Oscar Actors: Barrymore, Lionel–Background, Career, Awards

Lionel Barrymore Career Summary 

Occupational Inheritance: Yes; both parents actors; siblings, John and Ethel, also actors

Origins: Broadway Actor, then Hollywood (silent)

Age at First Film: as actor

Age at Winning Oscar: as actor, 53


Free Soul, A (1931): Norma Shearer Star Vehicle, Co-Starring Gable, Barrymore and Leslie Howard | Emanuel Levy

Age at directing nomination: 51 (Madame X, 1929)

Marriage: two

Politics: Republican

Death: 1954; aged 76

Lionel Blythe Barrymore was born in Philadelphia on April 28, 1878; he died on November 5, 1954.

He is the son of famous actors Maurice Barrymore (Herbert Blythe) and Georgiana Drew; brother of Ethel and John Barrymore.

Lionel Made his stage debut with his parents while still an infant but did not act professionally until his late teens.

By 1900, he was a leading Broadway actor, often appearing with his uncle, John Drew.

In 1903, he went to Paris as an aspiring artist but returned to the U.S, and to acting in 1907.

The first Barrymore to appear in films and among the legitimate stage stars seeking screen career, Lionel joined Biograph in 1909 and began playing leading roles in films in 1911.

He appeared in many of D.W. Griffith’s early films, including “The New York Hat,” “The Informer,” “The Musketeers of Pig” (all in 1912), and “Judith of Bethulia” (1914).

Lionel wrote several scripts for Griffith, including “The Tender Hearted Boy” (1913).

In 1915, he appeared in the “Pearl White” serial, “The Exploits of Elaine” and its sequel, “The Romance of Elaine,” and later played leading roles for various studios, occasionally directing.

Lionel continued appearing regularly on the Broadway stage until 1925, when he abandoned the theater completely to devote his talents exclusively to acting in films. In 1926, he signed with MGM, a studio he would work for the remaining 27 years of his film career.

He continued playing leading roles for several years but gradually moved into character parts and in the 30s and early 40s became established as one of Hollywood’s foremost character stars, dominating many a production with his strong presence.

In all, he played some 250 screen roles of varied character and range.

Lionel won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in A Free Soul (1931).

In the late 1930s and early 1940s he was popularly identified with the role of Dr. Gillespie, which he played in all 15 films of the Dr. Kildare’s series. In 1938 he was partially paralyzed by a combination of arthritis and ale injury but managed to continue his busy acting schedule even though confined to a wheelchair.

Lionel authored a novel, “Mr. Cantonwine,” and a volume of memoirs, “We Barrymores” (1951).

He had some success as a painter and etcher and composed orchestral music. His tone poem “In Memoriam,” dedicated to his brother John, was performed by the Philadelphia Symphony in 1942. Several others of his musical works, including a symphony, were played in various concert halls. He was married twice, both times to actresses.

His first wife (1904-23) was Doris Rankin, the second Irene Fenwick, who married him in 1923 and died in 1936.

Loaned-out, Barrymore had a big success with Gloria Swanson in 1928’s Sadie Thompson and the aforementioned Griffith film, Drums of Love.

He returned to directing films during the early sound film period, making the controversial His Glorious Night with John Gilbert, Madame X starring Ruth Chatterton, and The Rogue Song, Laurel and Hardy’s first color film.

He was credited with being the first director to move a microphone on a sound-stage.

Barrymore returned to acting in front of the camera in 1931. In that year, he won an Oscar 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 1932 Rasputin and the Empress (in which he co-starred for the only time with siblings John and Ethel) and the ailing Oliver Jordan in Dinner at Eight (1933 – also with John, although they had no scenes together).

He played Professor Zelen, the Occultist expert, in the classic horror Mark of the Vampire (1935).

Screen Image:

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 (1939, with Cedric Hardwicke), Duel in the Sun (1946), Three Wise Fools (1946) and Key Largo (1948).

Doctor Kildare

In the 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.

Barrymore had broken his hip in an accident, hence playing Gillespie in a wheelchair. Later, his worsening arthritis kept him in the chair. The injury also precluded his playing Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1938 film version of A Christmas Carol, a role Barrymore had played every year but two on the radio from 1934 through 1953; he was replaced by brother John Barrymore in 1936, and by Orson Welles in 1938.

He also played the title role in the 1940s radio series, Mayor of the Town.

He is well known for his role as Mr. Potter, the miserly and mean-spirited banker in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) opposite James Stewart.

He co-starred 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 film.

Barrymore was a Republican. In 1944, he attended the 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 U.S. The gathering drew 93,000, with Cecil B. DeMille as master of ceremonies and with speeches by 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 Pidgeon.

Hosting “Concert Hall” for Armed Forces Radio Service, Barrymore registered for the draft during World War II, despite his age and disability, in order to encourage others to enlist in the military.

Oscar Alert

In 1931, Lionel Barrymore won the Best Actor Oscar in a tough race, with competition from Jackie Cooper (“Skippy”), Richard Dix (“Cameron”), Fredric March (“The Royal Family of Broadway”), and Adolphe Menjou (“The Front Page”).

He was nominated for the Best Director Oscar for “Madame X” in 1929.