Lionel Barrymore (born Lionel Herbert Blythe; April 28, 1878 –
November 15, 1954) was an American actor of stage, screen and radio as
well as a film director. He won an
Academy Award for Best Actor
Academy Award for Best Actor for
his performance in
A Free Soul
A Free Soul (1931), and remains best known to
modern audiences for the role of the villainous
Mr. Potter character
in Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. He is also
particularly remembered as
Ebenezer Scrooge in annual broadcasts of A
Christmas Carol during his last two decades. He is also known for
playing Dr. Leonard Gillespie in MGM's nine
Dr. Kildare films, a role
he reprised in a further six films focussing solely on Gillespie and
in a radio series entitled The Story of Dr. Kildare. He was a member
of the theatrical Barrymore family.
1 Early life
2 Stage career
3 Film career
5 Medical issues
6 Composer; graphic artist; novelist
10 See also
13 External links
Lionel Barrymore was born Lionel Herbert Blythe in Philadelphia, the
son of actors
Georgiana Drew Barrymore and
Maurice Barrymore (born
Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blyth). He was the elder brother of Ethel
and John Barrymore, the uncle of
John Drew Barrymore
John Drew Barrymore and Diana
Barrymore and the great-uncle of Drew Barrymore, among other members
of the Barrymore family. He attended private schools as a child,
including the Art Students League of New York. While raised a Roman
Catholic, Barrymore attended the
Episcopal Academy in
Philadelphia. Barrymore graduated from Seton Hall Preparatory
Roman Catholic college prep school, in the class of
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
Doris Rankin bore Lionel two daughters, Ethel Barrymore
II (1908 – 1910) and Mary Barrymore (1916 – 1917). Neither
child survived infancy. 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 daughters. When Harlow died in 1937, Barrymore and
Clark Gable mourned her as though she had been family.
Lionel Barrymore as a young man.
Reluctant to follow his parents' career, Barrymore appeared
together with his formidable grandmother
Louisa Lane Drew
Louisa Lane Drew on tour and
in a stage production of
The Rivals at the age of 15. He later
recounted that "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."
Nevertheless, he soon found success on stage in character roles and
continued to act, although he still wanted to become a painter and
also to compose music. 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), the latter of
which won him critical acclaim. Both were produced by Charles
Frohman, who produced other plays for Barrymore and his siblings, John
and Ethel. The Other Girl in 1903–04 was a
long-running success for Barrymore. In 1905, he appeared with John
and Ethel in a pantomime, starring as the title character in Pantaloon
and playing another character in the other half of the bill, Alice
In 1906, after a series of disappointing appearances in plays,
Barrymore and his first wife, the actress Doris Rankin, left their
stage careers and travelled to Paris, where he trained as an artist.
He did not achieve success as a painter, and in 1909 he returned to
the US. In December of that year, he returned to the stage in
The Fires of Fate, in Chicago, but left the production later that
month after suffering an attack of nerves about the forthcoming New
York opening. The producers gave appendicitis as the reason for his
sudden departure. Nevertheless, he was soon back on Broadway in
The Jail Bird in 1910 and continued his stage career with several more
plays. He also joined his family troupe, from 1910, in their
vaudeville act, where he was happy not to worry as much about
From 1912 to 1917, Barrymore was away from the stage again while he
established his film career, but after the First World War, he had
several successes on Broadway, where he established his reputation as
a dramatic and character actor, often performing together with his
wife. He proved his talent in such plays as Peter Ibbetson (1917)
(with brother John), The Copperhead (1918) (with Doris), The Jest
(1919) (again with John) and The Letter of the Law (1920). Lionel gave
a short-lived performance as MacBeth in 1921 opposite veteran actress
Julia Arthur as Lady MacBeth, but the production encountered strongly
negative criticism. His last stage success was in Laugh, Clown,
Laugh, in 1923, with his second wife, Irene Fenwick; they met while
acting together in The Claw the previous year, and after they fell in
love he divorced his first wife. He also received negative notices
in three productions in a row in 1925. After these, he never again
appeared on stage.
Lionel and first wife Doris (in rocking chair) in 1920 silent film The
Barrymore began making films about 1911 with D.W. Griffith at the
Biograph Studios. Lionel and Doris were in Paris in 1908, where Lionel
attended art school and where their first baby, Ethel, was born.
Lionel confirms in his autobiography, We Barrymores, that he and Doris
were in France when Bleriot flew the
English Channel on July 25, 1909.
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 was involved in writing and directing at
Biograph. The last silent film he directed,
Life's Whirlpool (Metro
Pictures 1917), starred his sister, Ethel. He acted in more than 60
silent films with Griffth.
