Ethel Barrymore, the consummate actress who hailed from a prominent family of thespians exhibited her unique artistry in an array of diverse roles in stage and film, and attained success in every medium she explored.
While her film career was condensed and short lived compared to other stars of her caliber, Ethel Barrymore has left an indelible imprint in the hearts of millions worldwide for her memorable contribution to motion pictures. In a film tenure that officially commenced in 1944 with short brief stints in 1932 and the silent era, Barrymore portrayed everything from the ailing Mrs. Warren in The Spiral Staircase and her Academy Award winning performance as Ma Mott in None But The Lonely Heart to Princess Czarina in Rasputin And The Empress.
One role she has played that unfortunately hasn’t received the credit it deserves is her performance as Granny in The Secret Of Convict Lake, a western style Film Noir that is directed by Michael Gordon, and produced by Frank P. Rosenberg, with a screenplay by the renowned, Oscar Saul, who would later attain critical acclaim for his screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire.
In addition to Ethel Barrymore, the film features a prominent array of stellar players. Actor, Glenn Ford, whose career spanned more than fifty years was assigned the role of Jim Canfield. Ford was a prolific talent during the golden age of cinema. Noted for his extreme versatility, Ford was often seen in diverse and challenging roles that epitomized his adaptability as an actor, but while he was equally at home playing complex characters, Glenn Ford is often associated for his embodiment of traditional and ordinary men who were usually faced with unusual situations.
Starring alongside Glenn Ford is Gene Tierney in one of her lesser known roles as Marcia Stoddard. Tierney whose success was unparalleled during the 1940’s later admitted that she was glad to be cast in a small budget production that wouldn’t garner the deluge of fans and reporters that besieged her familiar surroundings after her appearances in critically acclaimed films that include, The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, Laura and Leave Her To Heaven. She was also euphoric about working with Ethel Barrymore, whom she had always admired.
The Secret Of Convict Lake may be a little known production, but for a film that has been neglected for decades, it has a wealth of history behind it. To cut a long story short, the premise of the film is depicted from true events that took place at the lake on September 17th, 1871, when an assembled group of convicts escaped from a prison in Carson City and found shelter at the lake, which at the time of the incident was known as Monte Diablo Creek.
While most critics have stated that Hollywood’s interpretation of the real event is a myth, the film does make a point of capturing many aspects of the incident. However it would be difficult to clearly document the exact happenings of the day as a lot of it remains the stuff of legend. As is depicted in the movie, five prisoners reached Monte Diablo and managed to remain there for a few days before being caught by posses that was led by George Hightower.
Apart from the films brush with history, The Secret Of Convict Lake did little to propel any positive action from audiences. On its release, the film opened to mix reviews. Most critics looked favorably on the performances, but thought that the plot detoured away from true accounts.
“You’re takin’ a lot on yourself, aren’t you ma’am? Judge, jury, hangman all wrapped up in pretty skirts? Having yourself a ladies’ lynching party?”
The Secret Of Convict Lake did nothing to warrant a vigorous response from the cast and crew members either. During filming, Glenn Ford was suffering from a serious viral infection in his left eye that resulted in him enduring bouts of severe pain for most part of the production. When he was away from the camera he was forced to wear an eye patch on the set, but every time he was required to stand under the intense studio lights, his condition exacerbated.
The only aspect of the production that Glenn Ford developed fond recollections of was his time working with Ethel Barrymore. He had always idolized Barrymore, and considered her to be a virtuoso at her craft. In response to Ethel Barrymore, Ford later stated to his son Peter that, “She had a wonderfully dry wit, and I tried to be in her presence as much as possible.”. On the other hand however, Peter Ford mentions in his book of how his father befriended Gene Tierney, who at the time was married to Oleg Cassini. Just like Glenn, Tierney was an adventurous soul who was willing to try anything courageous. In his diary, Glenn Ford wrote the following about Gene Tierney, “It’s the walk. She walks and all you can think of is following her. She’s got the original come-hither sway. I was a fan of hers for a long time, a gorgeous, sculpted beauty and a real pro. I wish I could have worked with her again.”
