Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Born Today May 9: Richard Barthelmess


Richard Semler Barthelmess, known as "Dick", was born on the day into a theatrical/movie acting family in New York City.  His mother was the silent film actress Caroline Harris.  His father died when he was 1, so he spent his childhood with his actress mother, doing stage walk-ons in stage plays that she was in New York.  He followed in the family tradition while attending Trinity College in Connecticut, performing on the stage there, setting up training for a professional career in acting.  His mother was a great friend of the silent star Alla Nazimova; through her, he was offered a part in the film War Brides (1916), in which she starred.  He had, however, made his actual film debut earlier in the year in an uncredited role in the adventure/drama Gloria's Romance.  He had been studying finance in school, but was once quoted that he saw his friends struggling in banking, he thought that he should, perhaps, consider acting instead.  So, after appearing in the Nazimova film, he never returned to school.  The next film that he appeared in, in which he landed to starring role; Just A Song At Twilight (1916), was one of only two films made by the Dixie Film Company.  War Brides reportedly gained the attention of director D. W. Griffith, but he would not appear in a Griffith film until 1919.  It seems more likely that two films he made with Dorothy Gish and director Elmer Clifton that actually got the grandiose director's attention.  It is the movies that Barthelmess made for Griffith that the actor is most remembered for today.  It is often cited that the well known Broken Blossoms was Barthelmess' first appearance in a Griffith film, but he was actually in The Girl Who Stayed At Home (1919) first.  He was then in the famous Broken Blossoms (1919), with he and Lillian Gish appearing in an early "yellow face" roles.  Other films that he made with Griffith are:  Scarlet Days (1919),  The Idol Dancer (1920)The Love Flower (1920),  and Way Down East (1920). In 1921 he formed, with Charles Duell, his own production company, which they named Inspiration Films.  The first film that the company produced was Tol'able David (1921) starring Barthelmess.  The company stayed in business until 1930.  The company would dominate him as an actor between the years 1921 to 1926 and also garned him two producer credits in 1925.  The first sound film that he was in came in 1929 with Weary River a First National Pictures film shot at the Warner Brothers studio lot.  Though he was a super-star of the silent screen and became one of Hollywood's highest paid actors in the 1920's, he did not  really make the transition to sound in the 1930's.  He struggled through that decade and only made two films in the 1940's, the last of which was The Mayor of 44th Street in 1942.  He decided to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserves at the start of World War II and served as a lieutenant commander.  After the war was over, he decided not to return to acting of any sort, and never made another picture.  He lived instead on his shrewd investments.  He moved back to his home state of New York, where he lived life out, dying in Southhampton on the 17th of August due to complications from throat cancer.  He is interred in the mausoleum at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, NY.  The first of his two marriages was to silent film actress Mary Hay.

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