Wheels & crutches & canes, oh my...why this all started *updated

It started because it's personal for me, frankly. And, I find Barrymores keep popping up in important places for me! John Barrymore was there in the beginning of my graduate school career (that's another post for another day), and his brother provides now the impetus to continue research in disability studies after first dabbling in work on House, MD--another cranky, disabled, brilliant diagnostician. Coincidence? I think not.

I must be honest and say, that as much as Gillespie intrigues me as Lionel Barrymore-work, the image that caused all of this to trigger a cascade of research and whirling in my head was this, from 1948's Key Largo :

It's an old man, James Temple (Barrymore) being assisted down a steep set of stairs by, yes, Bogie and Bacall, with  a gun-toting mobster above them all. It's about 3 seconds if that in the film, but it made me think--WHY SHOW THIS AT ALL?

I know Lionel Barrymore could indeed stand, walk rather painfully, and used crutches to get where he needed to without his wheelchair. I also know he was in terrific pain for a very long time, almost half his life, from a variety of injuries and arthritis. I know they wrote film parts for him; but why would John Huston want to show this, a scene of terrific vulnerability, and in some ways of terrific danger for the actor himself? Is it really just to show the danger? There are other means, right? I mean, just the wheelchair alone meant Temple would have been more at risk of injury, abandonment, etc, etc, etc, during the hurricane, the hostage situation, everything. WHY SHOW THIS, JOHN HUSTON?

And so that triggered a billion questions, not the least of which was Who was Lionel Barrymore (besides John's brother)?

When I first set out on the path of Lionel Barrymore-study, I became intrigued by his role as Dr. Leonard B. Gillespie in the Kildare/Gillespie series of films made in the late 1930s through the mid 1940s.  It was a role he played 12 times total, most with Lew Ayres as young Dr. James Kildare at Blair General Hospital in New York City. I had already worked and presented on Gregory House, MD, and John Callahan, a disabled (paraplegic) cartoonist with a wicked sense of humor, comparing the unique visions of both in terms of disability representation. I have been intrigued more specifically because of my own illness (not to be dramatic: it's MS) and the on and off use I must make of assistive technology (again, not to be dramatic--canes, crutches, and wheelchairs) because the major damage was and is to both motor cortex strips in my brain. Allow me to use visuals:

Dec 2008, lesions on motor cortex, bilaterally
Dec 2008 ring-enhancing lesions (look for bright spots--they're all over)
2013 lesions near ventricles
2013 small lesions (bright spots). MRIs are great, except for the reason you need them
(So did I scare anyone yet?) 
As I am fond of saying, "so much for bright ideas!" I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis on January 13, 2009, though it is quite likely I'd been dealing with if for at least 3-4 years prior. I had been misdiagnosed as having rheumatoid arthritis in about 2006, and I used a cane for a good year or two before I ended up in the hospital December 2008. So, I have a vested interest in disability studies, though it wasn't my field initially when I went to grad school. I started to read and write on it academically in 2010, after entering a clinical trial for MS. THAT was fun, my friends! But it helped, and I mostly don't have a need for canes or crutches--except this last spring, when I had my first genuine relapse since 2008. Oh, it was a mother, and I'm still dealing with fallout from it.

So when I saw John Barrymore's big brother, about whom I knew little in comparison to my crush on John, roll across the screen in the Kildare films, I became hugely fascinated by him. I knew of the general history of disability in film, but I had no idea LB had been a huge success while in his wheelchair and carved the beginning of a path for future physically disabled actors. I read up on what I could of wheelchairs in film, especially Dr Marty Norden's work, and set out to show the impact LB had on the acceptance of disability as something "normal" or at least not frightening, indicative of sin or a curse or worse.

