“I met this fish this afternoon. He was alive and happy. I was an accessory before the fact of his death. This morning he had his life before him, now his lying on my plate coated with cracker crumbs. I’m sorry, but I can’t eat him.”
A distinguished member of the royal family of Hollywood, and a critically acclaimed veteran of the Broadway stage, Ethel Barrymore enjoyed a successful career as an actress. She was a sweeping presence in the theatre, and a notable sidekick on screen, but first and foremost, the legend born, Ethel Mae Blythe was a star of the highest magnitude.
The prominent force known as Ethel Barrymore was the creation of Maurice and Georgiana Drew. The future actress, who made her star-studded debut in this world on August 15th, 1879, was destined to be a theatrical top-liner from the start. Initially, young Ethel had her sights set on becoming a concert pianist, but that dream was soon eclipsed when she realized that it was a career that wouldn’t provide her with a healthy bank account.
For Ethel Barrymore, the stage was her only destiny. She hailed from a theatrical family of prestige eminence. Her grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew, who managed the famous Arch Street Theatre, was a highly extolled actress in her day, while her uncle, John Drew Jr. and her parents, Maurice and Georgiana were also prodigies of the arts, but it was Ethel, and her brothers, John and Lionel who really catapulted the family name to super-stardom.
Ethel, John, and Lionel Barrymore broke into the acting mold at the right time. The new art known as motion pictures was being established, and all three siblings followed the path that lead to a career in silent movies. Lionel and John Barrymore endured a moderately successful transition into film, while Ethel struggled to adapt to the medium. She later said that out of all the films she made during that period, the only one she could bear to look at was The Awakening Of Helena Ritchie ( 1916 ). After the completion of 1919’s, The Divorcee, Ethel Barrymore returned to her theatrical roots on stage.
The stage was where Ethel Barrymore truly felt she belonged, but as much as she detested the art of film making, she also proved that she was more than just a dimming light in motion pictures. The characters that she so often brought to life on stage, retained brief occupancy in the film industry in 1932, when she appeared alongside her brothers in Rasputin And The Empress, though it wasn’t until 1944, that Barrymore would acquire permanent residence in Hollywood.
Luckily for audiences, Barrymore’s graceful presence on screen was one of the best things to ever come out of Hollywood’s studio system. In her short yet memorable tenure in motion pictures, Ethel Barrymore charted several different territories. She received an Academy Award for playing Cary Grant’s ailing mother who resorts to engaging herself in illegal activities to make money in None But The Lonely Heart ( 1944 ). She attained an Oscar nomination for her role as Mrs. Warren, the bedridden matriarch who senses that evil is around her in The Spiral Staircase ( 1946 ), and she was Miss. Spinney, the owner of an art museum in Portrait Of Jennie ( 1948 ).
Ethel with Dorothy McGuire in “The Spiral Staircase” ( 1946 )
In every production she starred in, Barrymore became the soul focus of the film. She always held her own against the lead players, and even in those vehicles where she only appeared for a fleeting moment, Barrymore’s enduring and majestic image evolved into a luminous glow. Ethel’s presence graced many films, in which she played a supporting character with plenty of screen time. A great example of this is Night Song ( 1947 ), a bittersweet tale of instant devotion, and the sacrifices a woman makes to help the man she loves.
After years of displaying abominable hatred for the motion picture medium, Ethel Barrymore had finally discovered the positive aspects of film making. For someone who was once reluctant and fearful of standing in front of the movie camera, Ethel was starting to develop a profound interest in the art. Her memories of filming The Spiral Staircase and None But The Lonely Heart were joyous, and with these two previous experiences, she found herself approaching each day with absolute gusto. In 1947, Barrymore made four movies, the first being, The Farmer’s Daughter, in which she starred alongside, Loretta Young and Joseph Cotten.
Ethel Barrymore and Cary Grant in “None But The Lonely Heart” ( 1944 )
Night Song acquired all the ingredients to be a film of importance, but sadly the production faded away into oblivion shortly after its release. Directed by, John Cromwell, who was known for his work in a myriad of signature classics, and produced by, Harriet Parsons, a relatively unknown name in Hollywood, who only had a few titles to her credit, the film featured a stellar cast of players, which include, Ethel Barrymore, Merle Oberon, Dana Andrews and Hoagy Carmichael, who all delivered commendable performances under Cromwell’s masterful direction.
Set against a musical backdrop, Night Song tells the story of Dan Evans ( Dana Andrews ), an embittered pianist, who was blinded shortly after his return home from the war when an intoxicated driver slammed into a plate-glass window of a drugstore. A year and a half later, he is playing in Chick Morgan’s ( Hoagy Carmichael ) swing-band in a back-alley dance bar, when one night he is discovered by Cathy Mallory ( Merle Oberon ), a society girl who lives with her aunt, Miss Willey ( Ethel Barrymore ) in an opulent residence in San Francisco.
From the moment Cathy first lays eyes on Dan, she realizes that this is a man who possesses unparalleled virtuosity. Instantly enamored in Dan, Cathy wants to help him transcend his limits of success, but in order to do so, she must get past his rancorous facade. Her answer to this is to feign blindness in the hopes that a blossoming romance will brew. When Cathy succeeds, she goes the extra mile by renting an inexpensive apartment with her aunt, Miss Willey, who is also in with the ruse. As her infatuation grows, Cathy persuades Dan to resume writing a piano concerto, and unbeknownst to Dan, she becomes the instrumental force behind sponsoring a contest for $5,000, that she eagerly wants him to win, so he can undergo an operation to restore his eyesight.
