Richard Barthelmess (1895-1963)

Richard Barthelmess
Richard Barthelmess

Richard Barthelmess became a leading actor in the Silent era and and was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, receiving a Best Actor nomination at the very first Awards ceremony. His fortunes took a downward turn when Talkies came in but he finished his career with an acclaimed performance as Rita Hayworth's husband in 'Only Angels Have Wings' in 1939.


He was born on May 9, 1895, in New York City. His father died when Richard was just one year old and he was brought up by his mother, Caroline who was a stage actress. Encouraged by his mother, he appeared in minor "walk-on roles" from an early age and grew up in a theatrical environment.

Early Acting Career

He was educated at Nyack College, New York and Trinity College, Hartford , Connecticut and it was at Trinity that he began his acting career with numerous roles in school productions. After graduation he joined a local stock company where he gained an early acting education. In 1916 he was advised by the actress Alla Nazimova, a friend of his mother, to become a professional actor.

Taking her advice he began his movie career in 1916 in walk-on roles in several movies including the serial 'Gloria's Romance'. His first featured role was in the same year in 'War Brides'. The movie starred Nazimova in her film debut and was based on her successful stage play.

Early Movie Career

Barthelmess continued his new career with a series of small roles over the next few years including, in 1917, 'The Soul of a Magdalen' and ' Bab's Diary' and 'Bab's Burglar', both starring popular actress Marguerite Clark. He appeared with her again in 1918 in 'Rich Man, Poor Man' and for the next two years he continued to appear in several movies each year, gradually gaining experience and becoming well known to both the film-going public and to Hollywood producers and directors.

He sufficiently impressed the top director of the time, D.W. Griffith, to be cast opposite Lillian Gish in the hit film 'Broken Blossoms' in 1919, in which he gave a masterly performance as a Chinese man in love with a Caucasian woman. It was his big chance at stardom and he seized it with both hands.

He was now a well known star and in 1920 he was again paired with Lillian Gish and directed by Griffith in 'Way Down East', the highlight of which featured Barthelmess seemingly risking his life by jumping from one ice floe to another to rescue his co-star. He had another smash hit in 1921 with 'Tol'able David' made by his own film company, Inspiration Film Company, which he had formed with director, Henry King.

Hollywood Stardom

Over the next few years he became one of Hollywood's most famous actors, starring in movies such as 'The Bright Shawl' and 'The Fighting Blade' in 1923, 'Soul-Fire' in 1925, 'The Patent Leather Kid' in 1927 and 'The Noose' in 1928. He was nominated for Best Actor at the first Academy Award ceremony for his performance in both these last two films, and he won a Special Citation for producing 'The Patent Leather Kid'.

Talkies 1929

In 1929 Barthelmess appeared in his first Talkie, 'Weary River', as a gangster who is also a singer. In studio publicity he claimed to be the singer of the title song but was obviously miming to a recording. The actual singer was found to be Johnny Murray and Barthelmess was caught out in a lie.

It was a major setback for Barthelmess and his movie career never again reached the heights of the late silent era. He appeared in several well-received early sound movies such as 'The Dawn Patrol' in 1930, 'The Last Flight' the following year and 'Central Airport' in 1933, but, approaching the age of forty, he made the disastrous decision to have a face lift. Such plastic surgery was in its infancy and the procedure was not successful. Barthelmess was left with extensive facial scarring.

'Only Angels Have Wings' 1939

After three years away from acting, Barthelmess was able to overcome the depression caused by his failed operation and was persuaded by director, Howard Hawks to return in 'Only Angels Have Wings' in 1939. Barthelmess gave a strong performance as the husband of Rita Hayworth with his facial scarring in plain view, at the director's request, as it gave his character a more realistic look. The movie was a classic and undoubtedly marked the highpoint of his career in sound movies. He made three more films, all in a supporting role before America joined the war in 1942.

During World War II Barthelmess served in the United States Navy Reserve as a lieutenant commander, and he never returned to acting.


Barthelmess had a striking appearance and women found him very attractive. Lillian Gish said of him that his "face was the most beautiful of any man who had ever been before the camera."

He married twice, firstly in 1920 to Mary Hay, a chorus girl with Florenz Ziegfeld. They had one daughter before divorcing in 1926. His second wife was Jessica Stewart Sargent. He adopted her son from a previous marriage and their marriage lasted until his death.

Richard Barthelmess died on August 17, 1963, from throat cancer. He was aged 68.

Richard Barthelmess Academy Awards

No Wins:
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... The Patent Leather Kid (1927
Best Actor ... The Noose(1928)

Richard Barthelmess Filmography

Gloria's Romance (uncredited)
War Brides
Just a Song at Twilight
Snow White (uncredited)
The Moral Code
The Eternal Sin
The Valentine Girl
The Soul of a Magdalen
The Streets of Illusion
Bab's Diary
Bab's Burglar
Nearly Married
For Valour
The Seven Swans
Sunshine Nan
Rich Man, Poor Man
Hit-the-Trail Holliday
Wild Primrose
The Hope Chest
The Girl Who Stayed at Home
Three Men and a Girl
Peppy Polly
Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl
I'll Get Him Yet
Scarlet Days
The Idol Dancer
The Love Flower
Way Down East
Tol'able David
The Seventh Day
The Bond Boy
The Bright Shawl
The Fighting Blade
The Enchanted Cottage
Winning Through
New Toys
Shore Leave
The Beautiful City
Golden Youth
Ranson's Folly
The Amateur Gentleman
The White Black Sheep
Camille (Short)
The Patent Leather Kid
The Noose
The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come
Wheel of Chance
Out of the Ruins
Scarlet Seas
Weary River
Young Nowheres