ETHEL BARRYMORE MONTH
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE ( 1946 )
For my final review for Ethel Barrymore Month, I’m presenting a piece on “The Spiral Staircase”. My favorite Ethel movie, and probably the most distinguished among Ethel’s films, one that garnered her an Academy Award nomination.
“The Spiral Staircase” is a perennial psychological thriller starring Ethel Barrymore, Dorothy McGuire and George Brent. Superbly directed by Robert Siodmak, and produced by Dore Schary. The film is based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel “Some Must Watch”.
The film takes place during the early 20th century at the Warren mansion in New England. Occupying the mansion are Mrs. Warren ( Ethel Barrymore ), her two sons, Professor Albert and Steven ( George Brent and Gordon Oliver ) along with butlers, nurses and young Helen ( Dorothy McGuire ) a mute domestic assistant who works for the ailing bedridden Mrs. Warren.
Prowling the neighbourhood is a serial killer, murdering women with afflictions. When a crippled girl is strangled in the hotel room of a movie house, Mrs. Warren becomes concerned for Helen’s safety and warns her to leave the house immediately. In the meantime, Dr. Parry, the towns doctor, discovers that he is infatuated in Helen and wants to help her restore her voice. Later that night, Mrs Warren calls for Dr. Parry and implores him to depart the house with Helen that same evening as she feels she is in danger. With Mrs. Warren’s demands, the physician develops intentions on taking Helen to specialists in Boston for voice recovery and to get married.
Suspicions arise when a murder occurs in the mansion. Now Helen doesn’t know who she can trust and who she can turn to for help, but all she knows is that the murderer is getting closer to her than what she ever imagined.
“The Spiral Staircase” is the true definition of a thriller. From the capacious dark mansion, the thunderstorms, the brilliant cinematography, the crisp black and white picture, and the silhouette of the murderer in certain scenes, is everything a thriller should be. Another element that makes the movie stand as a prodigious classic is the incredible cinematography that supplements the Victorian atmosphere and elegant décor from the Victorian era. The use of the shadows are also impressive with the shadows of the figures on the wall following the characters around.
The cast are also exceptional, and with solid talents like Ethel Barrymore helps make the film what it is today. Ethel Barrymore attained an Academy Award nomination for her meritorious portrayal of Mrs. Warren, the terminally ill mother, who senses the evil around her, having a pretty good idea who the murderer is, and warns Helen to get out before it is too late. As I’ve said before, I consider this to be one of the biggest robberies in the Academy Award history. Though she was nominated, I feel that Ethel deserved to obtain the award for her powerful and intense performance in this.
Dorothy McGuire and George Brent also delivered sterling performances, especially McGuire, who gave the most culminating performance of her career. Here she played young Helen, a mute girl who is an intended murder victim and companion for Mrs. Warren. Though she never had to talk for her role, she displayed such raw emotions, showcasing an array of different expressions on screen that were not too over done or over the top.
Even though the whole cast are copacetic, the actress I give the most credit to is Ethel Barrymore. She is a true virtuoso of the entertainment history, and that is clearly epitomized in her performance here. Ethel Barrymore’s presence on screen is enough to hold the film up alone. She steals every scene she’s in, bringing out the laughs with her imperious attitude and acidic humor, especially towards Nurse Barker, who she dislikes and cannot stand the sight of. She is to me, and is one of the main focal points of the movie. I love Ethel Barrymore, and I’m proud to say that she reigns as one of my favorite actresses of all time. To add to that, isn’t Ethel cute and adorable in this with her hair adorned in a long plait?
“The Spiral Staircase” is pure gold. This was one of the very first classic films that I discovered and it will always be cemented as one of my favorite movies of all time. This is what I call movie making to perfection, and when viewing the film one of the first things that come to mind is that this is the fine art of movie making. It’s suspenseful, creepy, it’s a murder mystery at it’s finest.
Joan Crawford, after receiving critical praise for her performance in A Woman’s Face (1941), at one point campaigned for the role of the mute girl played by Dorothy McGuire. Crawford also owned the rights, but MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer vehemently opposed the idea, telling her “No more cripples or maimed women”.
“Screen Director’s Playhouse” broadcast a 30 minute radio adaptation of the movie on November 25, 1949 with Dorothy McGuire reprising her film role.
While this film was based on Ethel Lina White‘s 1933 novel “Some Must Watch,” there are several major differences. In the novel, the maid stalked by the killer was crippled, not mute. It was also set in contemporary England, not early 1900’s New England. Finally, the title of the film and the idea of incorporating a “spiral staircase” as a thematic element comes from another source entirely: Mary Roberts Rinehart‘s 1908 novel “The Circular Staircase.” The heroine of the book was not mute or crippled, nor were any of the murderer’s victims.
Mrs. Warren: “I told you to sit in the hall. Why must you spy on me?”
Nurse Barker: “I’m not spying on you. It’s time for your medicine.”
Mrs. Warren: “Helen can give me my medicine.”
Nurse Barker: “I don’t know what I’m being paid for.”
Mrs. Warren: “You’re being paid to sit in the hall, that’s all your good for. GET OUT.”
Mrs. Warren: “Forgive me, Steven, I thought it was you. He always waited until you came home, so I thought it was you.”
Ethel Barrymore: Born Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
Dorothy McGuire: Born Dorothy Hackett McGuire on May 28th, 1916 in Omaha, Nebraska. Died: September 13th, 2001 in Santa Monica, California. Aged 85.
George Brent: Born George Brendan Nolan on March 15th, 1899 in Raharabeg County, Roscommon, Ireland. Died: May 26th, 1979 in Solana Beach, San Diego, California. Aged 80.