CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON: ETHEL BARRYMORE’S TRANSITION FROM STAGE TO SCREEN.

This is my second entry for ‘The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon’, an event for prolific film enthusiast bloggers to coalesce by submitting articles covering any facet of the motion picture industry from the golden age of cinema.

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Ethel Barrymore had more to her credit than just her large body of stage work. During the annals of her illustrious career, Ethel Barrymore showcased her indelible talents across all aspects of the entertainment industry and succeeded in just about every medium. One of her most triumphant efforts come from her work in motion pictures, a profession she always detested until she discovered that her populace on screen was more rewarding than the theatre. Earlier on in the course, Barrymore had appeared in an array of silent films, and starred alongside her brothers in “Rasputin And The Empress”, but it wasn’t until her performance in “None But The Lonely Heart” garnered her positive accolades and an Oscar that Ethel Barrymore decided to abandon the theatre and locate to Hollywood to focus on film acting.

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It all started in January 1943, when Ethel arrived in Los Angeles for the west leg of the victorious tour of “The Corn Is Green”. The shows were making Shumlin a healthy profit, but Ethel was dissatisfied with the concomitantly low salary she and the rest of the cast were receiving. At this stage, Shumlin had relied on Ethel to carry a production and help bring in the considerable earnings, especially after her inspired performance on opening night at the Biltmore, where she impressed audiences with her thunderous delivery on stage.

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Shortly after “None But The Lonely Heart”, a Cary Grant vehicle, that was going to highlight his potential as a serious actor went into pre-production. Cary Grant had originally wanted Laurette Taylor for the role of Ma Mott, but Taylor was suffering from bloat, that was caused from her excessive drinking and dependency on alcohol, so they were left to find another actress to fulfil the part. Cary had always admired Ethel Barrymore and considered her, though Barrymore wanting to have no part in the movies, dismissed the idea at first, thinking that the role wouldn’t be right for her. With Grant’s suggestion, the RKO casting director travelled to Portland, Oregon and approached Ethel with an offer of full payment for her road company while she was filming, and reimbursement to Shumlin and theatres for lost box office reviews for four weeks work. Ethel reluctantly agreed and dreaded the inception of shooting.

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On the first day of filming, Ethel arrived on the set with negative vibes, but as much to her surprise, she actually found herself enjoying the process. The experience she had encountered here was a lot different to the complications that ensued during the filming of “Rasputin And The Empress”. For one thing, she had developed a better rapport with the cast and crew. Her relationship with director Clifford Odets was affable, and it brought her solace in knowing that this was Odets first film, as like Ethel, he was originally from the theatre. Another thing that went into consideration was Cary Grant’s complaisance on the set. While John and Lionel tried their hardest to steal the picture, Cary Grant went out of his way to accommodate Ethel, even going as far as trying to get her top billing. At the time she was still very nervous about the camera and became panicky during the shoots. To reduce the fear, Odets shot her final takes without her cognizance, and only mentioned it when her tension was evaporated.

“None But The Lonely Heart” boasted wide encomium, but sadly on it’s release, it was mostly panned by critics. The only favorable aspect of the film were the performances of Ethel Barrymore and Cary Grant, who were both up for Academy Awards. Even though this was a vehicle that was suppose to spotlight Cary Grant as a serious actor, his role as Ernie Mott, the cockney drifter actually resembled his own upbringing in the seedy part of London, and the relationship with his mother when his father died, but after this was taken into account, Grant missed out on the Academy Award, and Bing Crosby received it instead for his role in “Going My Way”. On the other hand, Ethel Barrymore’s meritorious portrayal of Ma Mott, garnered her a plethora of accolades, and an Oscar for ‘Best Supporting Actress’, in which she walked away and said “So many resident actresses had come to Hollywood and failed. Was it fair? Perhaps they shouldn’t have gone.”.

Filming for “None But The Lonely Heart” concluded on April 5th, 1944, and at 1pm the following day, Ethel Barrymore boarded the Santa Fe Chief back to New York, where she would continue on touring with “The Corn Is Green”. This time around, Ethel left Hollywood feeling elated with much pleasanter feelings about movie acting.

