Nationality: American. Born: Ethel Mae Blythe in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 15 August 1879; sister of the actors Lionel and John Barrymore. Education: Attended Academy of Notre Dame, Philadelphia. Family: Married Russell Colt, 1909 (divorced 1923), one daughter, two sons. Career: 1894—stage debut in Canada in The Rivals ; 1901—critical and popular success on Broadway in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines ; 1914—film debut in Augustus Thomas's The Nightingale ; 1919—headed actors' strike (including bit players) against Broadway management; 1944—having concentrated on stage
The Nightingale (Thomas)
The Final Judgment (Carewe)
The Kiss of Hate (Night); The Awakening of Helen Ritchie (Noble)
The White Raven (Baker); The Call of Her People (Noble); The Greatest Power (Carewe); The Lifted Veil (Baker); Life's Whirlpool (Lionel Barrymore); The Eternal Mother (Reicher); An American Widow (Reicher)
Our Mrs. McChesney (Ralph Ince); The Divorcee (Blaché)
The Spender (Swickard)
Rasputin and the Empress ( Rasputin—The Mad Monk ) (Boleslawski) (as Empress Alexandra)
None but the Lonely Heart (Odets) (as Ma Mott)
The Spiral Staircase (Siodmak)
The Paradine Case (Hitchcock) (as Lady Sophie Horfield); The Farmer's Daughter (Potter) (as Mrs. Morley); Moss Rose (Ratoff) (as Lady Sterling); Night Song (Cromwell) (as Miss Willey)
Moonrise (Borzage) (as Grandma); Portrait of Jennie ( Jennie ) (Dieterle) (as Miss Spinney)
The Great Sinner (Siodmak) (as Granny); That Midnight Kiss (Taurog) (as Abigail Budell); The Red Danube (Sidney) (as Mother Superior); Pinky (Kazan) (as Miss Em)
Kind Lady (John Sturges) (as Mary Herries); Daphne, the Virgin of the Golden Laurels (Hoyningen-Huene) (as narrator); It's a Big Country (one ep.) (Brown and others) (as Mrs. Brian Patrick Riordon); The Secret of Convict Lake (Gordon) (as Granny)
Deadline—U.S.A. ( Deadline ) (Richard Brooks) (as Mrs. Garrison); Just for You (Nugent) (as Allida de Bronkhart)
"Mademoiselle" ep. of The Story of Three Loves ( Equilibrium ; Three Stories of Love ) (Minnelli and Reinhardt) (as Mrs. Pennicott); Main Street to Broadway (Garnett) (as herself)
Young at Heart (Gordon Douglas) (as Aunt Jessie)
Johnny Trouble (Auer) (as Mrs. Chandler)
Memories, an Autobiography , New York, 1955.
"How Can I Be a Great Actress?," in Ladies' Home Journal (New York), 15 March 1911.
"My Reminiscences," in Delineator , September 1923 through February 1924.
Barrymore, John, We Three: Ethel—Lionel—John , Akron, Ohio, 1935.
Barrymore, Lionel, We Barrymores , as told to Cameron Shipp, London, 1951.
Alpert, Hollis, The Barrymores , New York, 1969.
Fox, Mary Virginia, Ethel Barrymore: A Portrait , Chicago, 1970.
Kotsilibas-Davis, James, The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood , New York, 1981.
Thorleifson, Alex, Ethel Barrymore , New York, 1991.
Barrymore, John, "Lionel, Ethel, and I," in American Magazine , February, March, April, and May 1933.
Woolf, S. J., "Miss Barrymore Refuses to Mourn the 'Good Old Days,"' in New York Times Magazine , 13 August 1939.
Current Biography 1941 , New York, 1941.
"Ethel Barrymore, a Star for Forty-two Years," in Vogue (New York), 1 April 1943.
Wilson, John S., "Queen of the American Stage," in Theatre Arts (New York), December 1954.
Obituary in New York Times , 19 June 1959.
Downing, Robert, "Ethel Barrymore, 1879–1959," in Films in Review (New York), August-September 1959.
Gray, B., "An Ethel Barrymore Index," in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1963.
Classic Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), July 1982.
Ciné Revue (Paris), 31 March 1983.
* * *
Ethel Barrymore came late to the movies after two false starts, and it is a pity that there is little footage of the actress in her prime left to us today. While her brothers Lionel and John embraced motion pictures early on, Ethel stayed on Broadway and lived up to her reputation as Queen of the Great White Way.
Although she recognized the cinema's burgeoning importance and transition from nickelodeon peep show to middle-class entertainment, she made her film debut for financial reasons. She was paid $15,000 to play in The Nightingale , written for her by Augustus Thomas, and starred in a number of pictures made at Metro's New York City studios. Interestingly, brother Lionel directed her in Life's Whirlpool , from his own story.
One of her early works that does survive is The White Raven , in which she plays a financially ruined Wall Street stockbroker's daughter who winds up singing in an Alaskan saloon. Although the melodrama is trite and her performance is humdrum, it is exciting to see Barrymore moving about as a young woman. In fact, she disliked all her early pictures (with the exception of The Awakening of Helen Ritchie ), and remained away from films until her fortunes were reduced by the Great Depression. She accepted the role of Empress Czarina Alexandra in MGM's Rasputin and the Empress , with Lionel as the mad monk and John as Prince Chegodieff. The picture was fraught with difficulty (the original director Charles Brabin was replaced by Richard Boleslawski); today, it is best-known as the lone film in which the three Barrymores appeared. However, Ethel did not like Hollywood. She returned to New York, and did not make another film for a dozen years. Even though her financial ills continued, she ignored acting offers from the studios, and made a stage comeback in 1940 as Miss Moffat in The Corn Is Green . When Clifford Odets saw her do the play in Los Angeles, he persuaded her to take the part of Ma Mott, Cockney Cary Grant's mother, in None but the Lonely Heart . Under Odets's direction, she toned down the excesses that marred her previous film work, and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
This time she stayed on in Hollywood, and moved from film to film in supporting parts. Her roles did not vary, and she was pigeonholed as a grande dame, more than occasionally a bit brittle but with a warm and womanly core, lending regal presence and authority to top-grade melodramas such as The Spiral Staircase , The Paradine Case , Moonrise , and Portrait of Jennie , and lesser soap operas such as Young at Heart and Johnny Trouble , in which she eloquently essayed the part of a lonely old woman.
She and Lionel enjoyed a double cameo in Tay Garnett's Main Street to Broadway , and though her screen time is minimal, one is afforded an inside look at Ethel and Lionel's natural rapport, much more so than in the more theatrical Rasputin and the Empress . She outlived both her brothers, and continued to hold court and preserve the legacy of the family name.
—John A. Gallagher, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: