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Lionel Barrymore: More Than Drew Barrymore Great-Uncle

Lionel BarrymoreLionel Barrymore movies: Rare Night Flight.

Lionel Barrymore movies on TCM. (Image: Lionel Barrymore [right] You Can't Take It with You, with Edward Arnold, Jean Arthur, and James Stewart.) Lionel Barrymore isn't just Drew Barrymore's long-dead great-uncle. Barrymore, a favorite buddy of MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer, was a stage star, Academy Award-winning film actor, infrequent film director (Madame X, Redemption), brother of John Barrymore and Ethel Barrymore, son of Maurice Barrymore, grandson of stage actor John Drew, and Turner Classic Movies' “Summer Under the Stars” star on Friday, August 10. (See further below the full Lionel Barrymore movie schedule.)

But however well-regarded and despite his Best Actor Academy Award, Lionel Barrymore was also an uncontrollable ham. Come to think of it, Barrymore's Academy Award victory is actually proof of his hamminess. I mean, consider most of the other Best Actor winners of that period: Warner Baxter for In Old Arizona, George Arliss for Disraeli, Charles Laughton for The Private Life of Henry VIII, Victor McLaglen for The Informer, etc. Barrymore's over-the-top performance in A Free Soul fits right in.

Lionel Barrymore movie recommendations

Directed by Frank Capra, You Can't Take It with You was the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1938. Even if you don't buy the feel-good storyline, you should be able to enjoy the mostly first-rate cast: Jean Arthur (one of the best actresses ever), Ann Miller, Best Supporting Actress nominee Spring Byington, H.B. Warner, Mary Forbes, Donald Meek, Edward Arnold – even Lionel Barrymore, by then wheelchair-bound, gives a somewhat restrained performance. The one cast member I didn't care for was James Stewart – I'd have cast Melvyn Douglas in his place. Or Gary Cooper. Or Philips Holmes. Or Miriam Hopkins. Yes. Jean Arthur and Miriam Hopkins would've made a beautifully carefree couple in this socially conscious family comedy.

In West of Zanzibar, Barrymore meets his hammy match in the figure of Lon Chaney as a vindictive, crippled East African ruler who discovers much too late that Greek tragedies could take place in Africa, too. Warner Baxter, right before In Old Arizona and major stardom, is the “romantic lead,” while Mary Nolan, whose off-screen life was quite tragic, is the long-suffering young woman. Tod Browning (Freaks) directed.

Mata Hari: worldwide blockbuster

Mata Hari was a major worldwide box office hit thanks to the presence of two top MGM stars of the period: Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro, both of whom had huge followings overseas. (In fact, Garbo's and Novarro's movies were more popular abroad than in the US.) Directed by George Fitzmaurice, Mata Hari is pure melodrama, at times hilariously so (“Poor Carlotta…”). The film is worth watching chiefly because of its two leads, though Novarro, not looking his best, is mostly wasted in what amounts to a subordinate role. Lionel Barrymore plays one of the villains. [Garbo embracing Novarro in Mata Hari: Novarro biography postcard.]

I should add that Mata Hari marked the first time since Novarro became a star in 1925 that he took second billing to another actor. And that the “cigarettes aglow in the dark” scene was cut by the anti-sensuality freaks of the Production Code when Mata Hari was rereleased in 1939. According to the website Garbo Forever, this scene – and a couple of others – were included in a 2005 screening of the film at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. To the best of my knowledge, Turner Classic Movies has never shown Mata Hari uncensored. But here's hoping…

Another gigantic early '30s hit was Edmund Goulding's Best Picture Academy Award winner Grand Hotel, featuring what is officially known as Hollywood's first all-star cast: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, and Lionel Barrymore.

In my humble opinion, Grand Hotel is worth watching merely as a historical curiosity. Goulding manages a few classy touches every now and then, but the pacing is quite slow and the acting ranges from the effectively naturalistic (Crawford) to the cringingly theatrical (Lionel Barrymore). When all's over, Lewis Stone wonders about the tediousness of it all. Not that he doesn't have a point, but Stone should have wondered instead about how a movie with one single Academy Award nomination managed to take home the Best Picture statuette.

Lionel Barrymore You Can't Take It with You Jean Arthur James Stewart Edward Arnold

Last recommendation: Clarence Brown's Night Flight (1933), a TCM premiere and a rarity not seen (because of rights issues) since who knows when. Night Flight boasts a remarkable cast, including both John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, and William Gargan. That's four Academy Award wins, plus five nominations and one Honorary Oscar.

Lionel Barrymore movie schedule on Friday, August 10

6:00 AM WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928). In this silent film, a mad African dictator plots revenge on the trader who stole his wife. Dir.: Tod Browning. Cast: Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, Mary Nolan, Warner Baxter. Black and White-65 minutes.

7:15 AM THE DEVIL DOLL (1936). A Devil's Island escapee shrinks murderous slaves and sells them to his victims as dolls. Dir.: Tod Browning. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O'Sullivan, Frank Lawton. Black and White-78 minutes.

8:45 AM MATA HARI (1931). Romantic biography of World War I's notorious lady spy. Dir.: George Fitzmaurice. Cast: Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, C. Henry Gordon, Alec B. Francis, Blanche Friderici, Helen Jerome Eddy, Karen Morley, Frank Reicher. Black and White-89 minutes.

10:15 AM GRAND HOTEL (1932). Guests at a posh Berlin hotel struggle through scandal and heartache. Dir.: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone. Black and White-113 minutes.

12:15 PM SHOULD LADIES BEHAVE? (1933). A young girl falls for her aunt's lover. Dir.: Harry Beaumont. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Alice Brady, Conway Tearle, Katharine Alexander, Mary Carlisle, William Janney. Black and White-87 minutes.

1:45 PM THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN (1934). An eccentric family tries to work together when the father is accused of embezzlement. Dir.: William K. Howard. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Fay Bainter, Mae Clarke, Tom Brown, Mary Carlisle, Una Merkel, Onslow Stevens, Dickie Moore, C. Henry Gordon. Black and White-77 minutes.

3:15 PM THE RETURN OF PETER GRIMM (1936). A strong-willed patriarch returns from the dead to amend the wrongs he did his family. Dir.: George Nicholls Jr. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Helen Mack, Edward Ellis, Donald Meek, George P. Breakston, Helen Vincent, Ethel Griffies, James Bush. Black and White-83 minutes.

4:45 PM A YANK AT OXFORD (1938). A cocky American student runs into trouble when he transfers to the famed British college. Dir.: Jack Conway. Cast: Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O'Sullivan, Vivien Leigh. Black and White-102 minutes.

6:30 PM YOUNG DR. KILDARE (1938). A medical school graduate must choose between a small-town practice and a big-city internship. Dir.: Harold S. Bucquet. Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Lew Ayres, Lynne Carver, Laraine Day. Black and White-82 minutes.

8:00 PM YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938). A girl from a family of freethinkers falls for the son of a conservative banker. Dir.: Frank Capra. Cast: Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Edward Arnold, Mary Forbes, Spring Byington, Ann Miller, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, H.B. Warner, Mischa Auer, Samuel S. Hinds, Donald Meek, Halliwell Hobbes, Clarence Wilson, Ann Doran, Dub Taylor, Josef Swickard. Black and White-126 minutes.

10:15 PM NIGHT FLIGHT (1933). An airline's owner runs his business with ruthless disregard for safety. Dir.: Clarence Brown. Cast: John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Montgomery, William Gargan, Leslie Fenton, Harry Beresford, C. Henry Gordon, Dorothy Burgess, Irving Pichel, Frank Conroy, Helen Jerome Eddy. Black and White-85 minutes.

12:00 AM KEY LARGO (1948). A returning veteran tangles with a ruthless gangster during a hurricane. Dir.: John Huston. Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Claire Trevor, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Gomez, Harry Lewis, Marc Lawrence, Monte Blue. Black and White-101 minutes.

2:00 AM THE GORGEOUS HUSSY (1936). President Andrew Jackson's friendship with an innkeeper's daughter spells trouble for them both. Dir.: Clarence Brown. Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Franchot Tone, Melvyn Douglas, James Stewart, Alison Skipworth, Beulah Bondi, Melville Cooper, Louis Calhern, Gene Lockhart, Clara Blandick, Sidney Toler, Frank Conroy, Nydia Westman, Willard Robertson, Betty Blythe. Black and White-103 minutes.

4:00 AM LONE STAR (1952). A frontiersman helps out with Texass' fight for independence from Mexico. Dir.: Vincent Sherman. Cast: Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Broderick Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Beulah Bondi, Ed Begley, James Burke, Russell Simpson, Moroni Olsen, Lowell Gilmore, William Farnum, William Conrad. Black and White-95 minutes.

Lionel Barrymore movie schedule and film synopses via the TCM website.

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