Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Cross-post from my new blog: Lionel Barrymore, wheelchairs, acting, oh my!

Over at my new(er) blog, Barrymuch, Barrymore, Barrymost: Lionel Barrymore, obsessively, I recently wrote a bit on wheelchairs, Mr B, and film and whatnot. For those who don't know, Lionel Barrymore remains one of the very few actors who had a long career even after he required a wheelchair starting in 1938. He rolled an awesome path for people to get their brains around a person in a film who actually used a wheelchair, but oddly, the 1950s (Mr. B died in 1954) seemed to roll back some of the positive forward motion he all by himself had made in representations of disabled, wheelchair using-folk in film. He seems to have single-handedly pushed aside all kinds of barriers and his films and he himself were wildly popular, starting in 1938 with Young Dr. Kildare--indeed, House, MD seems to have ripped off the cranky, disabled diagnostician routine whole cloth from Barrymore's Dr. Gillespie!

Mr. B had no pretense of being any kind of hero or "supercrip", but really felt driven to keep working and had a studio (MGM) whose head both personally like Barrymore and who wasn't stupid enough to think he could let such a good, popular actor slip away.  Once in a while, extremely rarely, he would use crutches in a film, and could use them if he needed to in daily life, but he truly disliked them. I am utterly fascinated by him and his acting, and yes, his work before 1938. Fascinated person.

If you're wondering how he got to BE in the wheelchair-- you should go read the bio, etc on my blog!    Brief biography of Lionel Barrymore*
 *yes, he's Drew's great-uncle; his brother John was Drew's grandfather

Weekend Wheelchair Musings

Astute readers probably noted I mentioned I have a blog on MS. That's because I have relapsing-remitting MS, Dxed 2009. I'm probably one of the lucky ones.  Now that I think about it, in a roundabout way it led me to Lionel Barrymore's acting, so I'm quite lucky! [Note: his brother John is indirectly responsible for my grad degree...more on that later!]

In reading about LB and his chair, what I found interesting is the Kildare films were done so well (Bucquet directing very nicely many) the wheelchair became almost irrelevant to the plot. Now and then, we are reminded of the good Dr. Gillespie's need for it, but the doc himself is never an object of pity. We learn very quickly there's nothing to pity about Dr. G!

There are the typical "hero" disabled person moments spoken by others, as when an aside is used to "prepare" people who are about to meet Dr. G for the first time,  along the lines of "he's brilliant, but his legs are hopelessly crippled". They become fewer as the films continue.  I've seen that used in just about every film with someone in a wheelchair who has a major part.  Now,  I can see the need to establish the background story quickly,  but seemingly,  given the popularity of the films, LB was the attraction,  and the fact he was acting circles around people while IN a wheelchair meant his skill "normalized" for viewers a person in a wheelchair.

 I'm not claiming he did this all on his own, or that he even meant it to happen. He does note he's a good "jockey" in his chair and doesn't mind answering or forwarding to his chair manufacturer letters from the public about it.  Others, including Ronald Reagan,  noted the already skilled scene-stealer would use his "chromium contraption"* to great use in dominating a scene--even smacking into people's shins with the wheels. LB is absolutely masterful in the films in the way he moves his chair to emulate what he'd likely be doing on two feet. It's really astonishing.

I think without LBs incredible talent, a shift in the audience's acceptance of a character in a wheelchair who actually USED a chair in life would not have happened. How many actors in wheelchairs who really need them can you think of? I think the financial success of the films testifies to the acceptance of Dr. G and he seemed to walk-off, if you will, with just about every Kildare film. Gillespie was only ever stopped by his own exhaustion.  That I can also appreciate,  being a cantankerous,  stubborn type myself.

Intriguingly,  LB really disliked being photographed using his crutches to get around. That was interesting! I've only seen one pic of him using crutches outside a film. I'll likely not post it,  but I found that reluctance interesting.  When I have to use crutches or, very occasionally my wheelchair, I brace for questions and that stupid, inane "poor thing" voice. So I developed a response that,  while I have yet to use it,  I think will halt any probing. When asked "what happened?" (recall my MS comes & goes, sometimes day by day), I want to reply "they never took the bullet out of my spine".  Ha!

There's a lot to ponder on this, and I still need to finish coding the Kildare/Gillespie films! I'm not only intrigued,  psyched, even inspired,  but also in awe of Lionel Barrymore for his persistence.  Seriously.  Chronic illness as he seemed to have had is a pain in the ass, a huge no-no in our world today too unless you "rise above!" it and are a "supercrip", to use a phrase used sometimes in disabled folk's writing as shorthand for "the person who lost legs/lost half a brain, etc, but rises above all and competes in the Olympics."  The most recent of that type apparently killed his girlfriend in South Africa. Yes, there's an occasional dark side to my bloggish humor.

Do I think LB would mind the bleak humor? Not at all! I'm looking forward to exploring this much more,  too. Meanwhile...thank you, Mr B.
The grand old man, Key Largo, 1948. LB's disability is used to effect in the film.
* "chromium contraption" was what LB called his chair in a neat postscript in the first Ayres/Barrymore film, Young Dr Kildare.  He and Lew Ayres appear at the end of the film as themselves. Funny bit, too.

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