Actor, director and composer Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954) was the eldest of three talented siblings who all found fame on the New York stage and in Hollywood motion pictures. Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore were scions of two acting dynasties, the Drews and the Barrymores. In his New York Times obituary, Lionel was quoted as saying members of his famous family had appeared on the stage for 200 continuous years. Sixty years after his death, they continue to do so. Actress Drew Barrymore is Lionel’s great niece.
Barrymore made his reluctant stage debut aged fifteen appearing in a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals featuring his grandmother Louisa Lane Drew as Mrs Malaprop. Of his Broadway debut, Barrymore said ‘the theatre was not in my blood. I was related to the theatre by marriage only; it was merely a kind of in-law of mine I had to live with’. Both John and Ethel would become distinguished Shakespearean actors on Broadway – John in Hamlet and Ethel in Romeo and Juliet – but Lionel would never be entirely at ease on stage.
Though Barrymore married an actress, Doris Rankin, they both quit the business in 1906 and moved to Paris where Lionel studied fine art. Three years later he was back in New York touting for stage work. After the Paris pipe dream, Barrymore suffered from crippling stage fright. He walked out of a production of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s The Fires of Fate during the out of town try-out in Chicago before the play moved to Broadway.
In 1912 Barrymore was one of the first stage actors to strike out for Hollywood when motion pictures were in their infancy. He became a favourite of the director D. W. Griffith, ‘the inventor of Hollywood’, and they made more than sixty silent films together. Barrymore’s directorial debut was a silent film for Metro, Life’s Whirlpool, starring his sister Ethel in 1917. In 1921 Barrymore tested his stage acting chops again playing Macbeth on Broadway but the play was soundly panned by the critics.
In 1925, Barrymore chose to make Los Angeles his permanent home. He and Doris had divorced in 1923 following the death of their two daughters in infancy. Lionel’s second wife, Irene Fenwick, was an old beau of John’s and the marriage caused a rift between the brothers that wasn’t healed until 1926. While John Barrymore was a great beauty, christened ‘the profile’, Lionel had an expressive face for character parts and become one of MGM’s most popular contract players for the next three decades.
At MGM, Barrymore co-starred with stars such as Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Norma Shearer, Clark Gable and Jean Harlow for whom he was a father figure until her untimely death in 1937. He won plaudits when loaned-out to co-star with Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson (1928), he was nominated for a best director Academy Award in 1930 for Madame X then won the best actor Oscar playing an alcoholic defence attorney in A Free Soul (1931). Barrymore’s two outstanding films in the 1930s were Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933).
John and Ethel Barrymore were also under contract to MGM but the only time they both worked with Lionel was the 1932 film Rasputin and the Empress in which Ethel played the Empress Alexandra of Russia and Lionel played Rasputin. A slave to arthritis, Barrymore would develop an addiction to morphine that dated back to 1929. Breaking his hip twice would result in the actor never being filmed standing or walking unaided after 1937. He was quoted as saying ‘LB (Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM) gets me $400 worth of cocaine a day to ease my pain’.
Despite being incapacitated, Barrymore would give his greatest performances in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Duel in the Sun (1946) and Key Largo (1948). In Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, Barrymore played miserly banker Mr Potter opposite James Stewart. His performance was a variation on the character Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol; a role Barrymore played on the radio every Christmas for the last two decades of his life.
Lionel Barrymore visited Henry Poole & Co once in 1937 while he was in London billeted at the Savoy. His address is listed as 802 South Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills and he ordered ‘a grey Shetland cloth pea coat’, ‘a DB tweed suit’, ‘a grey cashmere suit’ and ‘a blue elastic dining suit’. Though Barrymore was relatively parsimonious by Hollywood standards, in later life he was targeted by the IRS who pursued back taxes beyond the actor’s grave. When his art collection was auctioned in 1954, the IRS confiscated all of the proceeds. Though John Barrymore had died from complications due to chronic alcoholism back in 1942, Lionel was survived by his sister Ethel who died just shy of her eightieth birthday in 1959.
Barrymore was always outspoken about Hollywood’s flaws and could be withering about his co-stars. Of the child star Margaret O’Brien, he said ‘if that child had been born in the middle ages, she’d have been burnt at the stake. But in later years, Lionel Barrymore’s perspective on acting and Hollywood softened. As he said, ‘when you act, you move millions of people, shape their lives, give them a sense of exaltation. No other profession has that power’.