous HussyAndrew Jackson
CamilleMonsieur Duval
1937Captains CourageousCaptain Disko Troop
A Family AffairJudge James K. Hardy
Navy Blue and GoldCapt. "Skinny" Dawes
SaratogaGrandpa Clayton
1938A Yank at OxfordDan Sheridan
Test PilotHoward B. Drake
You Can't Take It with YouGrandpa Martin Vanderhof
Young Dr. KildareDr. Gillespie
1939Let Freedom RingThomas Logan
Calling Dr. KildareDr. Leonard Gillespie
On Borrowed TimeJulian Northrup (Gramps)
The Secret of Dr. KildareDr. Leonard Barry Gillespie
1940The Stars Look DownNarratorvoice, uncredited
Dr. Kildare's Strange CaseDr. Leonard Gillespie
Dr. Kildare Goes HomeDr. Leonard Gillespie
Dr. Kildare's CrisisDr. Leonard Gillespie
1941The Penalty"Grandpop" Logan
The Bad ManUncle Henry Jones
The People vs. Dr. KildareDr. Leonard Gillespie
Dr. Kildare's Wedding DayDr. Leonard Gillespie
Lady Be GoodJudge Murdock
1942Dr. Kildare's VictoryDr. Leonard Gillespie
Calling Dr. GillespieDr. Leonard Gillespie
Dr. Gillespie's New AssistantDr. Leonard Gillespie
Tennessee JohnsonThaddeus Stevens
1943Dr. Gillespie's Criminal CaseDr. Leonard Gillespie
The Last Will and Testament of Tom SmithGramps
A Guy Named JoeThe General
1944Three Men in WhiteDr. Leonard B. Gillespie
Since You Went AwayClergyman
Dragon SeedNarratorvoice, uncredited
1945Between Two WomenDr. Leonard Gillespie
The Valley of DecisionPat Rafferty
1946Three Wise FoolsDr. Richard Gaunght
It's a Wonderful LifeHenry F. Potter
The Secret HeartDr. Rossiger
Duel in the SunSen. Jackson McCanles
1947Dark DelusionDr. Leonard Gillespie
1948Key LargoJames Temple
1949Down to the Sea in ShipsCapt. Bering Joy
MalayaJohn Manchester
1950Right CrossSean O'Malley
1951BannerlineHugo Trimble
1952Lone StarAndrew Jackson
1953Main Street to BroadwayHimself (with his sister Ethel)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, November 17, 1954.
  2. ^ "NOTABLES ATTEND BARRYMORE RITES; Hollywood Stars Join Throng at Burial of Member of Famed Acting Family". The New York Times. November 19, 1954. Retrieved May 7, 2010. 
  3. ^ "A Quiz about Main Line Schools". The Main Line Times. 2008-09-03. Retrieved 2008-12-26. [dead link]
  4. ^ Farjeon, Eleanor, A Nursery in the Nineties (Gollancz, 1935).
  5. ^ The Barrymores in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas Davis, c.1981;...Davis talks about the second girl dying while Lionel was working for Metro Studios which was formed in 1916.
  6. ^ Advertisement appearing in National Geographic, February 1920
  7. ^ Landazuri, Margaret. Archives Spotlight: Young Dr. Kildare. Turner Classic Accessed: 7 December 2007.
  8. ^ Stewart, Patrick (host). "The Lion Reigns Supreme". MGM: When the Lion Roared. Season 1.
  9. ^ The Barrymores by Hollis Alpert c.1964
  10. ^ "When Eleanor Roosevelt Got MGM to Fire Lionel Barrymore From a Pro Bomb Epic; by Greg Mitchell, May 5 2013
  11. ^ Commentary Magazine
  12. ^ David M. Jordan, FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2011), p. 231
  13. ^ Marzano, p. 49; Willian, p. 37; Silvers, p. 234; "Movie of the Week: 'On Borrowed Time'." Life. July 10, 1939, p. 56, accessed 2013-05-10.
  14. ^ a b Norden, p. 145.
  15. ^ Basinger, p. 230.
  16. ^ Wayne, p. 105.
  17. ^ Wallace, p. 78.
  18. ^ Bergan, Fuller, and Malcolm, p. 32.
  19. ^ Kennedy, p. 177.
  20. ^ a b Donnelly, p. 68.
  21. ^ Culbertson and Randall, p. 141.
  22. ^ a b Osborne, p. 31.
  23. ^ Schwartz, p. 241.
  24. ^ Eames, p. 139.
  25. ^ Barrymore and Shipp, p. 287.
  26. ^ Eyles, p. 118.
  27. ^ Coffin, p. 72.
  28. ^ a b c Eyman, p. 219.
  29. ^ Peters, p. 438, 597.
  30. ^ Block and Wilson, p. 203.
  31. ^ Reid, p. 193.
  32. ^ "Lionel Barrymore Is Dead at 76.". New York Times. November 16, 1954. 
  33. ^ "Theater Hall of Fame members". Retrieved February 6, 2014. 


Further reading[edit]

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