As for Ethel Barrymore, The Secret Of Convict Lake marked one of her last major roles. After her appearance in the 1954 film, Young At Heart, Barrymore’s health rapidly declined. She did however manage to attain the leading role in 1957’s, Johnny Trouble, but after enduring numerous issues that were fueled by her failing condition, Ethel Barrymore retired permanently. She died two years later on June 18th, 1959 at the age of 79.
Based on true events, The Secret Of Convict Lake follows the story of Jim Canfield ( Glenn Ford ) and his fellow group of escaped prisoners, who are en-route to some destination far away from Carson City. Jim however has other plans. He has duties to fulfill in Monte Diablo, so Canfield and the four other convicts manage to find shelter at Monte Diablo, a small settlement that is occupied by a group of women headed by Granny ( Ethel Barrymore ) who is in control, and allows the five convicts to use an empty cabin while providing them with food.
The following day, Jim Canfield sets out on his mission. Wrongfully convicted of killing a woman and stealing $40,000, Canfield plans to seek revenge and kill Rudy Schaeffer, the man who framed him. This plan however is altered and ceased when Jim learns that Rudy Schaeffer is engaged to marry Marcia Stoddard ( Gene Tierney ) who he becomes smitten with.
The Secret Of Convict Lake is one of those films that has been unjustifiably dismissed, but once viewing it however, you come to discover that its a movie that is easily appreciated. For audiences who prefer films that contain action and a variety of genres packed into one, this is definitely the vehicle for you. The entire production is filled with Film Noir undertones and dramatic plot twists that is guaranteed to keep the viewer enraptured from beginning to end.
“They were evil men and they touched us all with their evil. But maybe we ain’t the ones to do the judgin’. We ain’t without sin. None of us. So I say may the Lord have mercy on us as well as on them. And deliver us from evil and hatred. Amen.”
The Secret Of Convict Lake also boasts a stellar cast which consist of seasoned professionals like Ethel Barrymore whose majestic charm and unique artistry was a welcoming presence in any movie. Although Barrymore only had a supporting role, her character helped hold the film together. As Granny, the domineering matriarch of the female inhabitants living in Monte Diablo, Barrymore delivered acidic dialogue with every addressing command.
“You got no call to be scared. They’re men, not wild bear. Just ask ’em to account for themselves… Marcia, come take this rifle. Just in case they turn out to be wild bear after all.” ( Ethel Barrymore as Granny )
Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney were the perfect choices for the films protagonists. Gene Tierney who was known for her natural beauty and luminous screen presence played a tormented soul with a formidable background. To elude her troubled past, she plans to marry Rudy Schaeffer, a vicious man with a penchant to kill. At first Marcia is unaware of Shaeffer’s demons, and is all set to relocate to a private cabin with him when he returns from prospecting, but Jim Canfield, who views Shaeffer as a completely worthless man tries his hardest to deter her from marrying him.
Glenn Ford is the hero of the film. On the exterior, he appears very ruggedly and gruff, but his interiors show an amiable man with a heart of gold, who wants to seek revenge on his biggest enemy. Initially he is viewed as a criminal to the women, but once he saves the cattle in a barn fire, his true colors are revealed.
Abounded with atmospheric cinematography, and an intelligent screenplay along with the unforgettable cast, The Secret Of Convict Lake is a film that is not to be missed.
The Secret Of Convict Lake was initially a proposed vehicle for Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell.
Agnes Moorehead was originally considered for the role of Rachel, played by Ann Dvorak.
Glenn Ford: Born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford on May 1st, 1916 in Quebec, Canada. Died: August 30th, 2006 in Beverly Hills, California. Aged 90.
Gene Tierney: Born Gene Eliza Tierney on November 19th, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: November 6th, 1991 in Houston, Texas. Aged 70.
Ethel Barrymore: Born Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.