Family & Companions
One of the bright lights of the silent era, Richard Barthelmess began in supporting roles and gradually worked his way up to lead parts. He hit the big time with D.W. Griffith's hit film "Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl" (1919), in which he gave a compelling performance as a Chinese man in love with a Caucasian woman (Lillian Gish). The following year, he reunited with Griffith and Gish for "Way Down East" (1920), the highlight of which featured Barthelmess risking his life for real by jumping from one unsteady ice floe to another in the midst of a winter storm. The New York native continued his string of successes with pictures like "Tol'able David" (1921) and was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Although he made the transition to talkies, his popularity eventually began to wane. To try and ensure continued employment, Barthelmess underwent plastic surgery, but the procedure failed and left him scarred. After three years away from acting, Howard Hawks convinced him to return in "Only Angels Have Wings" (1939) and Barthelmess gave a strong turn with his facial imperfections in plain view at the director's request. Largely forgotten in later years, Barthelmess deserved the notoriety he gained at the height of his career and was also worthy of later celebration beyond the core of silent film enthusiasts who helped keep his memory alive.
Richard Semler Barthelmess was born in Southampton, NY on May 9, 1895. His mother, Caroline Harris, was a veteran stage actress and Barthelmess decided to try his hand at acting while attending Trinity College. Some work as an extra led to Barthelmess making his official film debut in "War Brides" (1916), he found additional parts in such pictures as "The Streets of Illusion" (1917) and "Rich Man, Poor Man" (1918). The handsome young performer demonstrated sufficient poise and charisma that he progressed to lead roles in the likes of "Three Men and a Girl" (1919) and "Peppy Polly" (1919). Around this same this same time, Barthelmess began collaborating with acclaimed director D.W. Griffith, who went on to helm two of his best remembered vehicles. Barthelmess' fame skyrocketed when he was cast in Griffith's "Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl" (1919). As the empathetic "Yellow Man" of the title, Barthelmess portrayal of a Chinese man seemed awkward and politically incorrect in later years, but his interpretation captivated audiences of the time, as did the film's flirtation with the theme of forbidden love between that character and heroine Lillian Gish, who would later say her co-star possessed "the most beautiful face of any man who ever went before the camera."
Among the most famous silent movies of its era, Griffith's "Way Down East" (1920) featured an incredible and classic scene where Barthelmess saves co-star Gish by jumping across a series of ice flows and grabbing the stricken heroine just before she goes over a waterfall to certain death. Performed in the middle of a very real winter with no stunt doubles, the masterfully shot and edited sequence beautifully displayed its director's advanced techniques and, perhaps, lack of concern for the safety on the set. One of Barthelmess' co-stars in "Way Down East" was Mary Hay and he married the actress and former Ziegfeld girl in 1920. The couple went on to have a daughter during their seven years together. Now among the most popular and highest-paid performers, Barthelmess decided to take a more hands-on role in producing his movies by co-founding Inspiration Pictures. He starred in the company's first production, "Tol'able David" (1921), as a young man who takes revenge against a family of criminals. The movie was a major success and Barthelmess followed up with the several other strong efforts, including the adventure "Fury" (1923) and the touching romantic drama "The Enchanted Cottage" (1924). He also joined Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson, Dorothy Gish, Ethel Barrymore and other luminaries of the period in a short adaptation of Alexander Dumas' "Camille" (1926).
One of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Barthelmess was represented in the line-up for the first Academy Awards ceremony and, ironically, competed against himself. He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for both "The Patent Leather Kid" (1927) and "The Noose" (1928) and ended up losing to Emil Jannings, who was also nominated for two different productions simultaneously. Barthelmess and Hay divorced in 1927, and the actor wasted no time remarrying Jessica Sargent the following year, who would remain his wife for the remainder of his life. The drama "Scarlet Seas" (1928) was the actor's first sound feature and he had little difficulty adjusting to a medium that had spelled career doom for a number of previously popular headliners. Barthelmess found steady employment at Warner Bros./First National, where he toplined such enterprises as Howard Hawks' World War I actioner "The Dawn Patrol" (1930) and the racial prejudice drama "Son of the Gods" (1930), where he played a Chinese man who could pass for white. Also of note was "The Cabin in the Cotton" (1932), an early outing for up-and-comer Bette Davis, and Barthelmess had one his best parts in William A. Wellman 's affecting drama "Heroes for Sale" (1933), as a man who manages to continue moving forward despite being constantly beaten down by life.
He was given another chance to portray a different ethnicity in "Massacre" (1934), as a Sioux Indian-rodeo star who helps his people counter discrimination, before the actor traveled to Britain to topline the costume drama "Spy of Napoleon" (1936). While he did quality work more often than not, Barthelmess' drawing power had started to fade. In an effort to retain his youth, he had plastic surgery, but an infection resulted in scarring that could only be hidden with make-up. After an absence of three years, Barthelmess resumed silver screen duties with a strong supporting turn in the Howard Hawks adventure "Only Angels Have Wings" (1939). In the film, he played a pilot who was disfigured; not surprisingly, Barthelmess left the facial blemishes intact in order to sell that aspect of the character. The quality of his performance helped earn him additional roles in the courtroom drama "The Man Who Talked too Much" (1940) and the John Wayne/Randolph Scott oater "The Spoilers" (1942). Following his appearance in the RKO musical "The Mayor of 44th Street" (1942), Barthelmess left show business behind to help with America's war effort, serving in the Naval Reserve. When the fighting concluded, Barthelmess, who had decided that he no longer enjoyed making movies, became a private citizen and lived off his accumulated wealth, which included sizeable real estate holdings. He was content to remain out of the spotlight during his later years, though Barthelmess did write in to correct a New York newspaper that had referred to him as deceased in 1959. Barthelmess succumbed to throat cancer on Aug. 17, 1963.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Film acting debut (bit) in serial, "Gloria's Romance"
Discovered by Russian actress Nazimova while she was being taught English by his mother; cast in leading role opposite her in "War Brides"
Founded Inspiration Pictures which produced some 15 features in five years; 12 starring Barthelmess, eight directed by Henry King
Sold Inspiration to First National, though some films continued to be released as Inspiration productions
Received Oscar nomination for first film under acting contract to First National, "The Patent Leather Kid"
Acted in his first talking picture, "Weary River"
Appeared on the New York stage in "The Postman Always Rings Twice"
Returned to film after almost four years to play supporting role in Howard Hawks' "Only Angels Have Wings"
Last film, "The Spoilers"
Joined the Naval Reserve