This post is part of the 4th annual What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Click here to view the other articles being exhibited during the event.
Ethel Barrymore the prominent star with the piercing dark eyes, lustrous brown hair and distinctive side profile was exalted as a legendary figure in the history of entertainment.
In addition to her prestigious status and majestic aura, Ethel Barrymore inhabited so much more. She hailed from a colourful background that consisted of a legion of show business folks. Her grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew was a highly esteemed stage actress who owned the famous Arch Street Theatre, and her parents, Maurice and Georgie also flourished in the arts. With her theatrical roots and being accustomed to drama from a young age, it’s no wonder that Ethel and her siblings, John and Lionel transformed into a prodigy of the arts.
For Ethel, stardom was imminent. At a young age she had possessed that rare luminary quality that is attached to all people of importance. By the time she was ten, Ethel herself realized that she was surrounded by a family full of actors who have been in the business since they were children. Being the age she was, and with no theatrical credits to her resume she immediately came to the conclusion that she was wasting her time doing nothing but observing characters coming to life on stage, and that she must now expedite a place in society.
That was exactly what she did. In a matter of a few years Ethel had a promising future among the stars ahead of her, and she was determined to succeed in what ever reputable avenue she took. Though at the time, acting was the last profession she wanted to acquire. For years she had dreamed about a career as a concert pianist, but when she discovered that it wouldn’t provide her with a considerable income, Ethel had an intuition that the stage was her only destiny and she too would have to break into the acting mould.
When Ethel did join the sphere of theatrics, she became a fully seasoned veteran of the stage, making the older generation of her family fall into eclipse.
Like her parents, grandmother and uncles achieved in the past, Ethel Barrymore’s thunderous performances on stage warranted an enthusiastic response from the avid audiences whose fervor proliferated each time Ethel Barrymore reached a higher pinnacle. This success led to a brief stint in motion pictures that lasted only a few years, but would eventually come to the fore later on in her career when Ethel transitioned to the big screen permanently.
For someone who once detested a career in motion pictures, Ethel Barrymore soon discovered that this aspect of the entertainment medium was very rewarding and came to relish screen acting. She loved nothing more than portraying characters with an acidic persona that was either a domineering matriarch of a wealthy family or a bedridden mother or grandmother facing the final chapter of life, but with all that to her credit, and with the glowing accolades she attained, Ethel Barrymore was just a character actor at heart.
As with the case of most character actors, Ethel Barrymore is very underestimated and is largely forgotten about today, which is a shame. It is the character actors that hold the movie together. Without their presence these films would incorporate a lot of flaws.
The same can be said about Ethel Barrymore. Even though Barrymore was mostly a character actor during the later years of her career, she was the highlight of all her pictures. Without Ethel Barrymore’s presence the films would contain an absence of comedic relief and snappy dialogue which was delivered in droves by Ethel.
My dedication and passion to Ethel Barrymore dates back to my high school years. As a child I was immediately enraptured by the mischievous and playful spirit of Gertie, played by Drew Barrymore in E.T. Being the young age I was, I was curious and wanted to know more about this cute little child star. Then I discovered that she is descended from a long lineage of show business personalities, and her grandfather is John Barrymore, a cinematic legend from the golden age of Hollywood.
That leads to my discovery of Ethel Barrymore. My first exposure to Ethel was when I first saw Portrait Of Jennie. I was instantly captivated by Barrymore’s portrayal of Miss. Spinney, the amiable art dealer who emboldens the confidence of the indigent artist, Eben Adams and encourages him to express his talent in his latest painting of a young girl with a mystique aura whose name is Jennie.
Then there is my all time favorite film, The Spiral Staircase, a psychological thriller which features Ethel Barrymore in the role of Mrs. Warren, the bedridden and cantankerous matriarch of the dark and gloomy Warren mansion.
The Warren residence is situated in a sleepy New England town where there is a serial killer murdering young women with afflictions at loose. Occupying the mansion is young Helen, Mrs. Warren’s mute domestic assistant who it is feared might be the next victim. Mrs Warren who is physically ill manages to retain vigilance by easily sensing the evil surrounding her and implores Helen to leave the house that night.
Ethel Barrymore received an Academy Award nomination for her screen stealing portrayal of the blatant Mrs.Warren. And when I say screen stealing, I mean the staple that holds the film together, and that staple happens to be Ethel Barrymore who is the major attraction with her scintillating glare and hypnotic voice.
Even though Ethel missed out on the Academy Award for The Spiral Staircase, she attained the Oscar the previous year for her performance as Ma Mott in her comeback film, None But The Lonely Heart, where she played the terminally ill mother of Ernie Mott, who is portrayed by Cary Grant.
Apart from the three films listed, Ethel Barrymore has headlined an array of notable productions that garnered a vigorous response from me. After years of being an ardent supporter of Ethel, I have now exhausted her complete filmography from the talking era, but have still yet to see her silents which are all presumed lost.
The complete list of films from Ethel Barrymore:
The Nightingale ( 1914 )
The Final Judgment ( 1915 )
The Kiss Of Hate ( 1916 )
The Awakening Of Helena Ritchie ( 1916 )
The White Raven ( 1917 )
The Call Of Her People ( 1917 )
The Greatest Power ( 1917 )
The Lifted Veil ( 1917 )
Life’s Whirlpool ( 1917 )
The Eternal Mother ( 1917 )
National Red Cross Pageant ( 1917 )
An American Widow ( 1917 )
Our Mrs. McChesney ( 1918 )
The Divorcee ( 1919 )
Camille ( Short ) ( 1926 )
Rasputin And The Empress ( 1932 )
None But The Lonely Heart ( 1944 )
The Spiral Staircase ( 1945 )
The Farmer’s Daughter ( 1947 )
Moss Rose ( 1947 )
Night Song ( 1947 )
The Paradine Case ( 1947 )
Moonrise ( 1948 )
Portrait Of Jennie ( 1948 )
The Great Sinner ( 1949 )
The Red Danube ( 1949 )
That Midnight Kiss ( 1949 )
Pinky ( 1949 )
NBC Television Opera Theatre ( Television series ) ( 1950 )
Kind Lady ( 1951 )
The Secret Of Convict Lake ( 1951 )
It’s A Big Country: An American Anthology ( 1951 )
Deadline U.S.A ( 1952 )
Family Theatre ( TV Series ) ( 1952 )
Just For You ( 1952 )
Hollywood Opening Night ( TV Series ) ( 1952 )
The Story Of Three Loves ( 1953 )
Omnibus ( TV series ) ( 1953 )
Main Street To Broadway ( 1953 )
Climax ( TV series ) ( 1954 )
Young At Heart ( 1954 )
General Electric Theatre ( TV series ) ( 1955 )
Johnny Trouble ( 1957 )
Below is an article on Ethel’s life which was originally written by me for her death anniversary but rewritten on her Birthday:
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.