Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo (1948)

Key Largo (1948) numbers among Lionel Barrymore's most famous films. In it he played the role of crotchety but spirited hotel owner James Temple. Mr.Temple is a man with such backbone that he is even willing to stand up to the brutal gangster Johnny Rocco (played by Edward G. Robinson).

Key Largo was very loosely based on the play of the same name by Maxwell Anderson. In fact, the film owed very little to the play, The names of the characters and even their backgrounds were changed for the movie, as well as the setting, to the point that the movie is very nearly an entirely original creation. Regardless, Key Largo received largely positive reviews. It also did very well at the box office. Claire Trevor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Gaye Dawn, Rocco's moll. The film was also nominated for the Writers Guild of America's award for Best Written American Drama.

As in nearly of all of Mr. Barrymore's made after 1938, he plays nearly all of Key Largo in a wheelchair. His arthritis has often been given as the reason that he was confined to a wheelchair for the last part of his career, but in fact it would appear to be two accidents he had in the Thirties. The first occurred in 1936 when a drawing table fell on him, breaking his hip. The second occurred in 1937 when he tripped over a cable, again breaking his hip. In 1951 Lionel Barrymore said that it was twice breaking his hip that confined him to a wheelchair. Quite simply, it made walking very difficult.

The fact that Lionel Barrymore had difficulty walking makes one scene in Key Largo particularly dramatic and demonstrates just how great an actor Mr. Barrymore was. In one scene Mr. Barrymore gets up from his wheelchair in an attempt to punch at Rocco's henchman Toots (played by Harry Lewis), falling in doing so. Given Lionel Barrymore's condition at the time, there can be no doubt that this was a difficult scene for him to shoot.

That having been said, the scene also sums up the character of James Temple. James Temple is cantankerous and a bit rowdy, but for the most part lovable. Indeed, he is so respected by everyone that he has more influence with the local Seminoles than the sheriff's department does. That having been said, he would also seem to have a will of iron.  In addition to taking a swing at Toots, James Temple also issues a stream of insults towards Rocco not long after the gangster's arrival, full well knowing Rocco could simply shoot him.

In many respects, James Temple was a variation on the sorts of roles Lionel Barrymore primarily played throughout his career, that of lovable but irascible characters. He was Grandpa Martin Vanderhof in You Can't Take It With You (1938), Dr. Gillespie in the "Dr. Kildare" movies,and he originated the role of Judge Hardy in A Family Affair (1937), the film that sparked the "Andy Hardy" series (in the series the role would be played by Lewis Stone). In some ways James Temple is Grandpa Vanderhof or Dr. Gillespie if they came face to face with gangsters in their own homes. One can rather picture any of these characters shouting insults at the gangsters and even taking a swing at them!

Lionel Barrymore was part of an incredible cast that included Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, and Claire Trevor. And like the rest of the cast, Lionel Barrymore gave a great performance in Key Largo. There should be little wonder it remains among his most famous films.


Caftan Woman said...

For me, Key Largo is one of those pictures that can be returned too often, and each time find something new, along with all the by now overly familiar scenes, to relish.

Virginie Pronovost said...

Poor Lionel :(

Superb and highly informative review as always Terence! I didn't know this film was based on a play! :O When I watched it, it was mostly for Claire Trevor, but I loved Lionel too in it!