Friday, March 24, 2017

The $3000-a-week question, for a potential Lionel Barrymore researcher, "Why did he end up (mostly) in a wheelchair after 1938?"

There is likely no completely solid answer to that from available public materials, though there are several claims and only a few which have any kind of support from online or offline public material.

In order of what I consider least likely to most probable (based on my research so far across an tremendous number of sources and a lot of cross-referencing):

A CURSE: No, Lionel Barrymore, though somewhat superstitious, did not believe he personally was cursed nor is there an indication anyone cast a spell on him (except his wives).

BREAKING A LEG SLIDING DOWN A BANISTER: This is a random tale, Mr. B's injury explained away as temporary through conflation with the story constructed to "alibi" his crutches in You Can't Take it With You: that Grandpa Vanderhof is on crutches because he broke his leg after being challenged to slide down the stair banister by his granddaughter.

SYPHILIS: This particular tale was advanced apparently by Lionel's final manager, James Doane (still alive, believe it or not, or was in 2016, in Arizona) who, according to Margot Peters, told a "long-time Hollywood resident and a collector of Barrymoriana", Oliver Dernberger, who told her. He was a bookstore employee and, I believe, may still be alive. Gene Fowler once stated Lionel Barrymore had a morphine addiction, as he had supposedly acquired syphilis circa 1925 but offered no proof for the tale he told Spencer Berger (again, according to Peters). It does seem true beyond doubt Lionel Barrymore took a variety of extremely heavy duty drugs from the 1920s until his death to control pain.

Syphilis and many venereal diseases have latent periods, and treatment for them was greatly limited until 1928 (hat-tip to Shiela Terry on Silent Films Today for pointing out penicillin came later! Ehrlich, et al, treated venereal disease with one drug and recommended barrier use to prevent transmission) Oddly, though somewhat logically, men were much more likely to transmit syphilis to women than vice versa in the early 20th century, according to Vedder, 1918, Syphilis and Public Health. This I point out as Peters has a shamefully catty poke at Irene Fenwick's reputation as, um, "promiscuous" derived from John Barrymore's relationship with her and other Broadway biographies: "(Venereal disease...Irene, the 'Pocket Venus', whom he married in 1923...)". Yeah, sorry, that's terrible writing and probably irresponsible. Certainly Ms. F seemed to have a history of relationships, but given the etiology and timeframe of poorly treated syphilis... yeah, it's very hard to say she gave her husband a venereal disease because his brother's hagiographer said it to Mr. Barrymoriana, who said it to Peters, as well as Lionel's last manager in his likely old age to a Hollywood bookstore employee. So I'm going to leave this one here as a very likely NOT why he was in a wheelchair, but only slightly more likely statistically than a curse. Really.

Peters' assertion that Lionel's disability was not apparent until the mid 1930s-- "Lionel's infirmity became evident in 1936" (438)--or so is belied by others who worked with him in the early 1920s, as well as evidence from his silent and sound films. Gloria Swanson wrote that Barrymore approached her during the filming of 1928's Sadie Thompson and told her he was on heavy medication for pain and not physically well at all, though she and moviegoers could not see it on the screen. It is evident his hands have begun to show physical changes and spots of discoloration by at least The Face in the Fog (1922). One or two actresses who worked with him when he was directing in the early talkies remember his frequent difficulty moving and heavy medication, which they blamed for his tendency to fall asleep while directing and his general lassitude.

I'm somewhat familiar with autoimmune conditions, having once been misdiagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an inflammatory form of the disease which can wax and wane, so one may have swelling and physical joint changes and then get better. The key became for me to track down physically noticeable changes to Mr. B's hands in films and stills.

Lionel Barrymore had large, long, very expressive hands, on the left one of which for almost the entirety of his life after 1904 he wore a wedding ring (married to Doris Rankin 1904-1922, and Irene Fenwick 1923-1936, her death). It is helpful because I can compare size and shape of hands easily one to the other. His right hand, after about 1924 or 1925 seemed to be prone to swelling, though not his left as much. As the years passed, that hand became a terrific bellwether of his arthritis.