Not that Barrymore saw himself as any hero or role model. He fought tooth and nail against admitting he had arthritis, and to this day what exactly left him in the wheelchair is up for grabs, though I think I can eliminate a few. I'm going to go out on a pretty sturdy limb and say I don't think he was in the wheelchair as a result of long-term syphilis, for a variety of reasons medical and otherwise. I do think he probably broke a hip (perhaps more than once), other bones, perhaps damaged his body early in life and these compounded with aggressive rheumatoid arthritis (again, based on reports, observations, biographies, and news clippings of his activity with the National Arthritis Research Foundation) meant terrible pain which eventually inhibited walking. He was known by others in Hollywood to be on heavy medication for pain as early as 1925 or so (Gloria Swanson, George Cukor, and Lauren Bacall among others noted his use of narcotics for pain relief to get him through the day's work). As he hated crutches, apparently, the wheelchair was the logical choice.  And oh, how he used it to its ultimate limits! His "chromium contraption" was likely made by Everest & Jennings, a folding one which was quite new in 1938. I am still hunting down the exact model (not easy!), but it would have been very similar to this one:

In the center is a 1935 model E&J folding chair, similar to LB's

By 1938, Barrymore was pretty much "confined" to a wheelchair, but never stopped making films and of course, built a tremendous radio career. He used crutches starting in 1937 in films. In 1938's popular You Can't Take it With You, he also played his part on crutches, with the cause being given as his character breaking a leg after sliding down a banister.  It was a clever ruse, but Barrymore himself was petrified he would be washed up as an actor after pain and disability forced him to use his chair--as he started doing in his next 1938 film, Young Dr Kildare, released October 14, when Lionel Barrymore was sixty years old.

YOUNG DR. KILDARE  Lionel Barrymore's first entrance as Dr Gillespie was well-handled by Harold Bucquet, the director of most of the Kildare/Gillespie films. While we hear of this amazing Dr. Gillespie who is brilliant but "hopelessly crippled" prior to his entrance, the audience and the interns ranged in the hospital superintendent's office (Dr. Carew) are both surprised to see a brusque, loud older man bang through the doors, pushed a little by an orderly, wearing doctor's whites and propelling himself with little ado to the center of the room:
Our first view of Dr. LB (the B is for Barry) Gillespie, 1938
I mention the "crip warning" because it is a trope used in most films with disabled characters we are expected to care about. Gillespie is always described as brilliant, but people who are going to see him for the first time are often warned he's in a wheelchair, in any number of ways. It lessens as the films continue, but his "super crip" nature is always apparent. I credit the director and writer with making Gillespie a fully developed character for whom the wheelchair is a tool or personal item of which no note need be taken--like Barrymore's omnipresent cigarette or his glasses.  It's not that they ignore his disability--indeed, he is said to have cancer in this first film, and that becomes a running theme for several films, so his physical disability is compounded with a fight against cancer. Gillespie does push himself to the point of collapse at least once in the series. But as the films go on, due in large part to LB's talent, the wheelchair is not as important to the action or plot unless it is used wisely to reveal something about a character, usually Kildare, Gillespie, or better, a child with an illness or disability--but I am getting ahead of myself!

Kildare (played well by the 30-year-old Lew Ayres) has missed the warning about Gillespie's disability and crankiness, and so is willing to approach the good doctor when no one else will when Dr G asks someone to look at his hands and tell him what is seen there. Bucquet does an excellent job framing Gillespie in scenes, often in the center and at a middle distance. Many times in later films, he would be sure to use chair-level eyelines between actors working with LB in the shot, resisting the tendency to have Gillespie keep craning his neck to look up. Barrymore was absolutely brilliant in the films handling the chair, moving it about in a way that seemed to emulate the blocking he would have done on foot.

Lew Ayres as Kildare, 2nd from right
Kildare steps up,  looks and hesitates, but after grabbing Gillespie's arm, to the old doc's surprise, seems to decide something for himself. Gillespie is typically rude to him, and the scene ends.

Ayres' height, youth, and physical stature is well-used by Bucquet to demonstrate there is a real fragility to Gillespie at this point in the film: he is ill, he is old (indeed, probably meant to be older than LB's 60), and he is hurt, somehow. In comparison to Kildare, he looks positively sickly physically, if not sounding so. Look at the sequence of shots:

Kildare steps forward to examine Gillespie's hands
Kildare notices something, as the other interns watch
After asking to examine Dr. G's elbow, Kildare reaches for it. Gillespie pulls his hand away

Notice the height difference presented here, and G's obvious anger
Kildare has done what many people, without meaning to, do--invaded personal space of a disabled person. Whether it is helping push a wheelchair or holding a door or helping with a transfer, there is a definite protocol for assisting anyone, not only one in a wheelchair. Kildare and Gillespie have a pretty adversarial relationship for the first two films, especially as it pertains to Kildare putting his hands on Gillespie's chair.  It is a difficult and ongoing process to educate the temporarily able-bodied (TABs) that one's crutches, wheelchair, cane, or other device is personal, not public, property.