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“The Corn Is Green” ended it’s tour in Boston on June 23rd, 1944. By now, Ethel was earning one thousand dollars a week, an income that she found comfortable to live on, though she always had a knack for spending every penny she made, which quite often left her broke. Once the show wrapped, she had a few engagements that would supply her with more money . One of them was on the radio with Alcoa, that would pay her $2,500 a week for her services, and that fall she had a contract to fulfil with the Theatre Guild.

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Little did she know it then, but the play “Embezzled Heaven” would be the last time that Ethel Barrymore would display her inimitable presence in the theatre, and as coincidence has it, the show opened at the Old Walnut Street Theatre, where her grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew had made her debut, and the same theatre where Ethel heard the voices calling from the balcony during the run of “Captain Jinks Of The Horse Marines” saying “Speak up Ethel. We loved your grandmother Ethel, and we love you too.” By the time “Embezzled Heaven” reached Broadway, Ethel was felled with fatigue and a high fever, that would result in her being diagnosed with Pneumonia three days later, and sent to Hot Springs in Virginia to recuperate.

In January 1945, “Embezzled Heaven” struck altercations by receiving poor results and losing in profits. Even Ethel after her bout with Pneumonia could no longer attract the crowds, but she was still being enthroned as “The first lady of the theatre”, a title in which she always resented, and directors, Helburn and Langner were canvassing around for another play for her, but Ethel was tired of acting in a play night after night and not earning a considerable income. She was also oppressed about renting a small duplex on West Fifty Second Street.

Ever since her achievements in “None But The Lonely Heart”, Ethel was in demand for making more movies, and everyday she would receive innumerable contract offers from Hollywood, including a personal letter from Bette Davis, who wanted Ethel to take her sterling portrayal of Miss. Moffatt to the screen, though the part was already secured for Bette Davis, and there had been no word about it from the studio officials. At first Ethel rejected the invites from Hollywood, but since her illness, and the mediocre material she was obtaining from her radio show “Miss Hattie”, she started to realize that motion pictures would be the best option, though she never admitted that her once detested Hollywood was partly her idea.

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Once she made her mind up fully, she set about making arrangements, and finding a place to live in Los Angeles, but as what Ethel discovered, locating a permanent residence in Hollywood proved to be difficult. On April 7th, she received a telegram from George Cukor, who admitted that looking for real estate in Los Angeles was onerous, but he had it all worked out for Ethel. There was a penthouse apartment in the shabby genteel Chateau Marmont off Sunset Boulevard, that was ideal for renting for $325, which included, gas, electricity, laundry and switchboard services, but you had to get in fast, as there were two hundred palpitating people waiting to move in. Ethel replied back, saying “George darling. Bless you. I am leaving here May 13th.”

On May 13th, 1945, Ethel packed up her silver and monogrammed silk sheets, and travelled west with her son Sammy. Once in Hollywood, she met George Cukor, who had arranged to get her apartment refurbished and adorned with elaborate antiques. As soon as she arrived, RKO had suggested the possibility of Ethel starring in the upcoming fantasy, “Miss. Hargreaves”, but seeing as she hadn’t committed to anything, she wanted some time to reconnoiter around at her own expense to see what else was available.

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When it was announced that they were looking for an actress to play the ailing bedridden, Mrs. Warren in the Victorian thriller, “The Spiral Staircase”, Ethel immediately clutched at the opportunity. She saw the part to be tailor made for her, especially since she had previously worked onstage with some of the featured cast.

In “The Spiral Staircase” Ethel played Mrs. Warren, the ambiguous  prophet, who seems to be watching your every move even with her eyes closed. Usually though she’s awake with her big luminous eyes giving you that scintillating glare, her voice hypnotic as she delivers such standard horror film lines, such as “Leave this house tonight if you know what’s good for you.”. At the time, Ethel was about 65 years of age, and she was still able to retain her famous sidelong glance and smile that captivated audiences many years earlier.

