30 November 2020

Lionel Barrymore, Composer

“I doubt if there is a greater, more exhaustingly emotional experience possible than hearing your own music brilliantly performed, performed big, by a great orchestra, with those twenty violins picking up the fugues that were imaginary to you, and a renowned conductor welding the whole thing into something far better and more impressive than you had dreamed.

Lionel Barrymore first started to write classical music when he was about thirty years old. Music was his greatest passion, besides art (he initially wanted to be a painter). Barrymore had a huge record collection and an amazing musical knowledge. He was even able to recognise a composer in the first two bars. The multi-talented actor had created numerous compositions, many of which he wrote when he was already in his sixties. Studying with Hungarian composer Eugene Zador, Barrymore had tried his hand at everything —symphonies, fugues, piano suites, operas etc.. He candidly admitted that, while composing his music, he had "borrowed from everybody except the studio gateman", thereby noting that "nothing is new" and that everyone else, with the possible exception of Richard Wagner and Claude Debussy, was a borrower too. ("For the most part, every melody you hear is "Tristan-like" or taken straight from Debussy", he thought.) 

Barrymore was quite modest about his musical achievements and ultimately felt that people shouldn't take him too seriously as a composer. Nevertheless, he was immensely proud and excited —as one can imagine— when several of his compositions were performed by real conductors and orchestras, some of them even renowned. 

The first time a Barrymore composition was performed in public was in 1940. The symphonic suite Tableau Russe was played by the Los Angeles WPA Symphony Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl and was next used in the film Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day (1941). Following the death of his brother John in 1942, Barrymore started working on a tone poem as a tribute to John, called In Memoriam. On 22 April 1944, it was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. 

Partita was, as Barrymore himself called it, "a more ambitious composition" and was one of the highlights of his musical career. The piece was first played by Fabien Sevitzky and his Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on 20 March 1944. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski also performed Partita on 31 March 1946, broadcast on national radio as part of a program that included a symphony by Beethoven and an overture by Brahms. It was about the latter performance that Barrymore later said: "Listening to Partita with Rodzinski and the great New York Philharmonic was, I have to confess with no modesty and no shame, an enormous experience...  An orchestra of one hundred pieces, the best musicians in the world, performing me! I took care to be alone that Sunday when they played Partita because I did not want anybody to see me weep."

Other notable compositions by Barrymore include his piano compositions Scherzo Grotesque and Song Without Words, which were published by G. Schirmer in 1945; Opera Buffa, which was performed by the Burbank Symphony Orchestra under Leo Damiani in 1949; and the theme song of the radio program Mayor of the Town (1942-1949) of which Barrymore later said: "... this had a pleasant ring which I always liked, though I could never quite decide where I stole it."

Article from THE ABC WEEKLY, 23 September 1944

One of the conductors Barrymore had worked with was Fabien Sevitzky of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (already briefly mentioned above). Apart from Partita, Sevitzky had performed several of Barrymore's compositions, although the first piece he conducted was not an original composition but Barrymore's orchestration of Edward MacDowell's piano suite Sea Pieces. After that first collaboration the two men had stayed in touch through letters, with Barrymore from time to time submitting work for Sevitzky's consideration. Other Barrymore works that Sevitzky eventually performed include Preludium and Fugue in December 1944 and a Piano concerto in 1946.

From the Barrymore-Sevitzky correspondence which lasted several years, here are two letters written by Barrymore in 1944. The New York concert mentioned in the second letter possibly refers to the concert at Lewisohn Stadium later that summer (on 2 August), where Sevitzky would again perform Partita, this time conducting the New York Philharmonic.


February 4, 1944


My dear Mr. Sevitzky,

Yesterday I sent special delivery score and parts. Please tell me (as I know you will) whether you like it or not. If not, I will completely understand and try again.

I think Hollywood would be indeed most fortunate and grateful if you consented to conduct here again. 

