Monday, August 15, 2016

My first Barrymore Blogathon post: Lionel and (film) children

Barrymore Blogathon ahead! 

In between blogging and checking Facebook, I actually work and do research! Lately, I've been researching in great depth Mr. Lionel Barrymore, eldest of the "Royal Family of Broadway", though I think he probably laughed the idea away.  While developing my blog, I initially was focusing on LB's wheelchair-period films, from 1938 onward--and I noticed something in them that leads me to this blog today!  Lionel Barrymore loved children--and it showed in his films.

So walk with me, since I've already done the big page on LB and disability (check it out on this here blog), down the wandering path of Lionel Barrymore and his juvenile costars, illustrated!

I will limit myself to sound films, even though LB did a few films in the silent period with good juvenile actors for his (usually) father-figure to parent. So let's look closely at several films in which he had extended scenes with child actors.

RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS: I know, few think of Rasputin and children, but Barrymore's performance and the child actors' great response to his acting gives the film a level of creepiness and discomfort that is still surprisingly fresh.

LB spent most of his time with Tad Alexander, who played the Tsarevitch Alexei. LB and Alexander spent many an hour sharing scenes of varying intensity, with particular nerve-wracking moments when Rasputin is showing Alexei what power is in this clip:
I can imagine how Tad Alexander felt in these scenes with 3 Barrymores!
 In another scene, with a young actress who was playing one of her first roles, Barrymore was effectively terrifying to her but gave her profound advice later when she asked if she should stay in character at all times: "Oh no. You take her off when you go home and hang her up and take good care of her and feed her good food."
Rasputin makes every Romanov princess distinctly uncomfortable!
Leaving the remarkably creepy Rasputin behind, we look next at a little known film:

ONE MAN'S JOURNEY: LB plays Dr. Eli Watt, who comes back to his hometown after leaving to "set the world on fire". He has a young son, no money, and needs to start over. We find out his wife died in childbirth, and a series of events led him back home. 

With May Robson
He becomes the go-to man when his first case, a woman in labor, ends up with the woman dying and Watt having the baby girl thrust on him by the distraught father--who was going to pay him in potatoes. Watt's lack of "success" in his first case and his desperation means he starts a practice in which turnips, potatoes, and cabbage become his salary from ungrateful people.

Eli Watt gains a daughter
Heartbreakingly, Watt has to give up the little girl, Letty McGinness, when her father comes on her fourth birthday and asks for her, now that he has cleaned up his life. Watt still regards Letty as his daughter, and his son James is like a brother to her. Over time, both grow up and Letty marries and has a child, though she is weakened by a car accident in which she and her fiancee were gravely hurt.  James grows up to be a doctor, and Watt has to give up any chance of advancing his own medical education to support Letty and James. In the end, James, Letty, and others finally realize what a great man they had in their midst.
Watt and Aunt Sarah teach Letty to walk
This is an outstanding film, if a little melodramatic on the romance side with Letty and the scamp she marries. Watt's frustration and exhaustion contrast with his dedication to medicine and his family.  It's well worth catching it and LB has some very lovely moments with children throughout.

At this point, I'm deliberately skipping over The Little Colonel with Shirley Temple (she's so famous, it's covered all over the web if you search for it and her) and several good films in which LB plays a father, but mostly to teens and 20-somethings. I'll move directly to a series of films in which Barrymore's fondness for children (and his enchantment with one actress in particular) are on display to a surprising extent: the Kildare/Gillespie films of the 1930s and 40s. *note: there are some charming moments in You Can't Take it With You, but not many specifically with children--the whole cast seems childish/childlike at times! :)

YOUNG DR. KILDARE: In the first of the Lew Ayres/ Lionel Barrymore films, released in 1938, we are introduced to cranky, crusty, brilliant diagnostician Dr. Leonard Gillespie and intern and clever chap James (Jimmy) Kildare.  Gillespie's arrogance and temper are sources of fear for nearly everyone in the film, really--except the children with which Gillespie interacts.

Early on, after dressing down Kildare, we next see Gillespie with a young boy, played by Bobs Watson, who has a leg brace:

When he asks the boy what he's "dressed up for", the boy responds "I'm a cripple!" in a cheery voice. Rather than reacting in astonishment or embarrassment, Gillespie simply says, "oh, go on with you, I don't believe you."  He's unfazed by the boy, who will reappear in more of the films later. Watson also played a brilliant role with Barrymore in On Borrowed Time.

Another example of LB's comfort with and admiration of children comes in this same film later as he takes Kildare through a clinic crowded with children. While rolling along, LB winks at a baby sitting in a lap:

It's just a wonderful little moment, typical of the "small" acting of which LB was so capable.

ON BORROWED TIME: Barrymore plays Julian Northrup, cantankerous (and hysterically funny) grandfather of recently orphaned Pud, played by Bobs Watson in this 1939 film. They have a remarkably natural friendship, and the wheelchair in which Gramps gets about is nothing remarkable to the young boy (or anyone else in the film).  The two go everywhere together, ally against a wicked elderly aunt who wants to take Pud away from Gramps, and try to defeat "Mr Brink" (Death, played by Cedric Hardwicke) by keeping him up a tree.