On it’s release, “The Spiral Staircase” opened to critical acclaim, and Ethel attained an Academy Award nomination for her commendable portrayal of Mrs. Warren, though things weren’t as propitious this time around.

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Following the success of “The Spiral Staircase”, Ethel and Sammy moved to a commodious apartment in Palos Verdes, and once she was fully established, she commenced work on her third picture, “The Farmer’s Daughter”, a delightful production that garnered Ethel positive accolades.

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Ethel Barrymore’s triumph as a motion picture actress would continue on until 1957, when she finally retired from acting after filming “Johnny Trouble”. During that decade, she had starred in an array of productions that would epitomize her distinctive talents. Some of these films included, “The Portrait Of Jennie”, “Moss Rose”, “Young At heart”, among others that were favorably honored by critics, while cementing Ethel as one of the brightest stars to ever grace the silver screen.

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Below is a short article that I wrote on Ethel’s life to commemorate the 56th anniversary of her passing on June 18th.

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Today marks the 56th anniversary of the passing of the Broadway and motion picture legend, Ethel Barrymore, the last of the Barrymore triumvirate and the first sibling to break into the acting mould. Primarily known for being the theatres greatest asset until her transition to the screen, where she enthralled audiences with her inimitable performances in such films like “The Spiral Staircase”, “The Portrait Of Jennie”, and her Oscar winning, “None But The Lonely Heart”, Ethel Barrymore has continued to enchant millions worldwide.

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The legend of Ethel Barrymore didn’t just happen overnight. She was born into a theatrical family that eventuated before her grandmother Louisa Lane Drew was born, and continuing on to the present day with John’s granddaughter, Drew Barrymore. Her grandmother was a well received stage actress in her day and the owner of the Arch Street Theatre, so it’s no wonder that the acting genes were passed through the family, although at first, Ethel dismissed a career on the stage, and was more interested in pursuing work as a piano player, but when she found that being a concert pianist wouldn’t supply her with a significant income, she knew that acting was the only profession that would allow her to be financially secure.

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Ethel Barrymore was destined to be a star from the moment she entered into the world as Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the second of three children born to the prolific stage actors, Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew, and the granddaughter of Louisa Lane Drew. At the time of her birth her parents already had their hands tied in the theatrical circle while trying to care for their older son Lionel, who was born in 1878, and this wouldn’t stop until after the birth of their last child, John, born in 1882.

Raising the children was an onerous task for Maurice and Georgie, who were heavily involved with stage productions, that their grandmother played a large part in their early lives, but when Louisa was busy with her hectic schedule, Ethel, John and Lionel’s upbringing was unsettled. In October 1882, Ethel and her siblings accompanied their parents on a tour of the United States for a season with the Polish actress, Helena Modjeska, who was very influential with the family, so much that she insisted that all three children be baptized in the Catholic Church. The following year they were on the road again with Modjeska, but finding that the children were a huge burden on them, they left them in their grandmothers care. Two years later they would join their parents again when they packed up and travelled to London as part of the Augustin Daly’s Theatrical Company, where they would reside for the next few years before returning home to the States in 1886.

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In 1893, when Ethel was fourteen, her mother died of Tuberculosis. Although due to her consistent touring and absence from the family she found it difficult to maintain a stable relationship with her mother, but at the same time she was still deeply saddened by her loss. After Georgie’s death, the children relied solely on their grandmother, but they knew that they wouldn’t get solid support from her forever, so Ethel and Lionel realized that they would have to follow the family tradition and seek work as an actor to survive, especially since Louisa’s business started to go bust the year before Georgie’s passing.

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Ethel Barrymore made her stage debut in 1894, in the role as Julia in  “The Rivals”, a play that ran at The Empire Theatre. A while later she made it to Broadway in “The Impudent Young Couple, which starred her uncle, John Drew Jr. and Maude Adams. Still only novice at the craft, John Jr. insisted that she appear with him and Adams again the following year in “Rosemary”.

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At the completion of “Rosemary”, Ethel started to venture out of her horizon. When William Gillette sailed to London, Ethel accompanied him and landed the part of Miss. Kittridge in Gillette’s “Secret Service”. In London, Ethel attracted the attention of Irving and Ellen Terry, who advised her not to return to the States with Gillette’s troupe, as they wanted her for the role as Annette in “The Bells”.

