Warner Baxter was a notable actor beginning in the days of silent films and continuing when the movies adopted sound as part of their experience for the audience. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor – the second ever awarded – for his role as the Cisco Kid in the first all-talking western motion picture entitled In Old Arizona. He worked with actors including Fredric March, Dick Powell, and Ginger Rogers and by the middle part of the 1930s was one of the most in-demand – and highest-paid – actors in Hollywood which included Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable.
That was the peak of his career, which during the war years degraded to the point that he was playing secondary roles in what was then called B pictures. B pictures were cheaply made full-length films which were made using either up and coming or washed-up actors and shown as second features in the movie houses of the time. Baxter’s waning popularity was driven by his being able to accept fewer roles due to his physical condition. Baxter had developed arthritis which as it worsened left him in crippling pain.
Throughout the 1940s his career slumped as his illness worsened, and there were few means of alleviating the crippling pain available to the medical profession of the day, other than opiates such as morphine and heroin. Baxter tried various medically recommended therapies and some of the quack cures which seem to persist around the fringes of the medical community, all to no avail. At the time lobotomies were considered by some medical professionals to be indicated for the relief of chronic pain, while other doctors and ethicists were horrified at the idea.
Baxter’s physicians warned him that the procedure could have effects that were unpredictable and that he may become fully disabled, but driven by the pain and the hope that it would relieve him of it he went ahead with a voluntary transorbital lobotomy in 1951. The operation apparently relieved him of the pain because in the wake of the procedure his complaints about the constant pain ceased. It also relieved him of his memory, he was unable to recognize friends, or even his doctors.
Baxter became in many ways an individual in a semi-catatonic state, uninterested in anything around him and in caring for himself. He was also subject to severe seizures and convulsions, neither of which had been present prior to the lobotomy. In May of 1951, a few months following the surgery, he died of pneumonia, which may have been linked not to the surgery but rather to his post-surgical care.