Posted by Susan Doll on February 23, 2015
Ever since reading Good Night, Sweet Prince, a biography of John Barrymore by his comrade in revelry, Gene Fowler, I have been fascinated with the Barrymore family. Handsome, tragic John has become my favorite Barrymore, because he was so flawed and yet so talented. Equally talented but not flawed was his older sister Ethel Barrymore. Next Saturday, February 28, at 9:15am, Ethel stars in Kind Lady, part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar programming.
Before noting Barrymore’s contribution, I would be remiss if I did not mention Kind Lady’s narrative pedigree. Originally a short story by Hugh Walpole titled “The Silver Casket,” it was turned into a beloved stage play by Edward Chodorov in 1935. The first film version was released in 1936 and starred Basil Rathbone as Elcott and Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Herries. The screenplay for the 1951 version, which was credited to Chodorov, Jerry Davis, and former Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, made changes to the original material. Characters were eliminated to streamline the story, a key murder was moved toward the end of the film, and an exciting climactic sequence was added (a Hitchcockian approach). The film was aided enormously by the direction of John Sturges, who has earned a place in the history books for his widescreen, Technicolor films that exploited spectacular outdoor settings (Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape). Released in 1951, Kind Lady is a black-and-white thriller with a claustrophobic set, but Sturges seemed equally adept within these perimeters. He milked the limited setting to its full advantage to create tension while adding visual interest through camera movement.
Kind Lady represents one of Ethel Barrymore’s last starring roles. This lesser-known suspense drama relies on the tension created by the two principals, an elderly woman who is vulnerable and a dangerous criminal who preys on her. The storyline is similar to Night Must Fall, which airs at 7:15am, just prior to Kind Lady. Barrymore stars as Mary Herries, a wealthy woman and art lover who lives in turn-of-the-century London with her servants. Mrs. Herries owns artwork by Rembrandt and El Greco, while her front door sports an antique doorknocker crafted by Mannerist sculptor and metal smith Benvenuto Cellini. A struggling artist named Henry Elcott spots the doorknocker and strikes up an acquaintanceship with Mrs. Herries, who likes to discuss art with him. Elcott, who is played by a smooth, silky Maurice Evans, is married to frail young Ada, played by Betsy Blair, who seems a bit out of her element among the more accomplished actors.
During one visit, Ada falls ill, and Mrs. Herries insists she recuperate at her house. The invitation is just what Elcott has been waiting for, and he soon takes over, pretending to be Mrs. Herries’ nephew and inviting unwanted guests into the house. Mary and her maid find themselves prisoners in their own home while Elcott tells outsiders that she is losing her faculties. The story plays on fears that are common to the elderly, who are vulnerable to scam artists and con men. The scene in which Elcott pushes Mary in her wheelchair is filled with tension, because the chair is a signifier of infirmed old age. She is at the mercy of Elcott and could not be in more danger than if she were being threatened with a weapon. Barrymore was 71 when she accepted the part of Mary Herries, an appropriate age for the role. But, more notably, her performance as the gentle, aging “kind lady” who fears for her life is authentic and relatable.
The Barrymores were famous for the naturalness of their acting style, a trait that went back at least two generations. Ethel became the first of her generation to accept acting as her calling. She was nurtured by her uncle John Drew, whom she called Uncle Jack. Her first appearance in a Broadway play occurred in 1895 when she acted in a small role in The Imprudent Young Couple, starring John Drew and the legendary Maude Adams. Each night on stage, Ethel watched in awe as Uncle Jack never seemed to be acting, unlike other stage performers of the day who tended toward a broad, theatrical style. As Ethel later noted, Uncle Jack did not “let anyone see the wheels going around.” Later, when working in Hollywood films, her ability to hide “the wheels going around” served her well as a character actress.
In 1905, after honing her craft on the stage in London, Ethel returned to America and landed the role that made her a star—Madame Trentoni in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. Her father, actor Maurice Barrymore (born Herbert Blythe), caught her performance on opening night. Maurice, who had been forced to retire because of a deteriorating mental condition, would be admitted to an asylum just a few months later. Over the next four decades, Ethel remained a major star of the stage, earning the title the First Lady of the American Theatre. Such was her reputation that in 1928, Lee and J.J. Shubert built the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, one in a series of theaters that the Shuberts erected for celebrated actors who were affiliated with them. The Ethel Barrymore is the only surviving theater of this series.
Though Ethel appeared in some silent films, and costarred with her brothers in Rasputin and the Empress in 1932, she was not impressed with making movies. In 1944, Cary Grant pleaded with her to play his mother in None But the Lonely Heart, a drama that meant a great deal to him personally and professionally. Barrymore won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. The experience prompted her to relocate and turn her attention to the big screen; she garnered three more Oscar nominations for The Spiral Staircase, The Paradine Case, and Pinky. Barrymore was never without work; during the 1950s, she also starred in television drama anthologies. She died in 1959, outliving older brother Lionel and younger brother John.
To say that acting was in Ethel Barrymore’s blood is an understatement. She was descended from a long line of theater actors, the Lanes and the Drews, on her mother side. Her grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew, the daughter of London actors, had come to America in 1827 where she became a notable actress at age seven. In her seven-decade career, Mrs. Drew costarred with every actor of note, including Joseph Jefferson and Junius Brutus Booth, the father of John Wilkes and Edwin Booth. Louisa later owned and operated a theater in Philadelphia, where John Wilkes and Edwin performed. Ethel’s mother, comedienne Georgianna Drew, met her husband, Maurice, through actor brother John, Jr. (or Uncle Jack). Though only a first generation actor, Maurice had his own brushes with legends; he once toured with the great Lillie Langtry. In addition to Georgianna and John, Jr., Louisa’s son Sidney, who had a different father than her other children, also became an actor—one of the first Barrymores to star in the movies.
Part of my fascination with the Barrymores is their brush with the famous and infamous throughout their lives, which holds true for several generations. It speaks to their lofty reputations and to their adventurous spirits that they traveled in noteworthy circles and cultivated stimulating acquaintanceships. According to Michael Shelden in Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill, Ethel was romantically involved with young Winston while she lived in London at the turn of the century. Basking in her new career onstage, she refused his proposal of marriage. In 1909, she married Russell Griswold Colt, a socialite and Wall Street broker, whose great uncle was Samuel Colt, the inventor of the Colt .45. Unfortunately, it was a match made in hell because Colt was a philanderer and reportedly an abuser. She divorced him in 1923.
If Ethel Barrymore is recognized at all today it is for being Drew Barrymore’s great aunt, or for her work as a film actress whose characters had a kind of gravitas even if they were frail or sickly. And yet, she was so much more. Time has robbed her of finest accomplishments and greatest glory. She was a shining star of the American stage, who was popular among the public and the media of the day. She was a working actress for seven decades, who only took time off to raise three children. When her husband destroyed their marriage, she dusted herself off and went back to work to support herself and her family. She accepted child support, but she refused alimony, preferring to remain independent of the Colt name and social stature. Barrymore did not need her husband’s name or his connections: She was a leading figure in the American theater, who carried the legacy of her prominent family on her shoulders better than either of her brothers. Peers sought her opinion; playwrights were assured success based on her appearance in their work; producers named theaters after her. That is the authority she brings to her performance as Mary Herries in Kind Lady.
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