For myself, (entirely off the record), Mrs. Irish has been kind enough to ask me to do the speaking in "Peter and the Wolf", and I have as cleverly as I could evaded it. But I am going to say that if they were lucky enough to get Dr. Sevitzky for some concerts I would be most happy to do it under him. In any case I will do this at once, and I feel sure you will be "encircled" and "attacked" by the Bowl immediately!

So, I am looking forward eagerly to seeing you here this summer!

With all fond wishes,

Yours very sincerely,

(signed 'Lionel Barrymore')

Lionel Barrymore


June 7, 1944

Dear Dr. Sevitzky

Thank you very much for your letter of May 25th. Concerning your questions about tempi, everything you suggest is all right. The tempo of the Fugue, however, is about 120-124. #16, 2nd bar, the 5th note is C natural as in the score. The 5th bar after 16, 5th note is F natural, as you say.

Thank you in advance for sending the recording to me. I am anxiously awaiting it. I know the performance will be marvelous in spite of the short rehearsing time. I am praying to God that the New York concert will materialize, and since you are the conductor and knowing God's wisdom in all things, I know it will happen!

Since you have done me the great honour of permitting me to submit a Prelude to you, I have thought of nothing else since I got your letter, and believe me, you will have it in ample time. I only pray that it will be worthy of your consideration.

It will be a great pleasure to see you in person on your visit to Hollywood, and I am looking forward to meeting you.

Yours very cordially, 

(signed 'Lionel Barrymore')

Source letters: Heritage Auctions
All quotes in this post taken from We Barrymores (1951), by Lionel Barrymore and Cameron Shipp.

Barrymore's tribute to his brother John In Memoriam can be listened to hereTableau Russe here (as  performed in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day). Other works by Barrymore here and here.

24 November 2020

Groucho Marx and the United Snakes of America

In 1953, the FBI was told by one of its confidential informants that Groucho Marx "contribute[d] heavily to the Communist Party". The Bureau subsequently started to investigate the comedian and during the next decade built a file on him containing numerous pages. The file included evidence of Groucho's pro-communist sympathies, e.g. a 1934 article in the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker, saying Groucho had called the communist support for the Scottsboro Boys an inspiration for "Soviet America"; Groucho's attendance at a benefit concert for Soviet war relief in the 1940s; his opposition of Franco's fascist, anti-communist government of Spain; and his membership of the Committee for the First Amendment, which protested the investigations into communism in Hollywood conducted by the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). 

Despite the sizeable file, the FBI ultimately concluded that Groucho was not a member of the Communist Party. The HUAC reached the same conclusion and never even called Groucho to testify. They did, however, summon Jerry Fielding (Groucho's bandleader on the popular tv show You Bet Your Life) to testify in December 1953. Fielding later said that HUAC probably wanted him to name Groucho, but he had refused to name names and was consequently blacklisted. Pressured by his sponsors, Groucho eventually fired Fielding  a decision he would later call "one of the greatest regrets of [his] life".

Among the many documents that can be found in Groucho's FBI file are the following two letters, written by concerned US citizens to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover regarding Groucho's communist leanings. By the time the letters were written, on resp. 17 June 1960 and 23 October 1961, the FBI had already been investigating Groucho for years.


Mr. J. Edgar Hoover
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Hoover:

I suggest that the TV entertainer Groucho Marks [sic] be investigated as being a Communist.

Last night on his program both my husband and I understood him to pronounce "The United States" as "The United Snakes".

In his book "Groucho and Me" he speaks quite affectionately of Charlie Chaplin, who is a well known Communist.

By the way, your own book "Masters of Deceit" is a masterpiece. I have bought a copy for myself and four or five copies as gifts. It is simply a wonderful book. Thank you for it. 

Please, Mr. Hoover, investigate Groucho Marks [sic]. 




Oct. 23, 1961


Mr. J. Edgar Hoover
Department of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Hoover:

As a loyal citizen of the United States, I am writing to you concerning the TV program entitled "Dupont Show of the Week" which was broadcast last night over NBC.

I am outraged by this show which appeared to be full of Communist propaganda - so much of it that I cannot begin to name it all. It was NOT funny. The Red stench was unmistakable. The program went out of the way to make the automobile industry in our country appear to be silly and the American people weak, incompetent and arrogant. 

