This post is part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by me to commemorate the 136th anniversary of Ethel Barrymore’s birth.
Ethel Barrymore was born Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a theatrical family that started with her grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew, and traveled through the family from her parents, Maurice Barrymore and Georgiana Drew, to her famous siblings, Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore, and continuing on to the present day with John’s granddaughter, Drew Barrymore.
In a career that spanned over sixty years, Ethel Barrymore exhibited her unique mastery across all aspects of the entertainment industry, and left her trail of distinction in every medium. Though fifty six years since her passing, Ethel is identified as an icon of the stage, which is indeed true, but audiences are forgetting that Ethel had more to her credit than just her large body of stage work. Besides from her illustrious theatrical career, Ethel showcased her indelible flair for acting on the big screen and became a sensation of motion pictures.
Ethel Barrymore’s career as a film actress may have been short lived, but during the annals of her screen profession, she attained an Academy Award, and appeared in an array of triumphant motion pictures, which is more than what any of her contemporaries ever achieved. After witnessing her inimitable performances in such films that include, “The Spiral Staircase”, “Portrait Of Jennie”, and “None But The Lonely Heart”, it is easy to see that Ethel Barrymore not only held an enduring presence in the theater, she also held a legendary reign over Hollywood.
For someone who once despised the profession known as motion picture acting, and was primarily known as a figure of the stage, she sure did achieve a legion of accolades in the movie field. Even Ethel herself came to relish it after she discovered that her populace on screen was more rewarding than the theater, and ain’t we glad she did?
Ethel Barrymore’s filmography is very extensive. From her foray into motion pictures during the silent era to her permanent return to film acting after her memorable performance in “None But The Lonely Heart”, Ethel appeared in a diverse range of productions that really spotlighted her versatility as an actress.
Even as early as 1914, when Ethel made her film debut in “The Nightingale”, she already bore that matronly demeanor that would become her famous characteristic in the future. This image was perfectly suited for the cessation of the picture, but at the films inception she had to portray an impoverished young woman that lives in a dark and gloomy tenement, who rises to super stardom as the successful singer, Isola Franti. By all means this is a primeval take on the rags to riches stories that would dominate the early thirties, usually starring Joan Crawford in one of her typical roles of a heroine who hails from humble beginnings to a youthful figure in society, but in “The Nightingale” it’s Ethel Barrymore, a seasoned veteran of the stage, who displayed more adaptability in roles than Joan Crawford.
Between 1914 to 1919, Ethel Barrymore appeared in fifteen movies, but sadly most of them were largely panned on their release and are now considered lost. Her most important role from this period was that of Helena Ritchie in the 1916 film, “The Awakening Of Helena Ritchie”, a silent production which Barrymore herself counted to be her favorite of her silents.
Luckily for Ethel, most of these films were made on the East Coast. At the time her children and her Broadway career was her main focus, so with that in mind, she decided to abandon motion pictures in 1919, after the conclusion of “The Divorcee”, to resume her theater work while juggling her role as a mother.
As much as Ethel detested movie making, she found herself back under the helm of Hollywood in 1932, when she reunited with her brothers, John and Lionel in “Rasputin And The Empress”. While this was not a happy experience for Ethel, it was great news for many elated fans, who were euphoric about seeing their idol star alongside her brothers in her first talkie.
In “Rasputin And The Empress” she portrayed the Czarina, a rather technical and complex character, who is about as regal as Ethel herself. Though for Ethel the role was not so abstruse. It was the schedule and the constant demands that she found strenuous, so exhausting in fact that the longer she was stuck in Hollywood playing the Czarina, she inherited her characters traits and became more imperial.
After “Rasputin And The Empress”, audiences wouldn’t get another glimpse of Ethel Barrymore’s acting prowess on the big screen until 1944, when she appeared alongside Cary Grant to play Ma Mott in “None But The Lonely Heart”, a role where she would have to cast aside all vanity to portray an old dowager, who is terminally ill with Cancer.
This time Ethel Barrymore’s presence in Hollywood would be perpetual. After all these years of dismissing the art of movie making, Ethel started displaying a predilection towards a film career, so much that she finally relocated to California to set about canvassing for roles.
Her next assignment would be in 1946, when she portrayed the role of Mrs. Warren, the bedridden matriarch in “The Spiral Staircase”. One of Ethel’s most renowned roles to date, and another role that almost led to her attaining an Academy Award like she did for “None But The Lonely Heart”, but this time she was only nominated.
Even though, Ethel remains in bed for most part of the movie, it is her character that shines. Just like in an array of her films she has that acidic touch to her. After all, it is Ethel 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. Without even knowing it, she 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.
After “The Spiral Staircase”, her roles came in droves. Her next part in “The Farmer’s Daughter” would be a change of pace for Ethel. In the previous two films she portrayed a character that’s suffering from terminal illness, but here she plays the mother of a U.S representative, who is not sick, and who can walk around sometimes aided by a cane.
It was Ethel’s age to why she was often cast in a role where she is sick and bedridden, but besides from those films, she has starred in an array of later films where her character appears worldly and far from dying. For instance if you look at her role in “Portrait Of Jennie”, or her role in “Moss Rose”, among many others, she plays a character that is a far cry from that of Mrs. Warren in “The Spiral Staircase” or Miss Em in ‘Pinky”. It is these roles that really showcase her versatility as an actress, and especially after witnessing her characters persona in “Moss Rose”, you would really come to believe that Ethel Barrymore was adept at any part.
By the time 1950’s progressed, Ethel’s health began to deteriorate, and her films were less frequent. In “Young At Heart”, Ethel was mostly confined to a wheelchair, though you wouldn’t be able to guess in the picture, as she was able to walk around for brief periods of time as showed in the film.
With her exacerbating health, Ethel Barrymore retired from motion pictures in 1957, after delivering a thunderous portrayal of Katherine Chandler in “Johnny Trouble”. Ethel Barrymore sure knew how to go out with a bang. And that she did.