Barthelmess graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and went into the theatre
By 1916, he made a film debut in Gloria's Romance (George King) and he followed it with Camille (17. (. Gordon Edwards); The Moral Code (17, Ashley Miller); The Eternal Sin (17, Herbert Brenon); Rich Man, Poor Man (18, J. Searle Dawley); and The Hope Chest (19, Elmer Clifton). He worked for Griffith for the first time in The Girl Who Stayed at Home (19) and was put under contract: Boots (19, Clifton); Three Men and a Girl (19, Marshall Neilan); Pef)py Polly (19, Clifton); and I'll Get Him Yet (19, Clifton). In most of these he played opposite Dorothy Gish, but he starred with Lillian in Broken Blossoms (19, Griffith), in which he plays the Yellow Man. It is a marvelous performance, riveting because of how little Barthelmess emotes. He did four more with Griffith: Scarlet Days (19); The Idol Dancer (20); The Love Flower (20); and Way Down East, in which he plays tin1 country boy who rescues Lillian Gish from death and dishonor.
After Experience (21, George Fitzmaurice), Barthelmess and Charles H. Duell formed the Inspiration Company, designed to produce films presenting the actor in idealistic material. By 1926, he had appeared in eighteen films for the company, mostly directed by Henry King— ToVable David (21); The Bond Boy (22); The Seventh Day (22); Sonny (22); Enry (23); The Fighting Blade (23); Twenty-One (23); Classmates (24): The Enchanted Cottage (24); New Toys (25); Shore Leave (25); and Soul-Fire (25).
The company collapsed and Barthelmess joined First National for The Patent Leather Kid (27, Alfred Santell). That was a success, but his career was threatened, less by sound than by the fact that he was a little too old for the youthful parts with which he was associated, he made The Noose (28, John Francis Dillon); played twins in Wheel of Chance (28, Santell); he sang in Weary River (29, Frank Lloyd); played a man who thought he was Chinese in Son of the Gods (30, Lloyd).
His days were numbered but he made several excellent films: The Dawn Patrol (30, Howard Hawks); The Last Flight (31, William Dieterle); The Cabin in the Cotton (32, Michael Curtiz); Central Airport (33, William Wellman); and Heroes for Sale (33, Wellman), the latter as a bitter war veteran. He placed a Sioux in Massacre (34, Alan Crosland), and after A Modern Hero (34, G. W. Pabst), Midnight Alibi (34, Crosland), and Four Hours to Kill (35, Mitchell Leisen), he made A Spy of Napoleon (36, Maurice Elvey) in England.
He retired for a few years and came back in an affectionate summation of his screen character, as the coward who makes good, in Only Angels Have Wings (39, Hawks). Amid the excellence of that cast, he more than holds his own and it is a loss that after supporting parts in The Man Who Talked Too Much (40, Vincent Sherman), The Mayor of 44th Street (42, Alfred E. Green), and the Spoilers (42, Lloyd), he retired for good.
The partnership of Lillian Gish and Barthelmess in Way Down East (20, D. W. Griffith) is arguably the most elevated acting in the American silent cinema. Actor and actress alike had a Victorian handsomeness that Griffith and Billy Bitzer suspended between the glowing images of Pre- Raphaelitism and the true animation of cinematography.
It follows that Barthelmess was the ideal hero of romantic melodrama. Tolable David (21, Henry King)—the first film made by his own company, Inspiration—is the model of his best work: in which he plays a young man, suspected of cowardice, who comes up trumps by carrying the U.S. Mail, thrashing the rascals, and winning the girl. The situation is corn but, like Griffith and Gish, Barthelmess invested it with a shining seriousness.