As one example among too many to even mention, Groucho Marx said, in speaking of the American people, "They drove around in their ARROGANCE."

I understand that Groucho Marx has strong Red leanings and that he was a member of the Red Front called "Committee for the First Amendment" and that he signed Cablegram of allegiance to Stalin. Please write and let me know if this is correct and what other information I am entitled as a United States citizen to know concerning his Red affiliations, so I can speak with authority when discussing him.

No doubt you have already thoroughly investigated Groucho Marx, but please also investigate the writer or writers of the TV script for the Dupont sponsored show.

Hoping to hear from you soon, I am

Sincerely and gratefully yours,


Both letters via Muckrock.

16 November 2020

My wig ... I loathe the bloody thing

One of Errol Flynn's best and most successful films is the swashbuckler The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which is also one of my all-time personal favourites. To look the part of the legendary hero, Flynn was given the requisite costume (tights, tunic and hat), complete with medieval hairdo. The original wig was redesigned halfway through production after Flynn had complained about it in a letter to producer Hal Wallis. Flynn hated the centre part and bangs of the hairpiece and Wallis immediately had the wig improved. The reshooting of scenes was unnecessary, as the original wig had only been filmed under Flynn's hat.

Flynn's letter to Wallis can be read below. It was written on 24 October 1937, while on location in Chico, California, where the Sherwood scenes were filmed.

Above: Errol Flynn is having his wig trimmed. Below left photo: Flynn in his first wig with the fringes and middle part he hated — here photographed with Robin Hood's first director William Keighley who was replaced with Michael Curtiz/ right photo: Flynn in his new wig which was eventually used in the film.

Richardson Springs
Chico, Cal

October 24, 1937

Dear Hal, 

First let me thank you again for fixing things re the radio deals.

Now one other minor, but to me very important, squawk. My wig .... I loathe the bloody thing. With the hat on it's fine, and the alteration I want to suggest does not affect any of the stuff we've shot so far  the part that's wrong is hidden by the hat. The centre part in the wig is my chief complaint. I would like an almost unnoticeable part on either side so that one side or the other could sweep back off the forehead. The fringes would then, when the hat is removed, not look like fringes but just a few locks of loose hair carelessly falling over the brow. My drawing of course is hopeless but I've explained to the make up here who say they will write to the studio and explain it.

The point is, I haven't had my hat off yet and when I do, the new wig would match. Would you ask them to make me one like that described and send it up so we can get it right before we come down? I'm quite certain you will think it an improvement, Hal. If you don't — nothing has been lost. I hate this present one so much I shudder every time I see the Goddam thing — and I've had nothing but comments from people, when they see it with the hat off, about the stupid looking fringe and centre part. So there must be something to it.

I feel like one of the oldest inhabitants of Chico now — we all do. And we're all very sick of it but consoling ourselves with the report or rather rumour that you like the stuff down there. Is it so?

All the best Hal and kindest personal regards.

Source: Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951) (1985), selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer. 

9 November 2020

The critics are going to crucify her

I had never heard of the film Ash Wednesday (1973) until I came across today's letter, written by Richard Burton. The film stars Burton's then-wife Elizabeth Taylor as a middle-aged woman who, in an attempt to save her marriage (her husband is played by Henry Fonda), undergoes plastic surgery and then starts an affair with a playboy (Helmut Berger). While the film is nothing more than a soapy melodrama, the critical reception was still mildly positive, especially for Elizabeth who was also nominated for a Golden Globe. 

Richard Burton was intensely displeased with his wife's participation in Ash Wednesday. In the following letter to Gianni Bozzacchi (personal photographer to both Burton and Elizabeth) Burton rants about what he thought was a "f***ing lousy nothing bloody" film, convinced the critics would crucify Elizabeth. Her only reason for doing the film, he thought, was because she wanted to stay a famous movie star forever ("What the stupid (occasionally) maniac doesn’t realize is that she is already immortalized (as a film person) forever").  