In 1920, Barrymore reprised his stage role in the film adaptation of
The Copperhead. Before the formation of
1924, Barrymore forged a good relationship with
Louis B. Mayer
Louis B. Mayer early
on at Metro Pictures. He made several silent features for Metro, most
of them now lost. In 1923, Barrymore and Fenwick went to Italy to film
The Eternal City for
Metro Pictures in Rome, combining work with their
honeymoon. He occasionally freelanced, returning to Griffith in 1924
to film America. In 1924, he also 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 of
Berlin. In 1925, he left New York 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 more freelance motion pictures, including The Bells
(Chadwick Pictures 1926) with a then-unknown Boris Karloff. His last
film for Griffith was in 1928's Drums of Love.
With second wife Irene Fenwick, 1923
Prior to his marriage to Irene, Barrymore 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.
After 1926, Barrymore worked almost exclusively for
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His first talking picture was The Lion and the
Mouse; his stage experience allowed him to excel in delivering the
dialogue in sound films.
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. In 1929, he returned to directing films. During this
early and imperfect sound film period, he directed the controversial
His Glorious Night
His Glorious Night with John Gilbert, Madame X starring Ruth
Chatterton, and The 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 considered in 1930 for Best Director for
Madame X. He could play many characters, like the evil
Rasputin in the
Rasputin and the Empress (in which he co-starred with siblings
John and Ethel) and the ailing Oliver Jordan in Dinner at Eight (1933
– also with John, although they had no scenes together).
During the 1930s and 1940s, he became stereotyped as a grouchy but
sweet elderly man 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
On Borrowed Time (1939, with Cedric
Hardwicke), Duel in the Sun (1946), Three Wise Fools (1946) and Key
Barrymore in David Copperfield trailer, 1935
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
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. 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 (replaced by brother
John Barrymore in 1936
and replaced by Orson Welles in 1938) on the radio from 1934 through
1953. He also had a role with
Clark Gable in Lone Star in 1952. 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
He is well known for his role as Mr. Potter, the miserly and
mean-spirited banker in
It's a Wonderful Life
It's a Wonderful Life (1946) opposite James
Stewart. The role suggested that of the "unreformed" stage of
Barrymore's "Scrooge" characterization.
Barrymore registered for the draft during World War II despite his age
and disability, to encourage others to enlist in the military. He
loathed the income tax.
Barrymore was a Republican. In 1944, he attended the massive rally
David O. Selznick
David O. Selznick in the
Los Angeles Coliseum
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,
Cecil B. DeMille
Cecil B. DeMille as the master of ceremonies and with short
Hedda Hopper and Walt Disney. Among the others in
attendance were Ann Sothern, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Adolphe
Menjou, Gary Cooper, Edward Arnold, William Bendix, and Walter
AFRS "Concert Hall" Radio Show, circa 1947
Several sources argue that arthritis alone confined Barrymore to a
wheelchair. Film historian Jeanine Basinger says that his
arthritis was serious by at least 1928, when Barrymore made Sadie
Thompson. Film historian David Wallace says it was well known that
Barrymore was addicted to morphine due to arthritis by 1929. A
history of Oscar-winning actors, however, says Barrymore was only
suffering from arthritis, not crippled by it. Marie Dressler
biographer Matthew Kennedy notes that when Barrymore won his Best
Actor 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. 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.
Paul Donnelly says Barrymore's inability to walk was caused by a
drawing table falling on him in 1936, breaking Barrymore's hip.
Barrymore tripped over a cable while filming Saratoga in 1937 and
broke his hip again. (Film historian
Robert Osborne says Barrymore
also suffered a broken kneecap.) The injury was painful enough
that Donnelly, quoting Barrymore, says that
Louis B. Mayer
Louis B. Mayer bought
Barrymore $400 worth of cocaine every day to help him cope with the
pain and allow him to sleep. Author David Schwartz says the hip
fracture never healed, which was why Barrymore could not walk,
MGM historian John Douglas Eames claims that the injury was
"crippling". 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. Film historian Allen Eyles reached the
Lew Ayres biographer Lesley Coffin and
Louis B. Mayer
Louis B. Mayer biographer Scott
Eyman argue that it was the combination of the broken hip and
Barrymore's worsening arthritis that put him in a wheelchair.
Barrymore family biographer
Margot Peters says
Gene Fowler and James
Doane said Barrymore's arthritis was caused by syphilis, which they
say he contracted in 1925. Eyman, however, explicitly rejects this
Whatever the cause, Barrymore's performance in Captains Courageous in
1937 was one of the last times he would be seen standing and walking
unassisted. Afterward, Barrymore was able to get about for a short
period of time on crutches even though he was in great pain.
