Believe it or not, there’s much more to stage and screen legend Ethel Barrymore than the fact that she was Drew Barrymore’s great-aunt.
In fact, Ethel Barrymore was the grand-dame of the Broadway stage in the early 20th century. She was the daughter of stage actor Maurice Barrymore, and the sister of John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore, with whom she shared the screen in the 1932 MGM melodrama Rasputin and the Empress.
According to author and critic Harold Clurman, Barrymore possessed a natural, effortless “regal” demeanor. He then elaborated: “It is a spiritual rather than a social quality. Very few kings and queens have possessed it.”
Enhancing her regal bearing – I can’t think of a single king or queen who possesses one – was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the 1944 drama None But the Lonely Heart.
Better yet, Barrymore could be a truly effective screen presence, making great use of her wide-open, deeply expressive eyes.
Turner Classic Movies’ film series “Summer Under the Stars” continues with seven Ethel Barrymore movies on Wednesday, August 4. Barrymore has supporting roles in all of them.
Needless to say, I’ve never seen Ethel Barrymore on the stage. I have, however, seen her grandly posing (I believe that was supposed to have been grandiose acting) in the 1917 melo The White Raven, one of the dozen or so silents she made in the mid-to-late 1910s.
Apart from Rasputin and the Empress, Barrymore was to stay away from feature films until None But the Lonely Heart. She was then 65 years old (but looked older) and ready for a life playing mostly dignified old ladies in Hollywood movies.
My favorites among these are Barrymore’s scene-stealing turns in both The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948), neither of which will be shown on TCM.
But all is not lost.
There’s Barrymore supporting Humphrey Bogart and the invariably excellent Kim Hunter in Richard Brooks’ well-liked drama Deadline U.S.A. (1950); there’s Barrymore supporting Walter Pidgeon, Angela Lansbury, and the invariably pretty Janet Leigh in George Sidney’s anti-Red The Red Danube (1949); and there’s Barrymore supporting Gregory Peck, Charles Laughton, Ann Todd and the invariably alluring Alida Valli in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), one of the director’s weakest Hollywood efforts. Barrymore, not at her best, was nominated for an Oscar.
A couple of great Ethel Barrymore quotes (via Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s Inside Oscar):
“When Ethel Barrymore learned that she had won the Academy Award, she told friends she was ‘not particularly impressed.’ In her autobiography, she was downright blasé: ‘And of course, it was very pleasant later to get the Oscar.'”
I’m not sure if Barrymore found it pleasant to see Ina Claire playing (a version of) her in the Cyrill Gardner-George Cukor-directed 1930 comedy-drama The Royal Family of Broadway. This one is hard to find, but it’s well worth it.
Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:
3:00am Night Song (1948)
A socialite pretends to be blind to win the love of a blind concert pianist.
Cast: Dana Andrews, Merle Oberon, Ethel Barrymore, Hoagy Carmichael Dir: John Cromwell BW-102 min.
5:00am The Paradine Case (1947)
A married lawyer falls for the woman he’s defending on murder charges.
Cast: Gregory Peck, Ann Todd, Alida Valli, Charles Laughton, Charles Coburn, Ethel Barrymore Dir: Alfred Hitchcock BW-114 min.
9:00am The Red Danube (1949)
A Russian ballerina in Vienna tries to flee KGB agents and defect.
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Ethel Barrymore, Peter Lawford, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh Dir: George Sidney BW-119 min.
11:00am It’s a Big Country (1951)
Seven stories celebrate the glorious diversity of American life.
Cast: Ethel Barrymore, Keefe Brasselle, Gary Cooper, Nancy Davis Dir: Richard Thorpe, Don Weis, John Sturges, Don Hartman, William A. Wellman, BW-89 min.
1:00pm Deadline U.S.A. (1952)
With three days before his paper folds, a crusading editor tries to expose a vicious gangster.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Kim Hunter, Ethel Barrymore, Ed Begley Dir: Richard Brooks BW-87 min.
2:45pm The Story of Three Loves (1953)
Passengers on an ocean liner recall their greatest loves.
Cast: James Mason, Moira Shearer, Agnes Moorehead, Leslie Caron, Kirk Douglas, Ethel Barrymore, Jakob Gimpel Dir: Gottfried Reinhardt, Vincente Minnelli. Color. 122 min.