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16 February 2015

Richard Barthelmess' Epilog Part 1

Early 20s portrait
Richard Barthelmess wss one of the most popular stars of silent movies. As well as possessing, in his youth, one of the most beautiful faces ever seen on film,
he was an actor of great depth as well as delicacy. Whether portraying the gentle, lost Chinese missionary in D.W. Giffith's Broken Blossoms (a missionary from China to Britain)
Broken Blossoms
to the horribly maimed WW1 veteran
The Enchanted Cottage
in the The Enchanted Cottage to the aggressive, streetwise pug of The Patent Leather Kid, he presented whole characters.

With Molly O'Day in The Patent Leather Kid

But his days as a star were over by 1936. This was not because he couldn't speak acceptably -- he had quite a bit of stage experience before he ever stepped before the cameras -- but largely because with sound the process of typecasting became more hardened; actors would find it increasingly difficult to break out of whatever genre they had achieved success in.

Barthelmess' sound films were, as has been frequently remarked, strongly socially conscious, and expressed deep concern about the disruption and despair caused by the Great Depression. But, over and over, his character was a victim, rather than a solver of problems, and the audience didn't need to be reminded of how it felt to lose everything. This was a real change from his silent career, which included a wide range of characters and situations, from actual tragedy, like Broken Blossoms, to classic costume adventure, like The Bright Shawl or The Fighting Blade, to exotic romances like Soul-Fire, to urban stories, some dramatic, like The Wheel of Chance, and some semi-comic, like The Patent Leather Kid and Shore Leave.

The Patent Leather Kid
The Patent Leather Kid is remarkable in many ways -- first, it combines two pretty incompatible genres, the boxing movie and the war movie, with great success. It was possibly Barthelmess' most popular film, and it deserved to be -- he's wonderful in it, as the brash, streetwise lightweight boxing title contender, and the supporting characters are models for supporting casts throughout the 30's. But for him, it was a one-off, not a new persona to adopt permanently.
In silents Barthelmess could play anything -- an Englishman, a Mexican, a Dutchman, a Russian, or a Chinese, wealthy or poor, aristocratic or slum-bred -- and nobody was much bothered. But sound solidified the boundary lines. Actors like Bette Davis and Cary Grant had to fight studios to play roles different from their last success.

It's easy to see what weakened and eventually ended Barthelmess' career as a movie star, when we can look back at decades of promotion by the film studios and see how it affected us -- indeed, it still affects us. Don't we still think of Clark Gable as the King of Hollywood? Don't we think of William Powell and Myrna Loy as the perfect couple? Doris Day the sunny virgin? Those labels are practically quotes from a studio pressbook.
So Barthelmess' days as a box-office draw were over by 1936. But he was still a great actor. It is true that he had cosmetic surgery in England in 1937, and it is true that there were complications that lead to scarring. (Personally, I think this might have been triggered by the fact that his mother, Caroline Harris, passed away in New York while he was away). But I don't really think that had anything to do with the decline in his career; he was not obviously disfigured, as his next film demonstrates. 

NEXT: Part 2: Only Angels Have Wings

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