Lionel Barrymore, part of the vast Barrymore acting dynasty, including our very own Drew Barrymore, remains best known for his role as Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. The wheelchair Barrymore occupies in that movie served as no mere prop; for years he had to use it, probably due to a combination of a broken hip and arthritis. Stories abound of Barrymore coping through enormous consumption of morphine or even of a chronic cocaine habit, allegedly supplied by studio head Louis B. Mayer. So Lionel didn’t require any method technique to play a grouchy old man.
But like any pop culture figure fixed in time by a single role or song or book, Barrymore’s complexity gets lost behind the looming figure of Potter each Christmas. An artist in every sense, he composed music, wrote novels and created beautiful etchings still collected today. He also expended much energy fuming about the income tax; his wages were garnished until his death, and part of his art had to be auctioned to cover his remaining debt to the IRS.
While enormous strides have been made in access and awareness, what actor today could have such a prolific career as Barrymore did in a wheelchair? Quite often, as happens in Life, Barrymore’s confinement hardly bears mentioning. Today, something as extraordinary as a wheelchair among all the beautiful people requires feature articles and major plot points and long interviews of how the performer (nearly always able-bodied) heroically spent time among actual disabled people (imagine the sacrifice) to discover the true meaning of the role.
Sometimes, though, Barrymore’s presence in the chair became a crucial element of the film. In Key Largo, he threatens and rails against the gangster Johnny Rocco, played by Edward G. Robinson, who has taken over his hotel for the score that will make him a player again. Both men are has-beens, but will the spent evil of Robinson or the spent goodness of Barrymore prevail? That the question remains in doubt until Humphrey Bogart, playing a broken war hero, summons up the will to destroy Rocco once and for all, keeps the movie fascinating and relevant. Made in 1948, Key Largo joined several other films right after World War II that questioned whether America had the energy to put a shattered world back together. And then Technicolor and VistaVision and America’s economic might broke out all over and such questions faded away.
As good as Barrymore is in the film, his pants steal the show. They start off all humble and quiet, but as the film progresses they slowly work their way into view up under his armpits, and then nearly swallow the actor as a farcical sign of his impotence. Once Bogart triumphs they settle back down to lead a peaceful life of admiring Lauren Bacall’s scorching good looks. Sadly, Barrymore’s pants remain uncredited in the film, joining a list of stars like Dr. Strangelove’s wandering arm, the bride of Frankenstein’s hair, and the moose in Arthur that quietly toiled without recognition or the fame they deserved.
Of course actual actors suffered the same fate. In Wonderful Life, Potter’s constant bodyguard looms like a vulture beside his wheelchair. His name was Frank Hagney, and he may hold the uncredited role title belt on IMDB. Hagney worked in obscurity but he worked steadily: he has a staggering 426 film and television shows to his (un)credit. He began his career in 1919 and appeared to chug along until his death in 1973. Hagney immigrated from Australia and didn’t begin his long career until age 35. Among my favorite uncredited roles, Card Player Who Doesn’t Know French, Gold Smelter, and Trainer Giving Rubdown rise above the rest. He appears to have specialized in Henchman, Tough, and Barfly, especially ones that got into brawls. He will live on uncredited forever, working in a time when studios cranked out nearly a movie a week to meet demand. Frank Hagney and others like him made that incredible level of production possible.
Unlike Arthur’s prospective father-in-law, we should never forget the moose. Or Barrymore’s pants. Or the prolific Frank Hagney. Their contributions make entertainment possible and real and accessible. Live on uncredited legends.