In the silent era, Lillian Gish proclaimed him the most beautiful man in movies. But by the time talkies arrived, Richard Barthelmess was weathered and hang-dogged looking. What he had was integrity and a focused, no-frills naturalness that made him an everyman. From his first talking film until the enforcement of the Code, the movies he starred in explored racism, the aftermath of war on soldiers, corruption, and the working man versus big business. To see his films is to understand the struggles and concerns of the early ’30s and how relevant they are today. Author Mick LaSalle states that no single American film star has created a talkie legacy anything like Barthelmess in its relentlessness of conscience or seriousness of purpose. Only Robert Redford comes somewhat close. He made some of the most exciting films of the era, but few know who he is even if they have an interest in films of the thirties. Why?
Richard Barthelmess in Heroes for Sale, 1933.
Barthelmess never gave many interviews, and unlike most actors who make socially conscious films, he never talked about politics, the messages in his films, or how he felt about them. He remains an enigma. We do know that he chose his own projects, taking risks that sometimes failed. The consistency in projects he chose makes coincidence seem unlikely.
In 1930 he starred in Son of the Gods, a love story between a half-Chinese college student, Sam Lee, and a white woman. The movie shows us what racial prejudice looked like in the 1930s and forces the audience to confront its ugliness. At this time, any mixing of race was illegal, and some theaters refused to show the film at all. In The Dawn Patrol (1930), Barthelmess played a British squad leader who, day after day, must send six men on bombing patrols — half never come back. Fresh young men replace them in an endless cycle. Barthelmess’s character is gentle and kind toward the young men, keeping a tight rein on his emotions while refusing to hate the enemy. This film was a box office success which was crucial in paving the way for the actor to make more films a year before censorship kicked in.
Barthelmess (center) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr (left) and Neil Hamilton in The Dawn Patrol,1930.
Richard Barthelmess in The Dawn Patrol directed by Howard Hawks, 1930
The spectacular aerial shots were used in a 1938 remake starring David Niven, Errol Flynn, and Basil Rathbone. (Photo Pre-Code.com)
Another war film, The Last Flight (1931), takes place off the battlefield in Paris and focuses on the psychological effects of disillusioned postwar soldiers coping with depression and PTSD. Disillusionment is a stand-in word for post-war maladies for which there wasn’t yet a name. Barthelmess heads an ensemble cast of wounded soldiers who head to Paris with the intention of staying permanently drunk. It’s Leaving Las Vegas, military style. Interestingly, pre-Code war films show a pacifist post-war attitude and even empathize with humans on the other side of enemy lines.
David Manners and Richard Barthelmess play WWI soldiers grappling with physical and emotional wounds in The Last Flight, 1931. (Photo Pre-Code.com)
Helen Chandler and Richard Barthelmess try to party away their pain in The Last Flight, 1931.(Photo Pre-Code.com)
By the time Barthelmess made Heroes for Sale in 1933, the public had a thirst for socially conscious films. In Heroes he plays Tom, a WWI vet whose heroic act gets him injured while the act itself is mistakenly attributed to another man. At home he becomes reliant on morphine and loses everything including, wrongfully, his reputation. Tom starts over in another city where he is enterprising, becomes a boss who loves his workers, then champions an invention that big business uses to put those same workers out of a job. A truly incredible film, its jumbled ideology includes Capitalism, Socialism, the ACLU, and FDR, and shows us the philosophical confusion felt by a people in despair fueled by economic depression.
Richard Barthelmess with Aline MacMahon in Heroes for Sale, 1933.
In 1932 alone a quarter of a million people lost their homes. 750,000 people were living on city relief money that totaled 8.20 a month per person, with another 160,000 waiting for relief. Heroes for Sale gives us a quasi neorealist look at the Depression. (photo Pre-Code.com)
Richard Barthelmess speaks to his workers as wife Loretta Young looks on in Heroes for Sale, 1933. (Photo Pre-Code.com)
In January of 1934, Barthelmess took on the government’s abuse of Native Americans in Massacre. Critics responded positively with the Herald Tribune saying, “To denounce a government with fire and indignation requires artistry which Richard Barthelmess possesses.” The idea that Hollywood wouldn’t be a strong arm of propaganda but perhaps a watchdog against governmental abuse was exciting — if only for a moment. By July the content of films was under the restriction of the Code.
In 1922, when Hollywood was embroiled in several major scandals that had reformers in an uproar, Barthelmess, in a rare public statement on censorship via radio, said, “Fanatical agitation for censorship is unfair when people who know nothing of picture making would wreck the structure of an artistic screen production by hacking at points necessary to the climax.” This quote may explain his exit from the screen in 1942. He made only six films after 1934 including Only Angels Have Wings. After serving in the Navy Reserve during WWII, Barthelmess retired to Long Island until his death in 1963.