Lionel Barrymore: Actor Opened Door for People with Disabilities
Lionel Barrymore ((1878-1954) had a long and successful acting
career, primarily playing character roles in films from the silent era through the early 1950s. Barrymore didn’t limit himself to acting; he was a successful director and composer and continued to pursue his love of the fine arts.
Barrymore was injured in the mid-1930s, which eventually confined him to a wheelchair. For almost half of the one hundred films in which he acted, he appears in a wheelchair or he delivers all his dialogue while sitting down. Yet little was made of it by the press, and the audiences clearly didn’t mind.
As The New York Times wrote in his obituary: “It was a tribute to his popularity and ability that parts were written around him, and audiences never questioned the appearance of an actor in a wheelchair.”
Lionel Barrymore’s Early Life
Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954) was born in Philadelphia into what we now know is the famous acting family, the Barrymores. The Barrymore name was retrieved from a deceased relative and established as their a stage name. The parents were both actors—Maurice Blyth and Georgiana Drew. The couple lived in Philadelphia when the children were born, and all three of their offspring went into acting. Lionel became a great character actor. Sister Ethel (1879-1959) preferred the stage, and in a career lasting six decades, she earned the title of “First Lady of the American Theater.” Youngest brother, John (1882-1942), played many leading roles and was known for his great looks and famous profile.
Lionel began working in the theater as a teenager, but in his mind, this was temporary. He intended to leave the “family business,” so he studied art in Paris for several years. When he saw that he was not going to earn a decent living with painting, he returned to the U.S. and returned to acting. He was introduced to D.W. Griffith who cast him in many silent films.
Barrymore also started doing some directing. His first film was His Secret in 1913. Throughout the next two decades, he continued to direct while also acting, and in 1929 he won an Academy Award nomination for his directorial work on Madame X.
Two years later, he won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in A Free Soul (1931). Over time his acting career was to predominate.
In 1936 he suffered the first of two serious accidents. The first was when a drawing table somehow fell on him and he broke his hip. The following year, he was at work filming the movie, Saratoga with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow; he tripped over a cable and suffered a second hip break. Repairs for this type of injury were rudimentary then. This, coupled with the fact that Barrymore had been plagued with arthritis since the late 1920s, meant that from that time on, it was too painful to walk. He used crutches occasionally but soon settled into the wheelchair full time.
By the date of the accidents, Barrymore had been part of the MGM
family for a long time. MGM was formed in 1924, but Barrymore had worked for Louis B. Mayer before then when Mayer was at Metro Pictures. Mayer was loyal as both a friend and as a businessman—he knew Barrymore was a valuable property to the studio. Mayer put out the word: Scripts should be written for Barrymore that took into his account that he couldn’t walk. The studio was happy to keep him working.
In 1938, MGM acquired the rights to the character of Dr. Kildare, based on a book by Max Brand. Scriptwriters amended the story line to be about a young doctor making his way at a city hospital under the watchful eye of his mentor, Dr. Gillespie. Barrymore was cast in the role of Gillespie. Dr. Kildare was played by Lew Ayres. These movies were highly successful, so additional scripts were prepared. In all of these movies, Barrymore uses his wheelchair but that is never the focus of the story.
In 1942, the Dr. Kildare films were forced to change. Lew Ayres was drafted, and he refused to go as a conscientious objector. The pro-America sentiment in World War II made Ayres very unpopular at that time. He was removed from the films, and the Dr. Kildare films that followed focused on Dr. Leonard Gillespie. (Ayres did serve in the military but as a medic and a chaplain’s assistant. This permitted him to return to his career.)
Dust Up with the Roosevelts
In 1944 Lionel Barrymore actively campaigned against Franklin D. Roosevelt who was running for his fourth term as president. Barrymore backed the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey. This did not sit well with the Roosevelts. Two years later when MGM was preparing a film about FDR, the press knew that Barrymore was the logical candidate to play FDR. A phone call from Mrs. Roosevelt to MGM got Barrymore pulled from the film.
This was only a minor setback in Barrymore’s career. In 1946, Barrymore played the villainous Henry Potter in the Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Potter was not written as a character in a wheelchair, but when Barrymore was cast in the role, he made it work very successfully. Two years later he appeared in an important role as the hotel owner in Key Largo, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. He went on to make thirteen more films before the end of his life.
During his last two decades, he also played the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in annual broadcasts of A Christmas Carol and was well-remembered for that role.
Successes in Other Fields
In addition to his long list of acting credits and his 1929 nomination for best director, Barrymore succeeded in several other fields. He loved composing music, and he had several of his compositions performed by professional orchestras. One of these was “In Memoriam,” written in 1942 on the occasion of his brother’s death. It was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. A few of his compositions were used in films.
While painting did not work out for him, Barrymore continued to work in graphic arts and several of his prints were recognized by the Society of American Etchers.
Barrymore’s Contribution to Film Industry
It is unfortunate that the film industry has been so slow to follow the great example set by Lionel Barrymore and those who continued to hire him.
Barrymore and the audiences who loved him established that actors should be accepted for their ability to play roles. A person with a disability can usually be interchanged with almost anyone else. Two great examples of characters who are important despite, not because of, a disability are Michael J. Fox in The Good Wife and Daryl Mitchell on NCIS New Orleans (also well remembered for his role as Chill in the House Party movies).
Perhaps now, with pressure from advocacy groups, progress will be more rapid.
The story of the invention of the wheelchair is not what you would expect. Click here to read The Wheelchair: Who Thought of It?