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.
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?
|Way Down East wih Lillian Gish|
|With Molly O'Day in The Patent Leather Kid|
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.
|Four Hours to Kill|
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|
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|