Born April 28, 1878 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Lionel Herbert Blythe was the oldest of three children of actors Maurice Barrymore and Ellen Drew Barrymore, Barrymore being the stage name that Lionel and his siblings, Ethel, and John, also took.
The most prolific of the acting Barrymores, Lionel made his stage debut in a 1903 Kansas City production of The Rivals, followed by a long career on stage augmented by his career in silent shorts beginning in 1905, receiving his first on-screen credit in 1911. His first full length feature was 1914’s The Span of Life. He was married from 1904 until 1922 to actress Doris Rankin, sister of actress Gladys Rankin who was married to his uncle. He and Doris had two children, both girls, who died in infancy, which he never got over, divorcing Rankin and marrying actress Irene Fenwick in 1923.
A composer, artist, author, and director as well as an actor, Barrymore received a 1929 Oscar nomination for Best Director for Madame X having missed out on a Best Actor nomination for his acclaimed performance in the previous year’s Sadie Thompson opposite Gloria Swanson. His second nomination came two years later as Best Actor for A Free Soul. This time he won playing Norma Shearer’s father, a defense lawyer who drops dead after his summation to the jury defending his daughter’s protector (Leslie Howard) on a charge of murdering her gangster lover (Clark Gable).
Barrymore played many high-profile roles throughout the remainder of career. Whether playing the lead, a major supporting character, or just a minor one, he always brought an air of gravitas to his portrayals, signaling that whatever film he was in was one of importance. Among his early 1930s successes were Broken Lullaby, Grand Hotel, Rasputin and the Empress (with his siblings), Dinner at Eight, One Man’s Journey, Treasure Island, David Copperfield, Mark of the Vampire, and Ah, Wilderness! .
The actor suffered the death of his wife and a fall in which he broke his hip in 1936. 1937’s Captains Courageous would be the last film in which he could walk unassisted due to a combination of worsening arthritis and his broken hip which was reinjured on the set of 1937’s Saratoga. Consequently, he had to give up the role of Scrooge in MGM’s 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, a role he played annually on radio from 1934-1953. He was back on screen in 1938’s You Can’t It with You, Young Dr. Kildare and its sequels through 1942, as well as 1939’s On Borrowed Time and more in those years.
From 1942-1945, Barrymore starred in the Dr. Gillespie series, a spinoff of the Dr. Kildare series, as well as such films as A Guy Named Joe, Since You Went Away, and The Valley of Decision. He had further standout roles in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Duel in the Sun, 1948’s Key Largo, 1949’s Down to the Sea in Ships, and 1952’s Lone Star.
Lionel Barrymore died November 15, 1954. His last role was as the voice of Father Time in the 1956 TV movie, Our Mr. Sun directed by Frank Capra.
GRAND HOTEL (1932), directed by Edmund Goulding
Lionel Barrymore may have won his Oscar for the previous year’s A Free Soul, but his dying bookkeeper in this, the year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, is a stronger and more memorable character. Also of note are Greta Garbo as a tired ballerina uttering her most famous line, “I want to be alone”, John Barrymore still being filmed in profile as Garbo’s love interest, and Joan Crawford on the verge of superstardom as an eager stenographer. Only Wallace Beery hamming it up as a German industrialist does himself no favors with this one. This is the only film to win the Best Picture Oscar that was not nominated in any other category.
DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), directed by George Cukor
This is an even better all-star-cast film than Grand Hotel whose success inspired it. Take Marie Dressler as a fading star, John Barrymore as an alcoholic has been, Wallace Beery as another nasty businessman, Jean Harlow as his bimbo wife, Lionel Barrymore as an ailing industrialist, Billie Burke as his supercilious party giving wife, Lee Tracy as a press agent, Edmund Lowe as a licentious doctor, Karen Morley as the doctor’s wife, Madge Evans as the ingenue, Phillips Holmes as her boyfriend, May Robson as the cook, Louise Closser Hale and Grant Mitchell as the poor relatives and you have the perfect cast ever.
YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938), directed by Frank Capra
Lionel Barrymore’s other Best Picture Oscar winner also earned director Frank Capra his third Oscar after It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. He was second billed behind Jean Arthur as his granddaughter, and above James Stewart as her love interest, Edward Arnold as Stewart’s father, Oscar nominated Spring Byington as Arthur’s scatterbrained mother, Mischa Auer, Ann Miller, and H.B. Warner as colorful friends of Barrymore and his family with which they are staying. More screwball than its stage origin, but unforgettable even if it may not have been the year’s true best film.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), directed by Frank Capra
Everyone’s favorite Christmas movie, and one of the most beloved films ever made with James Stewart in his third Capra classic following You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as a suicidal man visited by his guardian angel who shows him what the world would have been like it he wasn’t in it. Stewart is superb in his first film back from World War II. Donna Reed is splendid as his wife, as are Henry Travers as his guardian angel, Thomas Mitchell as his forgetful uncle, Beulah Bondi as his devoted mother, and a glowering Lionel Barrymore as the meanest man in town.
KEY LARGO (1948), directed by John Huston
The Florida Keys locations augmenting the Hollywood studio sets in this thriller in Huston and Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play help to open it up considerably despite it taking place mostly on one set. Humphrey Bogart is the World War II veteran paying a visit to his late buddy’s widow (Lauren Bacall), and his father (Lionel Barrymore), only to discover that Barrymore’s bar has been taken over by a gangster (Edward G. Robinson). All four stars are excellent, but the film is stolen by fifth billed Claire Trevor as Robinson’s shabbily treated moll in one of the greatest Oscar winning performances of all time.
LIONEL BARRYMORE AND OSCAR
- Madame X (1929) – nominated – Best Director
- A Free Soul (1931) – Oscar – Best Actor