As Alfred Davidson in Sadie Thompson. Note his hands, expressive even motionless.
In addition, research revealed a few things to connect the dots, one of which I'm fairly certain hasn't been seen before: the obituary of an orthopedic physician indicates he treated Lionel Barrymore in New York for bursitis of the knee. Lionel's nephew Sammy Colt told of his uncle having broken or cracked a kneecap in either physical exercise (wrestling) or during the run of Peter Ibbetson on Broadway with brother John. Lionel's part required him to be strangled by John after landing heavily on his knee in the show:

You can see the dust mark on Lionel's left pants leg from a reenactment of his death scene.
Lionel claimed to have hurt himself while wrestling for exercise with a friend, declining to get his knee properly looked after and merely taping it to carry on acting on stage prior to the 1917 Peter Ibbetson repetitive injury. As he was involved in several sports in his youth, including baseball, swimming, wrestling, sparring, running, and basically "fighting at the drop of a hat...and an unconscionable number of hats were dropped in [his] presence", Lionel Barrymore seems to have physically done a number on his body very early and kept at it until pain prevented him from doing further damage.

One of the earliest films films in which Mr. B had difficulty disguising his physical problems was Arsene Lupin, though it played into the character for him. The same was true of Grand Hotel and Broken Lullaby, all in 1932. Generally in all three films one could easily note swelling in hands and some twisting of the right fingers at the large joints. The discoloration on the back of his hands, far from being only age spots, seemed typical of inflammatory/ autoimmune arthritic disease, as did the progression of hand deformity:
Vasculitis can occur with RA, and early onset of dark, large spots on the back of Mr. B's hands are apparent at least by 1922 particularly, again, the right hand.

But perhaps most in support of him having an inflammatory and progressive joint disease, besides the obvious, is the fact that Mr. B was part of a huge push for a then-new research organization:

One can read Lionel Barrymore's own account of breaking his hip (twice, once at a drafting table and once on the set of Saratoga) and more than one account of his use of a large brace to stabilize his hip so he could continue to work.

But well before Saratoga, in 1935's Mark of the Vampire, Barrymore is on film physically clearly limited, his limp more pronounced than before in films and he is unable to cover it nor does it work into his characterization. Professor Zelin is an old(er) doctor-type in this light horror story and while Mr. B gamely does his best, as he is the headline star, his limp and hesitant taking of steps are quite easy to spot even on first viewing. At that point, he is still only 56 or so during the filming, and he has been trying to maintain a career through medication and sheer determination since his early to middle forties. He makes his limp a part of his 1934 performance as Billy Bones in Treasure Island, wherein we can also see a slight shifting of his right hand toward an unnatural angle. The same is true of his hands in Rasputin and the Empress (1932) and certainly in The Girl from Missouri (early 1934) though his skill at body control meant unless the role called for it, until 1935, Lionel Barrymore could shake off much of his physical distress on film.

Screengrab from Mark of the Vampire
Below, you can see near the beginning the incredibly difficult time Barrymore has with stairs--while these are steep, in other scenes he struggles with any number of steps, especially climbing them.

(In spite of the cheesy appearance of the scene, the film is actually quite good, enjoyable, and unique in that Tod Browning way! Highly recommended.)

It's a little distressing to comb through films in which you can see a talented, brilliant man gradually adapt to a terrible physical problem (after a divorce, the loss of three infant daughters, and a second marriage to a person who herself was quite ill, not to mention the raft of Barrymore family problems) that will nearly end a long career.  It's staved off with a great deal of medication, some putatively illegal or illegally obtained, even in the more free and easy 20s and 30s. It also, ten years of so after he signed a contract, made him even more indebted to the goodwill of LB Mayer, who admired Barrymore but had a studio to run. Mayer not only kept Barrymore under contract, he found a way to craft roles for his popular actor (the Dr. Gillespie role in the Kildare series being the most obvious) not merely out of real fondness, but out of sound business acumen--Mr. B was hugely popular in the 30s and 40s, his last large role as Captain Joy in 1949's Down to the Sea in Ships, which he performed on crutches he professed to despise.

With Dean Stockwell in Down to the Sea in Ships
After all this, what, you might ask, is the title of this post about? It's about the salary Lionel Barrymore's contract guaranteed him per week from the 1930s onward to his death in 1954.

"If you want to compare the value of a $3,000.00 Income or Wealth , in 1938 there are five choices. In 2015 the relative: historic standard of living value of that income or wealth is $50,500.00, while the contemporary standard of living value of that income or wealth is $116,000.00. The labor earnings of that commodity is $143,000.00 (using production worker compensation)"

Each week, from before 1938 (but selected because that is when he began appearing in films in his wheelchair), Lionel Barrymore's salary was officially THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS PER WEEK.

