Lionel Barrymore: A Triumph of Craft


Today is the birthday of Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954). One of my most prized possessions is an autographed copy of his novel Mr. Cantonwine, which happens to be about a medicine show!

We wrote a little about him and his siblings and their connection to vaudeville here. Of the three Barrymores of their generation I think Lionel has the strongest claim to the hamular crown. While John was second to none in the scenery chewing department, he was also capable of great naturalness. Lionel on the other hand was always only about straight-ahead theatrical artificiality, and I make that observation without an ounce of implied disparagement. I have learned a lot by watching his screen performances: his bag of tricks is always on full view, transparent, for all to see, hear and enjoy. He is like an acting machine. It is for this reason that he is in scores of Hollywood and radio classics (and adaptations of literary classics) from the teens through the early 1950s. He was perfect for Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and for horror. Nearly everything he did had the aura of specialness; seems silly to list it all, just check out his IMDB entry here. (And for the deets on his stage career, see here).

For over the top, however, there’s no topping his performance in Tod Browning’s 1936 The Devil Doll. Barrymore had earlier worked in Browning’s silent West of Zanzibar (1928). With Lon Chaney now dead, Barrymore was a natural choice to play the role of Lavond, the cross-dressing ex-con with an unfortunate habit of shrinking his victims to the size of small dolls. Yes, cross-dressing. And contrary to expectation, Lionel Barrymore in drag does not equal Ethel. This one goes out the Duchess, who has an outsized affection for this performance:

To find out about  the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc



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