Ethel had now created a high status for herself in the United Kingdom, and through her constant socializing with aristocracy, she met young Winston Churchill, who immediately became infatuated in Ethel that much that he eventually proposed marriage to her, but because she wasn’t fond of the idea of being a politicians wife, she refused. However, Barrymore and Churchill remained close friends until her death in 1959.

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On her return to the United States, she approached the theatrical producer, Charles Frohman, who at first developed an instinct that she was just a shadow of her mother until he heard her rehearse a few lines of a play he was producing. He was impressed with Ethel’s short recital, that he cast her in “Catherine” followed by Stella de Grex in “His Excellency The Governor”. After witnessing these two performances, Frohman knew that Ethel had potential to climb the theatrical ladder to reach the pedestal her mother had attained, so he saw to it and began making plans for the young stars future.

On February 4th, 1901, Ethel Barrymore made her breakthrough as Madame Trentoni at the Garrick Theatre in Frohman’s new play “Captain Jinks Of The Horse Marines”. The show opened to critical acclaim, most notably for Ethel’s performance that melted the hearts of audiences night after night. With the triumph of her new play, Ethel Barrymore was now a sensation of the stage that was taking America by storm. It was also during the run of “Captain Jinks” that Ethel saved her brother John from the many obstacles that he was facing in life by imploring the director to cast John in a minor part when the original actor was temporarily unavailable. After much discussion, John was given the role, which meant that he would have to travel to New York by train, where it was said that he was constantly rehearsing on the train and learning his lines, though during the first act on stage, he forgot his lines and stopped in the middle of his dialogue, relying on the rest of the cast to improvise the remainder of the scene.

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Now a fully seasoned actress, Frohman made sure that he selected vehicles for her that would really showcase her talents, so with that in mind, she made headlines in a deluge of other productions, including “Carrots” and” “Sunday”, where she uttered what would be her most famous line, “That’s all there is, there isn’t any more.” . Around this same period, Barrymore was appetent about disseminating her range as an actress, and desperately wanted to try her hand at some Shakespeare and Ibsen. Luck came her way in 1905 when she portrayed the role of Nora in “The Dolls House” by Ibsen. Her copacetic delivery of Nora would lead to her starring as Juliet in “Romeo And Juliet” in 1922.

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In 1909, Ethel met Russell Griswold Colt while she was having lunch with her uncle at Sherry’s Restaurant in New York. Apparently during the luncheon, Colt strolled past their table where he encountered Barrymore and her uncle, and was introduced to them. At their first meeting, the two became enamoured with each other, and instantly went out dating until they married on March 14th, 1909. Sadly the marriage was perilous from the beginning with Ethel filing divorce papers as early as 1911. While married to Colt, she endured years of unhappiness and abuse until they divorced in 1923. Although their marriage was precarious from the start, the couple produced three children, Samuel Colt, Ethel Barrymore Colt and John Drew Colt.

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Three years later in 1926, she earned the role as a sophisticated spouse of a philandering husband in W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy, “The Constant Wife”. The show opened to wide encomium with Ethel receiving a multitude of accolades for her thunderous performance, and to this day, it has been inaugerated as one of the greatest successes of Barrymore’s career.

With the latest market for motion pictures, and after much persuasion from members of the family, who were already making movies, Ethel Barrymore appeared in her first film in 1914, when she starred in “The Nightingale”. She would continue to make fifteen films before returning to the theatre in 1919. Unfortunately all her silent films are now considered lost, except for a few short reels surfacing around film archival centres in the United States.

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In 1932, she appeared with her brothers, John and Lionel in “Rasputin And The Empress”. Apart from “National Red Cross Pageant”, this is the only film that features the whole three siblings. The production was also significant for the fact that it marks the first talking film of Ethel’s filmography. However the art of movie making still hadn’t piqued an interest in Ethel, and the process left her dissatisfied, that as soon as filming was completed, she retreated back to New York and the theatre, where she starred in a string of plays that were largely panned by critics. The only distinguished role that came her way during this period was that of L. C. Moffatt in “The Corn Is Green”, which opened on Broadway on November 26th, 1940.

