Richard Barthelmess: A Life in Pictures
By David W. Menefee,
Bear Manor Media, 2009
A Ruggedly Beautiful Leading Man
Richard Barthelmess is one of those silent actors who seem so unbelievably gorgeous and strapping before talkies, and oddly short of stature and limited in the neck department after. It's a mystifying and unfair illusion. Yet he was the first silent film star whose fame and appeal I completely understood. If I were little Edna Mae McRinglets in the early Twenties, my side of the room would be plastered with his image clipped lovingly from movie magazines.
But it's a harsh realization that that stocky guy with the hard stare in Only Angels Have Wings is the handsome, ice-floe-hopping hero of Way Down East with about 20 years on him. Not that Barthelmess wasn't still an arresting performer; just that sound and time seemed to make him a bit less so.
The first movie I ever saw him was Broken Blossoms, one of those tricky D.W. Griffith movies about tolerance that you need to see when you're able to suspend your own intolerance for period racism. In it, Lillian Gish plays the abused daughter of an awful thug of a boxer, whom Barthelmess's character, a Chinese Buddhist shop-owner, loves from afar. When the girl passes out from a beating in front of his store, the man takes her in and cares for her until the father finds out and things go completely south. Many tears; much great acting in among the pantomime and melodrama.
Barthelmess came by acting honestly. His mother was a stage actress who was widowed when "Dick" was just a baby, and the boy often performed with her or on his own in juvenile roles. He studied acting in college and logged in a number of years as a stock performer. Encouraged by his mother's friend, Russian actress, Alla Nazimova, he turned to film, making his debut in the 1916 serial, Gloria's Romance, starring Billie Burke. He then made a number of pictures with Marguerite Clark (the model for Walt Disney's Snow White) and soon caught the attention of D.W. Griffith, who gave him the lead role in Broken Blossoms. He was a leading man thereafter until the advent of sound. In fact, Barthelmess was nominated for two pictures in the very first Academy Awards' Best Actor category, but lost to Emil Jannings's two pictures; they were the only two nominated, so that had to sting.
Talkies didn't do Barthelmess any favors. He only made a handful of films in the mid-1930s and retired for good in 1942 at the age of 47. During World War II, he served in the Naval Reserve, then lived out the rest of his days on Long Island with his (second) wife, whom he married in 1928, on the returns from savvy real estate investment.
Richard Barthelmess died on August 17, 1963, of throat cancer at the age of 68.
If think you might only want to see one of his films, I recommend Way Down East. It's got everything: sex, death, a reputation ruined, and fantastic cinematography (see Billy Bitzer, ace cameraman) in the climactic rescue on an icy river — and Lillian Gish; it's got Lillian Gish.