Night Song is a romantic melodrama that explores the many facets of disability, and the bitter affect that visual impairment can have on its victims. It is also a story of hope and self courage. Dan Evans is a man whose dreams were shattered after the catastrophic accident that left him blinded. When Cathy Mallory enters his life, she has the power to help him vanquish all his demons and succeed. She realizes that he is a composer with great promise, and she is determined to assist him in reaching his highest pinnacle.
“As a matter of fact I started to paint Dan sitting at the piano, and it turned out to be the piano sitting on Dan. No talent at all, no flair.”
The moral of the story is to never deprecate somebody who suffers from a disability or a certain type of impairment. Many people worldwide consider a disability to be a huge emotional barrier that makes dreams impossible to achieve. However, that is not the case. Even though a certain individual is conflicted with a disability, it does not mean that they unable to achieve greatness in life. Despite their problems, they are still capable of following their dreams and hitting success.
The above statement is the message that is delivered in Night Song. Crippled with bitterness and acidity, Dan abandons all hope, and believes that any talent inhabited by a blind man will be dismissed. Trying to register the truth into Dan is an erroneous task that only Cathy can resolve. Cathy views Dan as an intelligent man with an artistic flair for classical music. She believes that no dreams should have a price tag attached to them, and encourages Dan to pursue his goals. With Cathy’s guiding light, Dan begins to realize that even though he is blinded, he still encompasses all necessary requirements needed to accomplish his aspirations.
“I never knew a fish could dance doing a first-rate hula.”
All cast members were excellent in their respective roles, but the moral focus of this post is Ethel Barrymore. Like in all her films, Barrymore is the one who advances the film, and propels it to success. As Cathy’s aunt, Miss Willey brings all the comic relief and delivers it to great repute. She is imperturbable, dignified, and extremely knowledgeable, but she also has an imaginative sense of humor that is prominently exhibited throughout the film.
The viewers first impression of Ethel Barrymore might be that of an elderly aunt, but, in truth, Barrymore is the driving force behind the films success. In Night Song, Miss Willey is a worldly and sophisticated aunt with a positive outlook on life. She is far from being saturnine. Instead she embodies all the characteristics of a vivacious human being who immerses herself in activities that are mainly for people from a much younger generation. She finds great pleasure in staying up late, reading detective stories, drinking coffee, and taking long hot baths. She is also an encyclopedia of sage advice that she continuously splashes around.
Ethel Barrymore only has a supporting role, but she is present throughout the whole film. We first see her when a dreamy Cathy arrives home from the dark-alley dance bar, where she first meets Dan. Ethel is perceptive, and understands Cathy’s feelings. She immediately recognizes the signal of love through reading her nieces conveyed emotions, and she wants to gain insight on the man who is prominently etched in Cathy’s mind. Once she gets to know Dan, Miss Willey advocates for Cathy and supports her endeavors for Dan. She agrees to be in on the ruse, and introduces herself as Cathy’s guardian, who prolifically paints.
As any normal aunt would be who is guardian of her niece, Barrymore as Miss Willey is staunchly devoted to Cathy. She is empathetic, loyal, protective, and she is the confidant of her nieces utmost secrets. Whenever she has to accompany Cathy, Ethel will gratefully be her escort, but once she meets Chick Morgan, she becomes coquettish, and even though she never admits it, it is evident that Ethel is rather flirtatious when in the presence of Chick.
“The thing I like about coffee is it keeps me awake. Nothing more ridiculous than being unconscious on a bed. Besides, I have insomnia; I like to blame it on the coffee instead of my conscience. My heart’s an old waste paper basket filled with unpaid bills and paperback novels.”
Adding to the films prestige stature is Lucien Ballard’s cinematography. Ballard who was married to Merle Oberon, captures his wife’s exotic beauty and worldly charm perfectly. He was able to eliminate all her facial scars on film by using a light which became known as the “Obie”.
In whatever journey she took, Ethel Barrymore triumphed in all destinations. By 1947, she had reached the pinnacle of her motion picture career, and she could not be surpassed. Night Song is a relatively obscure title among Ethel’s repertoire of films, but it still gives audiences a glimpse into the window of her genius.
Ethel Barrymore: Born Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
Merle Oberon: Born, Estelle Merle Oberon Thompson on February 19th, 1911 in Bombay, Bombay Presidency British India. Died: November 23rd, 1979 in Malibu, California. Aged: 68. Cause of death: Complications from a stroke.
Dana Andrews: Born Carver Dana Andrews on January 1st, 1909 in Collins, Mississippi. Died: December 17th, 1992 in Los Alamitos, California. Aged: 83.
Hoagy Carmichael: Born Hoagland Howard Carmichael on November 22nd, 1899 in Bloomington, Indiana. Died: December 27th, 1981 in Rancho Mirage, California. Aged: 82
This post was written for the Third Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by me. For more on the Barrymore’s, please click here to view the other articles being exhibited during the event.