As said, Elizabeth wasn't crucified by the press. Critics who were usually harsh were reasonably mellow in their reviews. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert said that while "the movie's story is not really very interesting, we're intrigued because the star is Taylor".

Source: icollector.com


27 April 1973


Dear Gianni

There is perhaps no way for you splendid men to understand my vile temper when I am faced with being on the edges of a film which is essentially vulgar at its base and vicious in its implications. There is not, apart from Elizabeth (possibly) if she acts it well, one single person who shall and will command our sympathy. 

I asked Fonda last night "Why in the name of your God are you doing this piece of shit?" And he replied "For the chance of working with Elizabeth, Richard, and what the hell Richard, I need the bread." "Good enough," I answered. "If you need the loot go in there and get what you can when you can!" 

Once upon a time I did a film (with E) simply for money. 

No longer do I have to do that. E's singular acceptance of this film is because she wants to remain a famous film star. What the stupid (occasionally) maniac doesn’t realize is that she is already immortalized (as a film person) forever. Because films are coming to an end. 

But, day after day, I sit here vulgarised by the idea that my wife is doing —violently against my "taste" a fucking lousy nothing bloody film. The critics are going to crucify her. C'est une huis clos. There is absolutely no way out. Don’t ever show this letter to anybody. I am very fond of you. But indeed to God! That poor child! More and more POOR!

Many Apologies,


Above: Henry Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor in Ash Wednesday, their only film together. Below: Burton and Taylor, who separated shortly after the shooting of Ash Wednesday. They would divorce in 1974, remarry in 1975 and divorce again in 1976.

1 November 2020

You have always been one of the most gracious people in the world

Norma Shearer's closest friend in Hollywood was fellow actress Merle Oberon. By the time Merle had her first substantial film role, Norma was already a big star. The two actresses were regularly seen together at social functions, around the mid-thirties often accompanied by their respective partners (Norma by husband Irving Thalberg and Merle by David Niven). Searching the web for more information about their friendship, unfortunately I found very little. There's only the occasional scrap of news— like when Merle's fiancĂ© Count Giorgio Cini tragically died in a plane crash in Cannes (France) in 1949, the only person there to comfort Merle was Norma.

But of course I wouldn't be doing this post if I hadn't found a letter too. On 30 September 1970, Norma wrote to Merle after the two had just seen each other, seemingly for the first time in several years. Norma was thrilled to meet her friend again and afterwards composed an affectionate and graceful letter (seen below), which I'm sure Merle was happy to receive.

"One of the most valuable things in Merle’s life is her friendship with Norma Shearer. Her whole face lights up when she speaks of her." Film Weekly, 6 February 1937.


Sept 30/70

My dear Merle —

It was such a joy to see you the other day and to meet your beautiful young son. The last time I saw him I think he was about four years old. Not only is he so handsome but he has such beautiful manners.

But why not, as you have always been one of the most gracious people in the world. Speaking of such things, may I thank you for your most kind and thoughtful letter when I was so sick which touched me deeply. 

Please know you will always be in our hearts - wishing you and Bruno health and happiness always.


At the time Merle Oberon was married to Italian-born industrialist Bruno Pagliai, whom she divorced in 1973. After Thalberg's untimely death in 1936, Norma married ski-instructor Martin Arrouge in 1942. They remained married until Norma's death in 1983.

Above: 1936, Merle Oberon and Norma Shearer attending The Mayfair Ball in Beverly Hills, California, with David Niven and Irving Thalberg. Below: December 1935, Merle and Norma at an event in Los Angeles with Miriam Hopkins and Dolores Del Rio. 
Above: 1938, Norma and Merle at a social event with their respective dates James Stewart and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. After the death of Irving Thalberg, Norma and Jimmy Stewart had a brief romance.
Above: Merle and Norma at a Hollywood luncheon in March 1942. Below: At Norma's Santa Monica Beach House in California in 1937.
Below: Norma doing cartwheels in her garden in 1936 with her friend Merle looking on.