Richard Barthelmess: More Than Tol’able

Richard Barthelmess (1895-1963) was a second generation thespian. His mother Caroline was a stage actress; he got his first professional experience as a child actor in her productions. He also acted while a student at Trinity College in Hartford. It was at the instigation of the great Nazimova, to whom his mother tutored English and speech, that he began pursuing acting as a professional vocation. He had walk-ons in the film version of Nazimova’s War Brides, as well as in Gloria’s Romance, with Billie Burke, both in 1916.

Barthelmess would amass 80 screen credits over a 26 year film career, including D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), both opposite Lillian Gish; the smash hit Tol’able David (1921), and The Noose (1928). The all-star Show of Shows (1929) was one of his first sound pictures. His notable talkies included The Dawn Patrol (1930), directed by Howard Hawks, and The Cabin in the Cotton (1932) with Bette Davis. From 1920 to 1927 he was married to fellow star Mary Hay.

By Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Cary Grant was the star of the picture, and Barthelmess got third billing. By the 1942 remake of The Spoilers with John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Marlene Dietrich, he was sixth in the billing. His next picture, The Mayor of 44th Street (1942), was his last. He served as a lieutenant commander in the naval reserve during World War Two. When the war was over he chose not to return to movie making. As one of the top Hollywood stars of the ’20s and early ’30s, Barthelmess had no interest in being a supporting player in his middle age. Fortunately he’d socked away enough dough from his glory days and investing it well, allowing him the luxury of this early retirement.

For more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube