The Epic Eye-Brows of Lionel Belmore

The visage of Lionel Belmore (1867-1953) is one you have surely seen in supporting roles in dozens of classic Hollywood films. Today we are apt to associate him with horror, although that was far from the only genre in which the theatrical veteran toiled. For quick reference, he was the pettifogging Burgomaster in Frankenstein (1931), and the similarly titled Burgermeister in The Vampire Bat (1933). He played similar small roles in all of Universal’s Frankenstein sequels, as well as such related things as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tower of London, both in 1939. Confusingly, he was also in Mark of the Vampire (1935), with Lionel Barrymore, the similarity of whose name must have been vexing to him throughout his career, for the latter was the much bigger screen star. Barrymore had earlier directed Belmore in The Unholy Night (1929) and The Rogue Song (1930).

While most of Belmore’s roles in talkies were bit-parts and walk-ons, he had been a bigger deal in his youth. He was from a London theatrical family. Both parents, George Benjamin Belmore and Alice Cooke were actors, as were all five of his siblings (the best known of whom were sisters Alice and Daisy), his wife (Emmeline Florence Carder), and several in-laws (the best known of whom was Bertha Belmore, who was married to his brother Herbert). Lionel first came to the States with the Henry IrvingEllen Terry company, with whom he played in many classics on Broadway. Early in the century, he remained, acting in several more productions with the companies of Olga Nethersol and William Faversham in succession.

In 1914, Belmore began directing and acting in silent films for the Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Company, alongside the likes of Clara Kimball Young, Constance Talmadge, S. Rankin Drew, Antonio Moreno, Montagu Love, and other stars of the day. His last film as director was The Wasp (1918) with Kitty Gordon, Rockliffe Fellowes, and himself. Throughout the rest of the silent era Belmore enjoyed a flourishing career as a character actor. He was Mr. Brownlow in the 1922 version of Oliver Twist with Jackie Coogan (He would later be cast as Mr. Bumble in the 1933 version of the Dickens tale starring Dickie Moore; and as the warden of the Old Bailey in the classic 1935 David Copperfield). He also had great roles in well known silents like Peg O’ My Heart (1922) with Laurette Taylor, Jazzmania (1923) with Mae Murray, the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk, Stop Look and Listen (1926) with Larry Semon, The Lucky Fool (1926) with Billy West, Rose-Marie (1928) with Joan Crawford, Heart Trouble (1928) with Harry Langdon, and dozens of others.

Early sound features included The Circus Kid (1928) with Frankie Darro, Poodles HannefordJoe E. Brown, and Helene Costello; Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929) with Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Lillian Roth, and Lupino Lane; Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930) with Claudia Dell; Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1931) with William Farnum; and Alexander Hamilton (1931) with George Arliss. Something about Belmore’s appearance and demeanor seemed to resonate in literary adaptations. In addition to the Dickens films we have mentioned, you can also see him in Vanity Fair (1932), So Big! (1932), The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), Jane Eyre (1934), The Three Musketeers (1935), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), The Prince and the Pauper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Tom Brown’s School Days (1940), and The Son of Monte Cristo (1940), among nearly 200 other credits. He also has the distinction of being in both Laurel and Hardy’s Bonnie Scotland (1935) and John Ford’s Mary of Scotland (1936).

Depending on what criterion you use, Belmore has three last films: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), which was his latest performance of his to make it to movie screens during his lifetime; Forever and a Day (1943), which contained his last screen performance, but it was cut from the film; or I Was a Criminal a.k.a. The Captain from Kopenick, which was released in 1945, but shot in 1941. Belmore lived a decade following his retirement, passing away at the then very advanced age of 84.

This story has an uplifting coda, by the way. Apparently, for some unknown reason (probably expense), Belmore’s gravesite in Woodland Hills went unmarked for nearly 70 years. Quite recently, a good citizen named Robert Satterfield crowdfunded a monument to honor the final resting place of the Bones of the Burgomaster (“Ghost of Frankenstein”, indeed!). I’m not such a Pollyanna as to believe every single human being needs to be remembered for all eternity. But those who have touched the lives of a great many, even in a small way, should not be forgotten.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy and early film read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.