In reading about LB and his chair, what I found interesting is the Kildare/Gillespie films were done so well (Bucquet directing very nicely many) the wheelchair became almost irrelevant to the plot. Now and then, we are reminded of the good Dr. Gillespie's need for it, but the doc himself is never an object of pity. We learn very quickly there's nothing to pity about Dr. G!
There are the typical "hero" disabled person moments spoken by others, as when an aside is used to "prepare" people who are about to meet Dr. G for the first time, along the lines of "he's brilliant, but his legs are hopelessly crippled". They become fewer as the films continue. I've seen that used in just about every film with someone in a wheelchair who has a major part. Now, I can see the need to establish the background story quickly, but seemingly, given the popularity of the films, LB was the attraction, and the fact he was acting circles around people while IN a wheelchair meant his skill "normalized" for viewers a person in a wheelchair.
I'm not claiming he did this all on his own, or that he even meant it to happen. He does note he's a good "jockey" in his chair and doesn't mind answering or forwarding to his chair manufacturer letters from the public about it. Others, including Ronald Reagan, noted the already skilled scene-stealer would use his "chromium contraption"* to great use in dominating a scene--even smacking into people's shins with the wheels. LB is absolutely masterful in the films in the way he moves his chair to emulate what he'd likely be doing on two feet. It's really astonishing.
I think without Barrymore's incredible talent, a shift in the audience's acceptance of a character (based on film gross, at least) in a wheelchair would not have happened at that time. How many actors in wheelchairs who really need them can you think of? He led the way, willingly or not, to better roles and social acceptance of wheelchair users--significant, I think, as the Second World War was going to start in 1939. Too many people came back with orthopedic disabilities--but while they were gone fighting, one actor was rolling through an enormous number of popular films, getting audiences to ignore the chair and focus on the person. That's impressive. I think the financial success of the films also testifies to the acceptance of Dr. Gillespie and he seemed to walk-off, if you will, with just about every Kildare film. Dr. G was only ever stopped by his own exhaustion. That I can also appreciate, being a cantankerous, stubborn type myself.
Intriguingly, LB really disliked being photographed using his crutches to get around. I've only seen one pic of him using crutches outside a film. I'll likely not post it, but I found that reluctance interesting. When I have to use crutches or, very occasionally my wheelchair, I brace for questions and that stupid, inane "poor thing" voice. So I developed a response that, while I have yet to use it, I think will halt any probing. When asked "what happened?" (recall my MS comes & goes, sometimes day by day), I want to reply "they never took the bullet out of my spine". Ha!
There's a lot to ponder on this, and I still need to finish coding the Kildare/Gillespie films! I'm not only intrigued, psyched, even inspired, but also in awe of Lionel Barrymore for his persistence. Seriously. Chronic illness as he seemed to have had is a pain in the ass, a huge no-no in our world today too unless you "rise above!" it and are a "supercrip", to use a phrase used in disabled folks' writing sometimes as shorthand for "the person who lost legs/lost half a brain, etc, but rises above all and competes in the Olympics." The most recent of that type apparently killed his girlfriend in South Africa. Yes, there's an occasional dark side to my bloggish humor.
Do I think LB would mind the bleak humor? Not at all! I'm looking forward to exploring this much more, too. Meanwhile...thank you, Mr B.
|The grand old man, Key Largo, 1948. LB's disability is used to effect in the film.|