Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Thank you, Mr. B. (Ap 28, 1878- Nov 15, 1954)

On this 62nd (!) anniversary of Lionel Barrymore’s death, I’ve a lot to think about. Yes, a great deal of it isn’t about Mr. B, but a good deal is, for several reasons.*

First, I sincerely admire the man’s acting talent. He was very good, and if people only saw some Kildares or It’s a Wonderful Life or Duel in the Sun, I can’t help them thinking he had “a lot of ham” in him, as he once said. I love being able to watch some films over and over to see how well he managed his roles, from the small physical acting to the vocal control. Even in Rasputin, where the character called for excess, he manages wonderful things with a grin, a nod, a shrug. It’s no wonder his brother John was in awe of him.

Second, I hugely appreciate his determination after he needed to use a wheelchair. I don’t think people fully appreciate what he did by maintaining a good career after 1938, and actually appearing in some exceptional roles, not just fillers. Even in the Kildares, there are some terrific moments of Barrymore showing WHY studios kept borrowing him from MGM.  I appreciate his sense of “well, what am I supposed to do? Stay at home and mope?” even when he would have really liked to paint and etch and mostly, write and share music.  I know the feeling!

There is a bittersweet aspect to his entire life, from his early frustrated ambitions to be a painter to the slow dying of his first marriage (and the loss of three children in infancy) to the injuries he collected compounding with immune system problems (rheumatoid arthritis and the later, more natural osteo-) and the death of his second wife after her own long illness, Christmas Eve 1936.  He, like his siblings, was very private, uninterested in himself as an “artiste”—he took music seriously, he once wrote, not himself. When he was successful on the stage, he was still wary of it and was able to have the breath knocked from him by his failures—but he kept on getting up. Mr. B was capable of great anger and sarcasm, and just as capable of touching emotional bonds with people. He was wickedly funny (ask me one day about the profane, hysterical “Lionel Barrymore Story” I downloaded), stupendously well-read though lacking any kind of diploma—not even high school—and personally and professionally generous. And in some respects I believe he was terrified life would close down on him, via lack of money, disability, or fickle public appeal, and that he would not be able to pursue art or music, the things he found essential to living.

If anything, I think he was unable to really trust that things would go well in his life, perhaps because of the initial 15 or so unstable years of his childhood. He simply was driven in spite of himself to work, and work ridiculously hard for someone who confessed to his “yearning for mañana is only exceeded by the yearning for more mañana”. He had some ecstatically beautiful moments, including apparently all the years of his second marriage, but they were transitory for him and he almost anticipated that, perhaps both optimist and pessimist in one. Perhaps music helped him find a beauty that was immanent.  Certainly art did.

Yet this talented, successful, and frankly much-loved of the masses actor decided to end his collaborative autobiography not with a list of successful films, but a list of stage performances and the following from Macbeth (Act V, Scene 5):

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Here’s to you, Mr. Barrymore. I think I understand some of your perception of the world as a beautiful but dangerous thing.  I don’t always share your fatalism, but then again, neither did you always see the glass as shattered. Thank you for inspiring me in my own research and in my own struggles with chronic illness and mobility. I hope one day in the great hereafter we can talk, have a drink, and share music. Thanks for doing what you did and persisting the way you did. And thanks, great and sincere thanks, for adding to the art in the world in many different ways.

*one more reason is the arrival of my LB pendant--San Lio, protect me from taking myself and others too seriously when there is no need to. And remind me to persist, with grace if possible, with humor if not. Thanks for the inspiration, Mr B.
San Lio, patron saint of the suspicious yet persistent.

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