09 May 2016

They Had Faces Then: Richard Barthelmess

One of my favorite actors -- and one of D.W. Griffith's favorite actors -- was born today, May 9, 1895. Lillian Gish, who co-starred with him in Griffith's Way Down East, said he had the most beautiful face ever put before the camera. But he had more than that; he was an actor of perception and commitment.
He was the grandson of a successful doctor who emigrated from Bavaria to New York; his father died when he was an infant, and he was raised by his mother, who became a moderately successful character actress. She was able to send him to a good prep school and then Trinity College, where he was more likely to be mentioned in the society pages than show business coverage. But he also spent all available time producing, directing, and acting in plays, which were well-received by students and alumni. The die was apparently cast. His mother was friendly with the famous Russian actress, Alla Nazimova, and in 1916 she recommended him to Herbert Brenon, a very well regarded director, for the film she was about to start, War Brides.
Barthelmess left college (but not for good; see below), and had roles in more than a dozen films over the next two years, supporting George M. Cohan in Hit the Trail Holliday, and Dorothy Gish in The
Broken  Blossoms
Hope Chest and Boots (all 1918). He began to be noticed right away, and moved quickly from bit parts to co-starring roles. His first film for Griffith was The Girl Who Stayed At Home, with Carol Dempster.
Griffith must have been ecstatic when he saw that face in the frame and realized that this kid could
act, too. Barthelmess made it possible for him to make Broken Blossoms -- who else could possibly have played that part?
Scarlet Days
After that followed several more films for Griffith, culminating in Way Down East, and then Barthelmess struck out on his own. He became one of the biggest stars of the silent era, playing a wide range of characters, in contemporary stories, costume dramas, comedies, you name it. He was a rural teenager in Tol'able David, a 17th Century swordsman in The Fighting Blade, a disfigured war veteran in The Enchanted Cottage, an
Way Down East wih Lillian Gish
ordinary seaman in Shore Leave, a tough lightweight boxer (very suggestive of Cagney's future roles) in The Patent Leather Kid, a Russian immigrant (in fact, twin Russian immigrants) in The Wheel of Chance. He was nominated for the first Best Actor Academy Awards for two performances, The Noose and The Patent Leather Kid.
With Molly O'Day in The Patent Leather Kid
Sound was not as disastrous for him as it was for some silent stars, and he made some important pre-code films, several with William Wellman, including The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight, Heroes for Sale, Central Airport, Alias the Doctor, and Massacre. Most of his sound films, which he chose himself, had a strong social comment.
By 1934, however, his movies were less successful; he essentially failed to find a niche. Ironically, sound, initially at least, increased the practice of typecasting; if an actor was successful in one genre  he was expected to stay in that genre. Unlike D.W. Griffith, who had Barthelmess play a Mexican bandit one day and a Chinese missionary the next, studios in the 30s expected James Cagney to be a gangster and William Powell to be a gentleman -- always. Barthelmess never found that "type" that a publicity campaign could be hung around.
Massacre
He left Warner Brothers, where he had found a home when they took over First National Pictures, and made two films for other studios. Of particular interest is Four Hours to Kill, where he gave a moving performance as a minor-league criminal heading for execution and haunted by guilt for an accidental murder. The film is an interesting ensemble movie with several interwoven stories, directed by Mitchell
Four Hours to Kill
Leisen.
He returned to top-rank filmmaking with a strong supporting role in Howard Hawks' great adventure, Only Angels Have Wings, in 1939, playing disgraced pilot Bat McPherson. The public had not given up on him; it was reported that theater audiences burst into applause at his first appearance, which must have been gratifying.
With Allyn Joslyn  in Only Angels Have Wings
Barthelmess went on to make a few more films in supporting roles. But, like many other Americans, he believed that war was coming, and he was anxious to serve. Fortunately he actually had a college degree, Trinity College having awarded him a special "belated" degree, which he received along with the year's seniors. So when war broke out in December, 1941, he was able to obtain a commission in the Navel Reserve, and served in an administrative capacity based in New York.
After the war, he decided to retire to his estate in Southampton, where he pursued other interests, including breeding Weimaraner dogs.
Richard Barthelmess received one of the first George Eastman Awards in 1955, and attended the gala ceremony in the company of Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, and Mae Marsh. In 1960, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He passed away in 1963.
At home with his dogs