“You may have bought the Lakeside Arms Mr. Parsons, but you haven’t bought my home, because I own it and I haven’t sold it.”
Ethel Barrymore achieved success in many forms of entertainment. The stage was her destiny and her sweeping presence is etched in the hearts of theatre-goers world wide, but it was her short yet memorable tenure in motion pictures in which she is fondly remembered for today.
It can’t be argued that Ethel had trouble adjusting to motion pictures, but as much as she detested the art of film making, she was still capable of achieving the same amount of adoration and greatness on celluloid as what she attained in the theatre. As an actress, Ethel was in full command. Her indomitable screen presence was a great asset to any film, but unfortunately, due to her advancing age, Ethel was mainly relegated to secondary roles.
For Ethel, all those years of being cast as supporting characters was about to change. For the first time since she left the stage, Barrymore secured a leading role in the 1951 remake of Kind Lady, in which she played Mary Herries, an elderly victim who finds her colossal residence being taken over by a group of criminals who proceed to sell her paintings and other possessions. On its release, the film didn’t garner the popularity that its predecessor did, and nor did it make much of a dent in the filmography of its cast. However, it did enhance Ethel Barrymore’s chances of starring in more leading roles.
Kind Lady is indisputable proof that Ethel Barrymore was still able to take on a lead role. Although Barrymore would only work sporadically after this due to illness and a twelve month suspension, the movie industry were apparently impressed by Barrymore’s starring performance.
When no starring vehicles came her way, Ethel thought it was just a fanciful dream and that her days of playing leading ladies were over. What she didn’t know is that hope would become reality once more, but it would take seven more films, the death of brother Lionel, incessant debts and deteriorating health for it to happen.
By the mid to late fifties, Ethel Barrymore’s frequent bouts of illness were beginning to dominate her entire lifestyle. To further exacerbate matters, she was drowning in debt, but with inefficient energy she was unable to pour all her dynamism into work. The only way to elude her financial problems was to act, though that task was proving to be more and more difficult. Her last movie role was in 1954 when she played Aunt Jessie Tuttle in Young at Heart, starring Doris Day and Frank Sinatra. Since then, her health has largely impacted her ability. Finally, help came in the form of her close friend, Katharine Hepburn who realized that her frailty was her most challenging burden. Hepburn expressed her concern by approaching George Cukor about setting up a fund where everyone could contribute.
In August 1956, the Ethel Barrymore Fund was established. Although the fund was no secret from Barrymore, Hepburn continuously made Ethel think that only George Cukor and her circle of closest friends were contributing. There was no way in the world that Ethel was going to accept money from anybody, but Hepburn was deeply touched by Ethel’s graciousness and she wanted to try and eliminate Barrymore’s debt as best she could.
Ethel’s response to the outpouring of generosity has never been documented, but one can imagine that she would have been moved with happiness. Perhaps, her accepting the lead role in the 1957 film Johnny Trouble is a slight indicator of her feelings. What we do know is that Barrymore was independent and depending on others was not in her vocabulary. We can also assume that after all these years, Barrymore was still clinging to the hope of acquiring one more starring role.
Nobody alive these days knows Ethel’s exact motive behind wanting to make Johnny Trouble, but its true to say that she didn’t want to be viewed as being wholly dependent. She also couldn’t stand laying idle for long periods of time, and since she was currently in semi-retirement, she probably felt inactive and useless. I think she wanted to prove to the world that her illness was not an hindrance to her capabilities and that she still possessed her theatrical skills.
At the time that Ethel Barrymore signed with the independent company Clarion to make Johnny Trouble, almost everyone was shocked by Barrymore’s decision to return to the screen. In the years prior, Barrymore’s health worries were starting to fuel significant problems. These troubles were clearly apparent in Young At Heart when Ethel appeared decrepit and old. Although her mobility seemed normal in the film, Barrymore spent most of her time on set in a wheelchair.
This paints a clear picture of why everybody thought that Ethel Barrymore’s sudden decision to make another film seemed anything but normal. They were generally concerned about Ethel’s condition, and were worried that if she took on a leading role in a movie her health would rapidly disintegrate. Ethel on the other hand, was obstinate. She was not going to take no for an answer. She was determined to show the world that magic could still be spawned whenever she was in a scene.
