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28 October 2014

Gentlemen on the Loose -- Barthelmess, Colman, and Powell.

Richard Barthelmess, in about 1925
These three handsome guys were best pals in the late 20s-early 30s. All three were considered Hollywood's gentlemen -- fellows who could be invited to a formal dinner party and would not only know which fork to use, but how to address a duchess. Colman was the oldest and Barthelmess the youngest, and they all had considerable stage experience, as well as success in silent films. So they were experienced professionals, knew what they were doing, and also knew the limits their careers put on them. 

Ronald Colman about 1930
No one had to explain why an early morning call to the set meant blowing off a polo match. Only Colman and Powell worked together, once, in the silent "Beau Geste"; otherwise they were hardly even at the same studio at the same time, which was probably a relief -- no shop talk! 
William Powell in about 1933

 Instead they spent off-hour doing men-things, like attending football games and boxing matches, playing cards (though not at the insane levels that some Hollywood games reached) and tennis (where Colman overcame the handicap an unpublicized injury from WW1 might have caused him and became an excellent player). 

Most of all they just hung out, sometimes joined by another friend, Kay Francis. Kay had lots of boyfriends -- and lots of boyfriend trouble -- but none of these three were among them; again, probably a relief. Barthelmess bred dachshunds, and Powell certainly had one. So did Kay Francis.

William Powell and friend

Eventually their lives diverged, as always happens. Richard Barthelmess, who was perhaps the biggest silent star, did not do as well with talkies, not because he couldn't talk, but mainly because he couldn't construct a screen persona that fit the times. Indeed, in his silent work, his roles were amazingly varied, from the gentle Chinese missionary in "Broken Blossoms" to the broken WW1 vet in "The Enchanted Cottage", from the country boy of "Tol'able David" to the aggressive boxer of "The Patent Leather Kid". Sound limited his options, and his voice, though perfectly adequate, was not distinctive enough to supply a persona. This is in direct contrast to his two friends, whose unique voices remain perfectly recognizable today. On the other hand, neither one would ever be offered a role as a Chinese missionary (and for those who haven't seen it, this is a missionary from China, not to China) or gum-chewing East Side pug. But in the sound era, both Colman and Powell surpassed him eventually, and both of their careers were going strong throughout the 40s. After some success as in character parts (especially in "The Spoilers" and "Only Angels Have Wings) Barthelmess left Hollywood for Naval service in WW2, and never went back.  He died in 1963. Ronald Colman developed severe emphysema, and passed away rather suddenly in May, 1958. William Powell lived on until 1984, having retired from movies in the mid-fifties. (His last film was a darn good one -- Mister Roberts, in 1955.)
Colman, Powell, and Barthelmess, on their own

But I prefer to think of them all as they look on board that yacht -- young and full of zest, ready to trade the exquisitely tailored suits for deck shoes and sweatshirts, forgetting to shave, letting the seawater wash the brilliantine out of their hair, and taking a break for a rousing sea chanty. Don't they look happy?

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