I wanted to show off some vintage Lionel Barrymore cards and collectibles to celebrate his birthday (he was born April 28, 1878) but thought I’d spruce up the photos with some text. I’ve done a few Top 5 lists for birthdays before (Wallace Ford, Alan Hale), but I was pretty sure I could get 10 out of Lionel Barrymore.
As always the problems with these lists are that they’re limited by the movies the list-maker has actually seen … unless you’re going to fake it. Well, I get around that by scrapping the silent portion of Barrymore’s career, of which I’ve only seen one or two films plus clips, and sticking to my most comfortable ground in the 1930’s and 40’s.
I don’t include anything I haven’t seen—no Doctor Gillespie on his own or with Kildare for instance and no Duel in the Sun (1946), never seen any of ‘em. I was tempted to include Treasure Island (1934) because I love what I’ve seen of his Billy Bones, but the three times I’ve started to watch Treasure Island all came after 4 am, and so, no surprise, I’ve yet to stay awake through the whole thing! I’ve also left off anything I seen that’s become too fuzzy in memory to warrant inclusion (Mark of the Vampire (1935); The Devil-Doll (1936); Saratoga (1937); A Guy Named Joe (1943)), figuring that they weren’t memorable enough for me to either A) remember or B) watch again to this time.
But I’ve seen all the biggies and ten definitely do stand out! So here we go, my quite imperfect, heavily qualified, Top 10 List of Lionel Barrymore talkies. Are they in order, yes, but honestly you could probably shuffle them up on me tomorrow and I wouldn’t complain:
1) Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – How could old Potter not be atop a Lionel Barrymore talkie list? I’ve thrilled to his over-the-top nasty ways at least once per year since I was what, 6? In fact this terrible old man entered my psyche at such a young age, only to return annually for so long that I’m sure he has something to do with my very perception of evil.
2) Gramps from On Borrowed Time (1939) – My favorite nice Lionel Barrymore role. Oh, it’s a bit camp and very sentimental, but it’s also a pretty twisted story if you think about it. What lengths will Gramps go to in order to keep on living?
3) Oliver Jordan from Dinner at Eight (1933) – My favorite normal Lionel Barrymore role. Barrymore’s Oliver is the keystone of the incredible ensemble in the classic usually best remembered as a Harlow vehicle (and I won’t argue that!). But everything flows around Oliver. He’s too nice a guy for the age, caving into Carlotta, his wife, and putting himself at the mercy of the obnoxious Dan Packard. Take it easy Oliver!
4) Grandpa from You Can’t Take It With You (1938) – Confession: I actually don’t care for this movie, it’s a bit over the top for me (a little too screwball, is that possible?), and I’ve watched it several times hoping to like it better each viewing, but nope, never happens. Still Barrymore is the only one in Jean Arthur’s crazy family who not only doesn’t grate on me like fingers across a blackboard, but who I actually like. And how could you not? The contrast between Grandpa and the awesome Edward Arnold (best laugh in classic films, ahead of Frank McHugh) is both hilarious and touching.
5) James Temple from Key Largo (1948) – The father of Bogie’s deceased war buddy who runs the hotel that Edward G. Robinson and the boys hole up in. Father figure to daughter-in-law Bacall. He takes no guff.
6) Kringelein from Grand Hotel (1932) – I like the dying Kringelein, and yes, the top emotion his character is supposed to draw is sympathy, but to be honest he’s just a bit over-pathetic to the point where he creeps me out a little. Wonder if he got fresh with Flaemmchen after they left the Grand Hotel, wouldn’t surprise me. This should be higher up the list but honestly I think it was a bit too much.
7) Stephen Ashe from A Free Soul (1931) – Barrymore doesn’t stand out to me for most of the movie, that is until his amazing speech before the court which is pretty much all it took to win him the Academy Award for Best Actor. Perhaps it overshadows the rest of his performance, but even if that’s not the case what’s good enough for Oscar is good enough for me. That single scene plants A Free Soul at #7.
8) Captain Disko Troop in Captains Courageous (1937) – Of the 10 movies on this list Captains Courageous is probably the one I most need to watch again as it’s become a little hazy to me; that said, memory serves to tell me Disko would also make a Top 10 list of sea captains were I to put one together.
9) Detective Guerchard in Arsene Lupin (1932) – Lionel plays cat and mouse with brother John, who plays the jewel thief of the title, in a role that’s more textured than some of his later grandfatherly characters though not nearly as memorable.
10) Dan Peggotty in David Copperfield (1935) – Freddie Bartholomew, and later Frank Lawton, meets several characters as Copperfield and the weakness of the movie is that we’re left wanting much more of several of them. Old seaman Peggotty definitely fits that bill, just a few more minutes and he would have leap-frogged a few other entries here.
There you go, like I said, far from perfect and obviously all opinion. Here’s the fun part: What are your own favorite Lionel Barrymore appearances and what’s missing that I absolutely have to see so that it makes my next list of Lionel Barrymore favorites … whenever that may be!
If you like the collectibles illustrating these posts please check my eBay Store for availability: Lionel Barrymore in my eBay Store
My 2009 Lionel Barrymore birthday post includes another 4 vintage movie collectible images that I purposely left off this post.
And see yet another 4 vintage Barrymore cards and collectibles in Tammy Stone’s biographical entry about Lionel Barrymore in The Silent Collection over on the main things-and-other-stuff.com site.