Johnny Trouble may not have been the success that Ethel was initially anticipating. In fact, some state that it was a rather sad departure for a Barrymore, but its true to say that she still went out with a bang. Despite being cheaply made and sinking into obscurity shortly after, the film boasts some familiar names who would continue to attain greater prosperity in the proceeding years. Directed and produced by John H. Auer and written for the screen by Charles O’Neil and David Lord who based the film on a story by Ben Ames Williams, Johnny Trouble is an endearing remake of Someone To Remember ( 1943 ).
“This is the first time you’ve scuttled me without offering me a cup of tea.”
Coincidentally, Johnny Trouble is the last film John H. Auer directed. However, he did direct an episode of U.S. Marshal the following year and he continued to produce television series until 1960, when he decided to leave the industry for good. As a director and producer, Auer received little recognition. Born in Hungary in 1906, Auer developed an intense interest in film when he was still only a child. By the time he was twelve, John was already acting in European motion pictures, but like a lot of child stars he found it difficult to transition into adult roles. As a result, he decided to embark on a business career. That remained his soul focus for a while, but deep down he yearned for a more prestige profession in the entertainment industry and moved to the United States in 1928 to secure work as a director.
Johnny Trouble is a tale of inaccessible dreams, blossoming friendships of the unexpected kind, and the spirit of trust. It is also the story of Katherine Chandler ( Ethel Barrymore ), an invalid elderly who has been told to leave her residence when her apartment complex is purchased by a local college and is soon to be remodeled and transformed into a boys dormitory. This creates a difficult problem for all involved except for Katherine who has permanently resided in her suite for decades and refuses to move. Katherine fears that if she vacates she may never see her son who disappeared twenty-seven years ago, and if she remains she is convinced that her son will someday return.
“How will I look to him? Will he recognize me? Would he be glad?”
Problems continue to arise, but eventually the chaos is put to a halt when Katherine is permitted to stay. The arrangement seems bizarre. Almost anyone would find the destruction a daily interference, though Katherine does not view it as an impediment to her lifestyle. She continues to carry on with her normal day to day routine as if nothing is happening. Even once the boys arrive everything seems to be mundane in Katherine’s world until she forges a close friendship with the boys who treat her as their collective grandmother. One of these students is Johnny Chandler ( Stuart Whitman ) whose behavioral traits closely mirror those of Katherine’s son Johnny. When Johnny Chandler enters her life, Katherine is convinced that he is her grandson, and at last her dreams of reuniting with her son who disappeared twenty-seven years earlier are finally in her reach or are they?
While the plot reaches the depths of sentimentality, it never actually hints at being too mawkish or sugary. However, Katherine Chandler embodies all the core characteristics of a saccharine person. She is lovable and extremely sweet, but she also carries an air of stubbornness. Her amiable persona and the way she exudes eccentricity is why the boys find her so appealing. They don’t look at her through the lens of her syrupy nature. They see her as a grandmother figure who they can have tea and cake with every afternoon. But their connection is much deeper than that. Katherine is their pillar of strength and their tower of comfort. Whenever they are embroiled in a difficult situation, they can always rely on Katherine’s support.
On the other hand, the boys have improved Katherine’s life. Before the students entered the picture, Katherine was stuck in the perils of loneliness. The only contact she got with the outside world was when her longtime chauffeur Tom McKay came to take her to church. Most of the time she sat there reminiscing about the past and wishing that her son will return. At least when she meets Johnny Chandler she gets to relive those memories she has of her son, and it made her all the richer in believing that if Johnny is her grandson than the dream of seeing her real son could come true in the imminent future.
Johnny Trouble is strongly anchored by Ethel Barrymore who infuses splashes of majestic charm and a special kind of grandeur to her role. The rest of the cast are given their moments to shine, but they are mostly aided by the presence of Barrymore. The only other star of the film who is capable of reaching the same heights as Ethel is Cecil Kellaway whose performance of Tom McKay brings a mixture of comedic relief and dramatic tension to the film. Tom is the only one who holds the key to the truth about Katherine’s son and he’s hidden the secret from her for many years. Although, Kellaway was also relegated to character parts, he had a brief stint as a leading man in Australian and American films earlier on in his career.