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Ethel Barrymore made a career transformation into motion pictures in 1944 when Cary Grant wanted her to play his mother, Ma Mott in “None But The Lonely Heart”. The film was an immediate hit, and garnered Ethel her first Academy Award. With the warm reception that she received in “None But The Lonely Heart”, Ethel decided to abandon the stage to focus entirely on films. Shortly after she relocated to Los Angeles and moved in with her son Samuel in Palos Verdes, where they resided until Ethel could no longer afford the property, and would have to relocate with Samuel to a smaller apartment in Beverly Hills.

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Her transition to the screen proved to be as triumphant as her years in the theatre. During the annals of her film career, Ethel exhibited her indelible talents in an array of perennial classics, including, “The Spiral Staircase”, “The Farmer’s Daughter”, “Portrait Of Jennie” among other notable productions that earned her a plethora of accolades.

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For a period in the 1950’s, she transferred over to the television medium for a while, and appeared in numerous shows, one of them being her memorable encounter with Jimmy Durante on NBC’s “All Star Revue”, on December 1st, 1951.

As the 1950’s progressed, Ethel’s health began to deteriorate, and she spent her last few films in a wheelchair. At the conclusion of “Johnny Trouble” in 1957, Ethel Barrymore finally gave up acting and retired. The last remaining years of her life when Barrymore was no longer active as an actress, she engaged herself in the personage of the upcoming stars of the generation, while maintaining a strong interest in the theatre, movies and television.

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At the inception of 1959, George Cukor was in the midst of devising a comeback for Ethel Barrymore to make records, but by March her condition had exacerbated, and Cukor realized that his plan was impossible, as Ethel was now confined to her bed with oxygen tanks permanently by her side. At the start of June, with her health disintegrating each day, the doctor warned Samuel and her nurse that Ethel was dying and that there was no way she could pull through.

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As the month of June progressed, the nights became sleepless for Ethel, which meant that Sammy and Nurse Anna would have to remain by her bedside for the duration of the night. As comfort for Ethel, Anna often held her in her arms like a child, while Ethel’s eyes were filled with tears. On the evening of June 17th, Ethel managed to retain consciousness to listen to a Dodgers-Milwaukee Braves doubleheader. At ten that night, the pain increased, and Ethel asked for her doctor, who came and stayed for awhile. When he left, Samuel and Anna sat and talked with her until she fell asleep.

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At three in the morning on Thursday, June 18th, 1959, Ethel suddenly awoke with an intuition that death was about to approach. She grasped Anna’s hand for the last time. Anna knew that this was the end, so she asked, “Are you happy?”, Ethel retorted back, “I’m happy”. Six hours later when the clock hit nine, Ethel Barrymore passed away peacefully from Cardiovascular Disease with Samuel and Anna by her side holding her hand. She was a little less than two months shy of her 80th Birthday.

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With a career spanning sixty years, Ethel Barrymore was fourteen when she left the Convent Of Sacred Heart to become an actress, a profession that she would perpetuate until 1957 when she retired. Fifty six years since her passing, Ethel Barrymore is remembered as one of the brightest stars to ever have her presence grace the stage and screen. She is remembered by her legion of fans the world over, who find pleasure in exhausting her filmography that has provided them with a multitudinous amount of entertainment through the years.

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Rest In Peace Ethel Barrymore: August 15th, 1879 – June 18th, 1959.

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Written by Crystal Kalyana.

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One thought on “CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON: ETHEL BARRYMORE’S TRANSITION FROM STAGE TO SCREEN.

  1. Silver Screenings says:

    Wow – a career for more than 60 years! That is impressive.

    I was intrigued by the backstory re: “None but the Lonely Heart”. I had no idea Ethel had so much trepidation for the role and about acting in Hollywood. She was marvelous in that role.

    Thanks for highlighting the career of a very talented and interesting woman. 🙂

    Like

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