Lionel Barrymore was a towering actor, but unfortunately he had to deal with severe physical pain after the mid-nineteen-thirties, which limited his prospects somewhat. The possible causes range from rheumatoid arthritis to a drawing room table falling on him in 1936, to breaking a kneecap, to hip injuries. No one knows for sure. Some think L.B. Mayer bought him cocaine to try and ease the pain. In any case, Barrymore never walked again after 1938, although he could stand for brief periods. He was still busy, though, acting from a wheelchair or in some cases such as You Can’t Take It With You, on crutches. According to Mickey Rooney, the poor man couldn’t sleep very well because of the pain he was in, and he would nod off at odd times, leading to a rather jumpy delivery style.
Well, with all due respect to Mr. Rooney, I don’t believe Mr. Barrymore’s acting was that fidgety. If it had been, he wouldn’t have gotten so much work, not only on the screen but on the airwaves. Barrymore had a prolific radio career, beginning in 1934 and continuing right up to his death in 1954. It must have been a relief for him to act to his heart’s content without his physical obstacles getting in the way. Instead of trying to cover all of it, I thought I’d present a sampler of Lionel Barrymore radio shows and let them speak for themselves. Here we go…
We Hold These Truths (Air Date: December 15, 1941)
Presented one week after the United States entered the Second World War, We Hold These Truths was written by Norman Corwin and jammed with big-name stars and still-familiar character actors. The bulk of the narration was handled by Jimmy Stewart, but Lionel was also heard. The program details the process by which the Bill of Rights was adopted, why it is important, and whether or not it is still relevant to Americans today.
“Amy Lou Goes To War”, Mayor of the Town (Air Date: September 20, 1942)
From 1942 to 1949, Mayor of the Town graced all three of the major networks, and Barrymore played the prickly-but-good-hearted title character. He not only runs the town of Springdale, but helps its residents out of their various jams. In this episode, the Mayor counsels Amy Lou, a feisty nurse who joins the Army Nurse Corps, as well as her boyfriend, who would rather she didn’t go overseas. Agnes Moorehead plays Marilly, the Mayor’s housekeeper.
Command Performance #75 (Air Date: April 5, 1945)
Command Performance was a request program broadcast over the Armed Forces Radio Service, and just about every actor or actress of stage or screen took their turn in front of its microphone. The show provided a very welcome break for servicepeople overseas from 1942 until 1949, even those who were far out in the battlefield. In this episode, Barrymore has a patter session with Bing Crosby. Marilyn Maxwell, Ken Carpenter, and Dame May Whitty also appear.
“Laura,” Lux Radio Theatre (Air Date: February 5, 1945)
Starting on the Blue Network and moving to CBS, Lux Radio Theatre aired on Monday nights from 1934 until 1955, presenting one-hour versions of current or recent feature films. Most of the time, but not always, the actors from the film would recreate their parts for the radio. The show was ordinarily produced and hosted by Cecil B. DeMille and later William Keighley, but Lionel stood in on this particular episode. Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, and Dana Andrews reprise their film roles, with Otto Kruger playing Clifton Webb’s role of Waldo Lydecker. This was actually one of two instances when Laura was recreated on the show; the second time being on February 1, 1954.
“A Christmas Carol,” Campbell Playhouse (Air Date: December 24, 1939)
According to the National Radio Hall of Fame, Mr. Barrymore brought Ebeneezer Scrooge to life eighteen times between 1934 and 1953, and it didn’t take long for it to become a tradition. These broadcasts were so popular, M-G-M made plans to use Barrymore in their 1938 feature film version of the story, but Barrymore’s physical limitations made that idea impractical. Not all the recordings of A Christmas Carol are known to survive, but the ones we do have are excellent renderings of Dickens’ beloved novel. This Campbell’s Playhouse version is almost straight out of the original text, with Orson Welles narrating.
Radio is a truly unique medium. It gives a real-time feeling to listeners, allowing them to put themselves into a certain point in history. It also gives another facet to the talents of actors like Lionel Barrymore, capturing performances that were often in the moment and sometimes more intense than what could be done before the cameras.
That does it for my Day Two. Come back tomorrow for my third and final Barrymore in Day Three, and as always, check with Crystal for more Barrymore lore at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. See you then!