Ethel Barrymore had previously worked with Cecil Kellaway in Portrait of Jennie ( 1948 ). After their first collaboration the two instantly developed a friendship that touched more on professionalism rather than an intimate bond. Kellaway was never a frequent visitor at Barrymore’s residence, but there’s a strong possibility that he has a been a guest on several occasions.
In addition to Ethel Barrymore and Cecil Kellaway, the film also features a performance by Carolyn Jones, who is best remembered for donning the famous role of Morticia on The Addams Family. In Johnny Trouble, Jones plays Julie Horton, Johnny’s love interest who is trying to amend the complications in her relationship, but falls pregnant in the process. The part of Julie is pivotal to the story and without her presence the plot would fall rather flat. Julie adds depth to the film and provides more dramatic content.
The next major character would be Johnny Chandler who is portrayed by Stuart Whitman. At the time of filming, Whitman was still relatively unknown to audiences, but his status soon catapulted to great heights. As Johnny Chandler, Whitman does an exceptional job at playing an unruly and rebellious student who becomes the object of Katherine’s obsession. Barrymore and Whitman surprisingly have solid chemistry and its because of this that their characters don’t stretch credulity.
Ethel Barrymore’s son, Samuel Colt played the small role of Mr. Reichow in the film. Although Colt was usually only given unaccredited parts in motion pictures, Barrymore was instrumental in Samuel’s brief tenure in film. On the home-front, Samuel had no direction in life. He didn’t know what career to pursue and he certainly wasn’t interested in marriage. The only profession he knew was caring and escorting his mother around, a duty that he continued until Ethel’s death.
Johnny Trouble was Ethel Barrymore’s final screen appearance. The actress wanted so desperately to continue on working. In early 1958, she signed up to play Jesse James’s mother on TV’s Playhouse 90, but her deteriorating health which caused her to have a bad fall and break her arm at home forbidded her to take on the role. This fueled major upset, but her emotional stability started crashing down when she found out that she would never return to her beloved Mamaroneck estate. By now, Ethel was confined to her bed with an oxygen tank parked permanently by her side and waiting for the inevitable to happen. As time progressed, her health rapidly declined, and on June 18th, 1959, Ethel Barrymore finally passed away at the age of 79.
Jack Larson (Eddie Landis) and James Bridges (Ike) met during the making of the film. They became domestic partners in 1958 and remained so until Bridges’ death in 1993.
The Shakespeare which Johnny Chandler (Stuart Whitman) reads to Nana (Ethel Barrymore) is an excerpt from Sonnet 29 ; which reads as follows: Sonnet 29 When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself, and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, With what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate; For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings. ~ William Shakespeare.
Ethel Barrymore: Born, Ethel Mae Blythe on August 15th, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: June 18th, 1959 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
Cecil Kallaway: Born, Cecil Lauriston Kellaway on August 22nd, 1890 in Cape Town, Cape Colony, South Africa. Died: February 28th, 1973 in West Hollywood, California. Aged: 82.
Carolyn Jones: Born, Carolyn Sue Jones on April 28th, 1930 in Amarillo, Texas. Died: August 3rd, 1983 in West Hollywood, California. Aged: 53.
Stuart Whitman: Born, Stuart Maxwell Whitman on February 1st, 1928 in San Francisco, California.
This post was written for the Fourth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by me. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.
3 thoughts on “ETHEL IS THE DELIGHTFUL PROTAGONIST IN JOHNNY TROUBLE ( 1957 )”
Great post. At least she got to do what she loved(act)one last time.
Ethel and Cecil surrounded by that young talent in this sweet story make for a very comforting, Sunday afternoon movie that should be more enjoyed today. Thank you for the interesting background of Miss Barrymore at this time of her life.
Even though stage actors/actresses are highly regarded, it’s thanks to the existence of film, that stars are kept alive, for future generations (i.e. through future generations with taste and regard for the arts). Movie Stars never really die. And great films age well and live are forever.
It’s really nice to learn about Katharine Hepburn’s selfless act.
Lovely tribute to Ethel Barrymore, along with a lovely mini-tribute to John H. Auer.
This movie sounds worth checking out, even though it wasn’t well received, back in the day. Now am really keep on finding out the hidden secret, the truth about Barrymore’s character, Katherine’s, son, from JOHNNY TROUBLE!!!!