Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving thanks and all that: Barrymore edition

Thanksgiving is an odd time in my family--it appears family members have a tendency to die around this time of the year, and while surely it's all coincidence, it's the kind of thing that puts a definite damper on late November. Plus, I think it's a good idea to be grateful for what we have as much as possible.

So in that spirit, for this blog, let me list a few things researching and watching Lionel (and indeed, John) Barrymore have made me thankful for:

1- Lionel's infrequent but brilliant smile.
Most of us know this picture of LB with a brilliant smile:
He's looking at his new bride, Irene Fenwick, on the boat which brought them back to the US from Rome post-marriage. But not too many have seen this, I think:

 Also with Irene, a genuine smile, LB is relaxed and clearly very, very happy.

Lovely; from his first MGM portrait session, 1926.
2- The range of parts I have to enjoy and explore which Mr. B played.
In a little bit of order, they include Stephen Ashe, Billy Saunders, Milt Shanks, Preacher Bolton, Andre Dakkar,  Grizzley Fallon, and Walter Butler: Lawyer, student, farmer/spy, minister, rich inventor, prospector, amoral soldier. Runs the gamut. It's so enjoyable to see so much variety to choose from! And with DVD and e-versions of these films to watch as often as I want? REJOICE!

3- The stories he left behind, some possibly apocryphal, some clearly not.
We Barrymores is not the most reliable of biographies, but it is not only amusing, it can at times really be verified by external sources! Mr. B's tale (well-told) of nearly drowning in his twenties was also recounted in his sister's biography. His stories of familiarity with different wrestling and boxing heroes is attested to by others and photos. And really, it's in the very economy of some of the storytelling (i.e., his very brief account of the dissolution of his first marriage) that I am most gratified by the stories. I appreciate the way he both reveals and hides some things--he will muse on his brother's self-destructiveness or Garbo's apparent aloofness with some great concepts, then ultimately admit he just doesn't know for sure why they were the way they were. Darn good vocabulary too, says the word-nerd.

4- and last, I'm thankful for his absolute determination to keep going, even when he was bitterly disappointed or dismayed with life. I don't think I can overemphasize how much, as I read more about him, reread his bio and other essays, I'm in awe of how someone with so much pain to go through (personal, physical) can hide it well enough for the films he makes not to be mere pity-parties. Consider his life: no complete education, lack of parental guidance, a need to start work early, no interest in the family trade, knowing your father is going mad slowly, struggling to be an artist and discovering it's not going to happen, marrying, watching all your children die before the age of two, "flopping" and then hitting the heights again, watching brother and sister rise well above you then joining them only to then fail yet again and "drop" into films; moving, divorcing, remarrying, overworking, watching your little brother self-destruct, working more, wife slowly dying, then death, shutting yourself off for a long while, requiring a wheelchair, burying your baby brother, and more work, work, work. And all the while, slowly building a talent for music and etching and finding some solace in that very solitary (usually) work.  And you know when I can find the most frequent pictures of him smiling outside of films? After 1940. After the wheelchair, the Kildares, the "grand old man"-ness descended on him. He had nothing to prove, to anyone except, sometimes, himself.

And as for John? I have loved you ever since age 9 or 10, for all your incredibly troubled life--you still fought on to find something you may have lost or never had. Thank you for your brilliance on film. Thank you for being in Hamlet so very very long ago. Because once I discovered Hamlet the play (via Richard Burton's biography), I discovered the actors who'd played Hamlet, and you, and your films and story, and through that Francois Villon, whom I love and who was the subject of my entrance essay for graduate school (which I not only got into but got out of with a Ph.D. in English). Grad school saved my sanity, sir, and unleashed a potential I hadn't known, and you were there in the beginning.  Did you hear about that essay I wrote in the great hereafter, or by the riverside where, someone once wrote, you and your brother were sitting and throwing your riches into the water, and he was not sure which one of you was the more wasteful?

Jack's abandonment of his gifts was described as 'Roman extravaganzas, casting golden plates into the river.' How doubly extravagant is the picture of Jack and Lionel seated together at the river's edge. I would not attempt to say which was the more wasteful.
Arthur Hopkins, 1949, in K-D's bio

Thank you, gentlemen, from someone you won't even get to know until the great hereafter. I'm not sure I buy channeling or mind-melding, but I will say my physical condition is degenerating faster than I thought it would (well hell-O Lionel!). Maybe there's an inkling someone's researching you back on earth. In the sweet bye and bye, I'll be the one trailed by lots of cats and a few dogs, but since both of you were quite fond of animals, you won't mind if they tag along and make themselves comfortable, will you? I think by then I will have been blessed with overcoming my awe of the talent you evidenced and your determination, and I'll be happy to pour the Benedictine because we will have all the time in the world at last for everything. Ultimately, perhaps that is what you both are thankful for right now. Thanks, honestly.

Happy Thanksgiving, my American friends, and happy day to all, everywhere.

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