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. By 1938, Barrymore used a wheelchair
exclusively and never walked again. He could, however, stand for
short periods of time such as at his brother's funeral in 1942.
Composer; graphic artist; novelist
Barrymore also composed music. His works ranged from solo piano
pieces to large-scale orchestral works, such as "Tableau Russe," which
was performed twice in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941), first by Nils
Asther on piano and later by a full symphony orchestra.[citation
needed] His piano compositions, "Scherzo Grotesque" and "Song Without
Words", were published by G. Schirmer in 1945. Upon the death of his
brother John in 1942, he composed a memoriam, which was performed by
Philadelphia Orchestra. He also composed the theme song of the
radio program Mayor of the Town.
Barrymore was a skillful graphic artist, creating etchings and
drawings. For years, he maintained an artist's shop and studio
attached to his home in Los Angeles. Some of his
etchings were included in the Hundred Prints of the Year.
He wrote a historical novel, Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral Tale (1953).
Barrymore's crypt at Calvary Cemetery
Barrymore died on November 15, 1954 from a heart attack in Van Nuys,
California. He was entombed in the Calvary Cemetery in East Los
Barrymore received two stars on the
Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960—a
motion pictures star and a radio star. The stars are located at 1724
Vine Street for motion pictures, and 1651
Vine Street for radio.
He was also inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame, along
with his siblings, Ethel and John.
Lionel Barrymore on stage, screen and radio
Los Angeles portal
List of actors with Academy Award nominations
^ a b "
Hollywood Star Walk - Lionel Barrymore". Los Angeles Times.
1954-11-16. Archived from the original on 2017-07-17. Retrieved
^ Obituary Variety, November 17, 1954.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Foster, Cherika and Lindley Homol.
"Barrymore, Lionel Herbert",
Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Penn
State University Libraries, 2009, accessed November 15, 2015
^ "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.
^ "A Quiz about Main Line Schools". The Main Line Times. 2008-09-03.
Archived from the original on January 15, 2009. Retrieved
^ "Seton Hall Preparatory School Alumni Notables".
^ "A New Ethel Barrymore", The New York Times, August 30, 1908
^ The Barrymores in
Hollywood by James Kotsilibas Davis, c. 1981.
^ The Greenbook Album, Magazine of the Passing Show ,Volume 8, p. 340,
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^ Byers (1998), p. 29
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Biography Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved April 7,
2014. (subscription required)
^ Lionel Barrymore, Internet Broadway Database, accessed November 15,
^ Peters (1990), pp. 117–18
^ Kotsilibas-Davis (1981), p. 4
^ "The Barrymores",
Vaudeville Old & New: An encyclopedia of
variety performances in America, Vol. 1, p. 72, Psychology Press
(2004) ISBN 0415938538
^ Landazuri, Margaret. Archives Spotlight: Young Dr. Kildare. Turner
Classic Movies.com. Accessed: 7 December 2007.
^ Stewart, Patrick (host). "The Lion Reigns Supreme". MGM: When the
Lion Roared. Season 1.
^ The Barrymores by Hollis Alpert c.1964
^ "Clapboard Conservatives". Commentarymagazine.com. Retrieved 22
^ David M. Jordan, FDR, Dewey, and the Election of 1944 (Bloomington
and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2011), p. 231
^ 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.
^ a b Norden, p. 145.
^ Basinger, p. 230.
^ Wallace, p. 78.
^ Bergan, Fuller, and Malcolm, p. 32.
^ Kennedy, p. 177.
^ a b Donnelly, p. 68.
^ Culbertson and Randall, p. 141.
^ a b Osborne, p. 31.
^ Schwartz, p. 241.
^ Eames, p. 139.
^ Barrymore and Shipp, p. 287
^ Eyles, p. 118
^ Coffin, p. 72.
^ a b c Eyman, p. 219
^ Peters, pp. 438 and 597
^ Block and Wilson, p. 203.
^ Reid, p. 193.
Lionel Barrymore Is Dead at 76". New York Times. November 16,
1954. access-date= requires url= (help)
Hollywood Walk of Fame - Lionel Barrymore". Walkoffame.com.
Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved November 14, 2017.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lionel Barrymore.
Lionel Barrymore - allmovie
Lionel Barrymore on IMDb
Photographs of Lionel Barrymore
Lionel Barrymore at the Internet Broadway Database
Lionel Barrymore photo gallery NYP Library
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Lionel Barrymore in 1902 in "The Mummy and the Hummingbird", portrait
Burr McIntosh for Munseys Magazine
Lionel with brother John Barrymore, 1917
Lionel Barrymore as a child (if photo doesn't load, click the
worthpoint link then return to cloud link and click)
Lionel Barrymore - Aveleyman
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1 refused award that year
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