Even after his mobility became limited, Lionel Barrymore had a busy career right up to his death in 1954. While he was with MGM for decades, he was loaned out on many occasions, one of the later ones being the 1948 film, Key Largo. Barrymore’s role is definitely memorable, and shows his power as an actor even in his later years.
The film starts on the causeway going out to Key Largo, Florida. A bus full of passengers is pulled over by a State Trooper squad car, as there’s a manhunt going on for some escaped convicts. Since they don’t find who they’re looking for, the bus proceeds on its way. One gentleman, Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) heads into the Hotel Largo looking for the Temple family. One of the locals goes out to find them, and while he’s waiting for them, Frank stops at the bar for a drink. A cranky, tipsy blond, Gaye (Claire Trevor) is there as well, listening to a horse race on the radio. The other barflies seem a little hostile, and it’s a mystery as to why. One of them, Curly (Thomas Gomez) tells Frank he and the other men are from Wisconsin and bought out the hotel for a week for a guys-only vacation.
Frank finds the Temples at the boathouse. Nora (Lauren Bacall) and her father-in-law, James (Lionel Barrymore), are delighted to meet him. Frank was in the Army with Nora’s husband, George, who was killed at the Battle of Montecassino. The two of them were good friends, and James is eager to reminisce with him.
James and Nora have a lot of questions about George. Was he in any pain? What kind of soldier was he? Frank tells them as much as he can, but there’s not a lot of time to visit, because a hurricane is coming up. Nora and Frank go outside to batten down the hatches.
Hampering their efforts is Curly, who keeps popping up everywhere they are, not to mention introducing Frank and Nora to more guys. His polite veneer quickly evaporates once everyone’s inside and someone calls the front desk. Curly rudely pushes Nora out of the way when she moves to answer it, and when Frank tries to help Curly pulls out a revolver.
Now they’re in for it. Curly and his buddies herd everyone into the Temples’ living room off the lobby, where they all sit around and wait uncomfortably. What are they waiting for? Lolling around in a bathtub upstairs is notorious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), who is so hardcore that he was exiled to Cuba. He’s on his way back there, but not until he can unload some counterfeit money on a fellow gangster, Ziggy. Rocco and his henchmen have also roughed up a young deputy, Clyde Sawyer (John Rodney), who was there to take two young ruffians, John and Tom to jail.
Frank tries to talk his way out of things, and he and Rocco even have an armed standoff at one point. Frank blinks first, though, and says he has to look out for himself rather than shoot Rocco. It disappoints Nora especially, because George had made him out to be a hero. Rocco and his gang aren’t just talk, though, and when Clyde tries to do what Frank didn’t he gets shot himself. Now that Rocco’s gang has a dead body on their hands, they enlist Frank to take them to Cuba in the Temples’ fishing boat, despite the hurricane, and Frank uses the situation to his advantage.
This is a movie of seeming dead ends. The cast are thrown together when a hurricane hits the island. Rocco and his toadies had planned on moving on in a couple of hours, but nothing is really working, so the agony is just that much more drawn-out. Gaye is trapped in a dual relationship with Rocco and alcohol, having lost her identity as an individual and a singer. She’s literally reduced to singing for her next drink, and she does it rather badly. What each character finds, however, is that liberation comes unexpectedly in unlikely ways.
Key Largo is an excellent film, with John Huston’s trademark grit and loads of strong performances. It’s an ensemble piece, but Bogart’s character is a big standout. Frank is another take on Bogart’s classic I-don’t-stick-my-neck-out-for-nobody character, and he redeems himself but good. He and Bacall are smouldering together, of course, although it’s more looks and glances than overt romance. Then there was Edward G. Robinson, who was no stranger to playing gangsters, and his aging Rocco is languidly evil. He’s not above fighting a gun duel with an opponent whose gun isn’t loaded, and it’s putting it mildly to say he’s an absolute slimeoid. One doesn’t get to be a top gangster by being a classy individual.
As for our Mr. Barrymore, he was a tower of strength in terms of charisma and mental energy. At this time of his life, he was in great pain from arthritis, in addition to the injuries he had sustained in the 1930s, and while Barrymore doesn’t wince much, his affliction shows in his face. It’s hard to explain, but the way Barrymore set his jaw reminded me of what my husband does with his own pain (He was injured at work in 2014 and can barely walk).
However, Barrymore was not hampered by his wheelchair in this film. His James is loved and respected by everyone on Key Largo, so much so that if he thinks the local punks should go to jail for their indiscretions, off they go with a smile on their faces. James is such a formidable personality that he makes the gangsters nervous, and he gets angry enough at them in one scene that he fairly lunges at them. It’s interesting to imagine how Barrymore would have handled the role if his mobility hadn’t been limited.
In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. Barrymore’s prowess was projected in his voice and manner. He didn’t need to stand up to have a presence as an actor, and that’s unusual, because a lot of actors, especially today, rely on their physicality. If that’s gone, they’re gone. It’s a rare actor that can move beyond that, and it’s inspiring to see.
There we have my Day Two, and more Barrymore can be found at Crystal’s In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Tomorrow we’ll look at something from one of the current Barrymores. Thanks for reading, all!