Mr Brink, Julian, and Pud
Pud is warned to stay away from the tree in which Brink is trapped, but is unable to resist a challenge and falls from the fence surrounding the tree, being terribly injured. Northrup asks Brink to take both him and Pud, to save the boy from pain, and because he knows Brink came for him originally. The film ends with Pud and Julian going toward a lovely sunset--"walking" accomplished by Barrymore standing and leaning while scenery was moved behind him.

LB could stand and even walk without crutches for a very short distance, but pain inhibited him
The relationship between Watson and Barrymore is particularly touching, and perhaps was helped by the fact they had already worked together in 1938: Watson next appeared with LB in Calling Dr Kildare, in which he is finally given the name of Tommy.

CALLING DR. KILDARE: Another in the series (this one late 1939), in which Kildare gets in trouble and Gillespie saves him. A short subplot involves Bobs Watson as Tommy returning with his leg brace and trying to have Gillespie "not heal" him too soon, as he receives a penny each day he wears his brace and needs a few more weeks for enough to buy skates.  Of course, it being Gillespie, he takes matters into his own hands.

"Walk across the room, Tommy"
"But I can't!"
Gillespie sweetens the pot for Tommy to walk across the room
It works!
It's a remarkable moment in the film (especially one so Kildare-complex), though it's not the last time we see Tommy!

DR KILDARE'S CRISIS: We see Tommy one more time in this 1940 film. He is in therapy of various kinds, and we find out he has yet to use the skates Gillespie gave him, and it's been a year.

This time, Tommy and Kildare interact!

Kildare helps Tommy in on his skates
Gilelspie rarely lets people touch his chair without asking...Tommy does!
Mutual affection exchanged!
The next Gillespie film (1943) involving children to any great extent is the one in which he met the "enchantress", Margaret O'Brien. Barrymore became completely enamored of the little girl, with whom he would make two films--he declared in his biography if he could steal a scene from her by doing anything short of cutting off his own head, he would. He and other co-stars were fascinated by her ability and Lionel Barrymore became as close a friend as a young girl could have on a film set, often joining her for lunch and, later in their lives, for tea or food, bringing her small gifts. To soothe her after an unhappy moment on the set, he promised her a doll, and began making rag dolls on the set for her, which she kept for the rest of her life. She writes sweetly of LB in her own diaries from her childhood (for which LB wrote a foreword in 1948). You can read about his deep affection for her here (and in other places):  MGM 20th anniversary.

DR GILLESPIE'S CRIMINAL CASE: This is a ridiculously complex film, but one in which Barrymore interacts with a wide range of children, many of whom will become very ill. The stand out scenes involve Gillespie and two interns vying to become his replacement Kildare, in part by helping to cure very ill children.

Van Johnson and Keye Luke are the interns

The enchantress herself
The four little girls who get ill are cured due to Gillespie and his two interns' determination. We see Gillespie uncharacteristically unshaven, visibly exhausted, and happy all at the same time.

Little Margaret is in grave danger
But she and the other girls all are better now and bring out Gillespie's birthday cake!
Gillespie is truly delighted

Margaret O'Brien was to pull off a magnificent role later with LB in Three Wise Fools, as Dean Stockwell would in Down to the Sea in Ships.

With Edward Arnold, LB, and Lewis Stone, 3 Wise Fools

Dean Stockwell played Barrymore's grandson in Down to the Sea in Ships, an epic seafaring film and the last time LB would act out of his wheelchair (he is on crutches in the film). Stockwell was also renowned as a child actor for his professionalism and ability to stay in a scene regardless of what actors threw at him.

Stockwell left as Jed Joy, LB right as Captain Bering Joy

These are all good representations of the many films in which LB acted with children. He was inordinately fond of them--perhaps, indeed, because his daughters with Doris Rankin died in infancy (you can read all about that here: Mary and Ethel Barrymore II's Tragically Short Lives). He was fond of his siblings' several children, reportedly sneaking in to hold John Barrymore's first child Diana when she was a baby, while his brother was terrified he'd break her. When he worked with Jean Harlow, who would have been the age of his eldest daughter had she lived, in Dinner at Eight, he grew very close to her and, as biographers have noted, "mourned her like family" upon her untimely death, sending a basket of flowers to her grave for months afterward.

LB and Jean Harlow, The Girl from Missouri
Beery, Harlow, LB, Dinner at Eight
In the end, co-stars like Margaret O'Brien or Bobs Watson can tell better tales about Barrymore's comfort with and affection for child actors and children.  As I can't leave you with a photo of LB holding any of his children, I will leave you with his beaming at brother John's new son in 1932, John Barrymore, Jr.:

Thanks for reading (if you managed to get all the way through!). There's more on this to write on, but I need to get back to my regularly scheduled job AND blogging on Lionel Barrymore's films!


  1. What a fascinating and original post! You convinced me to look for One Man's Journey, it must be a very interesting film. Great writing!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  2. Thanks! It's a great film. I'll stop over!