He didn't get that by not showing up because he hurt; he sometimes bemoaned the fact he felt stuck in his MGM contract, and he was fearful even in the midst of outrageous financial success (including a few years as one of the best-paid people in the country) that he would be jailed for non-payment of taxes and poor financial management, thanks to the Barrymore curse of not caring about money very much except when it wasn't to be had--then they went to work. While $3000 was worth a trifle less by 1954, the idea that this was a weekly wage is outstanding. Even if he wasn't able to pocket it all, earning something like $12,000 a month before taxes each month in the 30s and 40s is very, very good money indeed. It's unheard of for a physically disabled actor whose disability is quite visible to make that kind of money or even get large roles consistently in contemporary films. Mr. B made over 30 and also narrated a few, as well as doing hundreds and hundreds of radio shows.

In 1939 he made 4 films; 1940, 3; in 1941 five, with his composition heard in one; 1942, four films; 3 in 1943; 2 as performer and 2 as narrator in 1944, then he dropped to 2 in 1945. He shot back up to 4 in 1946, including the amazing role as Mr. Potter and the epic Duel in the Sun. Then except for two films in 1949, he did only one film per year for the rest of his life, the final film Main Street to Broadway in 1953, ending his acting career as a radio performer and recording his last radio show less than a week before his death in November 1954.

To be accurate, between his self-reported illness and medication needs in 1928 or so to Gloria Swanson before the filming of Sadie Thompson and his role in the successful 1948 classic Key Largo (during which, Lauren Bacall remembered, cast and crew were anguished over Barrymore's teeth-grinding groans of pain he tried unsuccessfully to suppress between shots), Lionel Barrymore made 81 films, only 2 of which were straight narrations.  After 1938's YCTIWY, he would move about extensively without his wheelchair in only one film, 1949's Down to the Sea in Ships.  He was capable of taking a few steps, even walking (as he did at his brother's funeral, escorting his niece Diana).  The physical pain he was in when he did so, however, was far too much to make it a viable part of his acting after the compounding of injuries and arthritic disease culminated in 1936-37.

It's not all in the bios, what happened. Random letters that turn up show he was frustrated by his health and exhausted by the pressure and difficulty of maintaining a career. He disliked his crutches but used them to get around his home and sometimes, others' if he visited Eugene Zador to talk music. But as Lew Ayres and others recounted, Mr. B found his wheelchair an effective and welcome complement to his natural reticence and shy nature, and certainly nothing to get in the way of his performances-- Ronald Reagan recalled how Barrymore could whip his chair around on a dime, and actors in scenes with him would have the bruised legs and shins to show it.

Lauren Bacall, however, recalled in her biography how it could isolate him even as it "protected" him, leaving him alone or sidelined at parties (which he rarely went to) even at his sister's home. After 1936, of course, he was not much interested in socializing, preferring small gatherings and playing music or etching or drawing. After the death of his younger brother in 1942, he also felt a great loss and soured a little on life, though his own determination to keep going and his contact with other artists did feed his insatiable curiosity.  His Grand Old Man persona made him hugely popular, and his role as Gillespie meant he would interact  with young, new, up and coming stars like Van Johnson and Margaret O'Brien, whom he adored.

Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case
All from a wheelchair. To which, we can never be sure he arrived.  But I'm fine with laying out my statistics and research, and betting he was a fairly normal young, active, stubborn man who may have inherited a family tendency to autoimmune disease (his uncle John Drew also had severe arthritis as he got older) and also the family tendency to destructive impulses, alcohol use, and occasionally erratic behavior (like randomly fighting when young or chucking everything and moving to Paris with your young wife on your sister's dime).

Lionel, like all the Barrymores, was mercurial, brilliant, impulsive, generous, savagely biting and sarcastic often, profane, but still childishly enthusiastic about art, music, new things, and quietude. And like his siblings, he was very, very successful financially and not so much personally (though Lionel was married for the longest period of any Barrymore, from Maurice to the present, 1904-1936 with not quite a year between divorce and remarriage).

This has been a long and not quite finished answer to the $3000-a-week question. Thank you for reading through if you made it, sweet dreams if you fell asleep during reading :)


  1. Generally studio contracts in the 1930s were for forty weeks per year, with the studio choosing when actors were working or on layoff, based on when films were in production.

    1. It's been a constant amazement how much LB worked during almost every one of his MGM years, with one studio bemoaning the fact he was kept busy approximately 50 out of 52 weeks (given his output in those decades, certainly feasible!). I would love to get a glance at his MGM contrast, but I have yet to travel to the MGM archives and I'm not sure if it would even still be available. If he wasn't working for MGM in one of theirs, he was on lucrative loan to other studios. Thanks so much for stopping in! I do need to find more on the studio system contracts.