In the work I have done thus far in coding films for different aspects of disability presented, a persistent theme is Gillespie's protectiveness of personal space--"Jimmy" Kildare will eventually penetrate that shell, but it is by no means always certain "Dr. G", as Kildare will come to call him, will accept help or even a touch of his body or the chair itself.  While there is a character, Conover (played by Clinton Rosemond here), who often is shown as Gillespie's personal chair-pusher and companion on trips out of the hospital if Kildare is not with him, Conover is not protective of the good doctor--like almost everyone else, he's scared of Gillespie.

However, a few minutes later in this same film, we see Gillespie dealing with a young patient wearing a leg brace, who is quite upbeat and happy. The boy replies, when Gillespie asks about what he's dressed up for, "I'm a cripple!" with a smile, to which Dr. G says "Oh, go on with you, I don't believe you."  He treats the young boy directly and personally, and we see a side of Gillespie we didn't expect--he's not only a good doctor, he's a caring one as well under the gruffness. This little boy, played by Bobs Watson, will appear several times in the series in the same role and also appeared with LB in On Borrowed Time (1939). Gillespie's fondness for children (mirroring LBs personal fondness for them) will reappear many times, often in plot lines which drive some of the better films.

"I'm a cripple!"
Afterward, Dr G takes Kildare through a clinic full of sick children, pointing out the young intern's limitations. In the middle of it, he winks at a baby in the clinic. This is Barrymore at his acting best. Of course, children tend to be at his eye level or below it, so he is natural in many interactions with them--children in the films rarely comment on his disability, and are usually represented as open and engaged with him.

Kildare and Dr G go back to the old doctor's office, where he allows Kildare to examine his elbow and makes the young man tell him what he saw in Gillespie's hands earlier. Kildare hesitantly tells Dr G it is cancer, but Gillespie does not allow Kildare to dwell on imminent death--though Kildare does suggest, goaded by Gillespie, that the old doctor has a year to live.

"A melanoma?"

But when the young doctor runs afoul of a rich patient's family, Gillespie comes to Kildare's aid, bulling his way into the case. It gets quite complicated, but Kildare is able to help the patient as he needs to and impresses Gillespie eventually--though not without Dr. G's aid!

Bucquet manages to impress upon viewers that the good Dr. G does have some limitations and some barriers yet to hurdle--if they are indeed manageable. A great moment comes when we see Gillespie call for Kildare through a much narrower door than we've seen so far in the film, emphasizing his isolation in general:

Note the very narrow, "regular" door--& G's isolation on the other side. He seems much smaller here than in the rest of the film. LB was yet to gain the weight he would as a result of movement limitations, and he makes himself seem vulnerable in this shot. It's a great piece of cinematography & directing, as well as acting, & it is a mere 2 seconds in the film.
Gillespie tells Kildare to sit down, saying "It gives me a pain in my neck to keep on looking up." He explains how he has helped Kildare solve his case, and offers him a job as his assistant.

LB's habit was to cross his legs in the chair and grip both rim and wheel to propel it
Kildare puts his hand on Dr G's chair without asking...
G glares at Kildare,who is sheepishly taken aback and drops his hand
Our young intern has a great deal to learn, but the lovely relationship Barrymore and Ayres will develop in the films and personally is most clear in the brief ad following the film. Lionel Barrymore wheels out in his "chromium contraption", to be joined by Lew Ayres, who leans companionably on the back of Barrymore's chair while they talk about the upcoming Kildare films. Ayres looks young, slim, and strong in his dark suit and tie, while LB wears a relatively typical wool knit three-piece suit and bowtie:

Ayres and Barrymore would work together in nine Kildare films and a raft of Dr. Kildare radio shows after Ayres came back from his difficult stretch in WWII as a conscientious objector. Ayres commented much later in his life that while he and Barrymore were from different worlds, he loved the old actor and enjoyed very much talking with him. Both men remained friends until Barrymore's death in 1954, sharing a love of music, art, and books, while Ayres marveled at Barrymore's ability to hold forth and capture listeners, realizing all the while that the older actor was in terrible pain most days, and terribly lonely, according to Ayres and others. Both admired the others' acting and LB in particular named Ayres, along with Spencer Tracy, one of the most "natural" of actors.  Ayres was unable to come and see LB when the man was near the very end of his life, and regretted it ever after.

This 1938 publicity photo makes the men seem closer in age than they were--
a tribute to LB's chameleonlike talent
Young Dr. Kildare proved to be quite successful, as did the other Kildare films to come. There is much more to say about Lionel Barrymore's work after he was in his wheelchair, in terms of disability on film. It was, until him, rare to see a character in a wheelchair and practically nonexistent was an actor or actress who actually needed to use a chair getting roles in film. Dr. Marty Norden discusses wheelchairs in film in several articles and a very good book, The Cinema of Isolation. Some of his work will inform what I intend to show in my own research--that Lionel Barrymore through his films shifted public perception of physical disability away from one of pity and sympathy.  The popularity of the Kildare/Gillespie films, even after Ayres left the series, attests to Barrymore's popularity with the moviegoing public and their interest in seeing him work, regardless of physical "handicap".

There's so much more to be done just on this one actor, and I'm glad to be able to wade through the work of researching, cross-checking, and data mining to show how the films as they went on in the series provided a unique outlet for Barrymore's talents and also provided a platform for the "normalization" of wheelchair-use on film. However influential the films and Barrymore were on public acceptance of the disabled, especially the physically disabled, is yet to be determined. The advocate and sometime-cane/crutch/chair user in me says his work at least meant returning soldiers with physical disability in the 1940s met a reception somewhat different than they might have if they had become crippled prior to the very public presentation of a talented, determined, brilliant  doctor who just happened to be in a wheelchair. In short--to see is to believe, to make real, to concretize, if we want to get theoretical or whatnot.  It IS important to see ourselves on the screen, in public, in real life. And that, the very public image of Lionel Barrymore from 1938 onward, is a source of nearly infinite interest for me. That I wonder how he managed the pain over so many years (probably about 1924 or 25 onward he was on heavy medication to manage terrific pain) is secondary to my respect for his determination. No, Mr. B, I won't call you a hero. I know you would have hated that. I will, however, say I'd have been very happy to have a drink with you and joke about how many people think it's just so brave to live with a disability--so long as it's not them!

There will be more on this as I go on, and this page will alter and have additions and veer down many paths, but this is why I'm doing it. I'm gobsmacked at Lionel Barrymore as actor and human, and I admire the stubborn persistence of the man in face of things that even  now, with all the medical advances, would still make me frightened. Hell, MS is inconvenient, frustrating, chronic, and yes, incurable--but it usually doesn't have me in agony from terrible pain. Small blessings, eh?

Here's to you, Mr. B, wherever you are--may your dreams of happiness, love, health, and time enough at last to do all the composing and drawing you want with your loved ones be always fulfilled!

Lew Ayres, LB, and Lynne Carver, 1938, Young Dr. Kildare


  1. I think LB and his wheelchair at the glamour studio MGM were helped out by the fact that at the time the President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt was also wheelchair bound due to polio.

    1. I have thought about that, though FDR et al did a STUPENDOUS job of hiding wheelchair-use from the public. They wouldn't have known how disabled he was, and I believe only one photo is extant of him sitting in his wheelchair (though the family may well have some). But his use of braces, assistants, etc., would have made it clear he was not a totally well man! Ironic LB was pulled from a film bio of FDR as "ant-Roosevelt" (or at least rumor hath it Eleanor Roosevelt protested to the powers that be she didn't want LB, who did a bit of campaigning for Thomas Dewey, to play her husband).