The name alone is regal. They were the most prestigious acting family America has ever produced. The Barrymore name harkens back to near the end of the 19th century, the Drew name goes back to the beginning of the 19th century and the Lane name goes back to 18th century Ireland…all in the same lineage.
But the crux of the family…the siblings who truly brought the family name into the 20th century, the siblings who appeared in that new medium called motion pictures are: LIONEL, JOHN and ETHEL BARRYMORE.
I am so pleased to have my writing included in “THE BARRYMORE TRILOGY BLOGATHON” hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood. Clicking this banner on the right, gives you access to other writers’ takes on this illustrious family, either biographically or career-wise. For me, participating in this blogathon gives me the excuse and impetus to read and write about the middle child and my favorite Barrymore: ETHEL.
Ethel Barrymore, born today ( August 15th, 1879 – June 18th, 1959 ), is the only daughter of Maurice and Georgiana Drew Barrymore.
I imagine her brothers were more wildly well-known in the movies, what with little brother John being ‘The Great Profile’ making early 20th century ladies swoon, and big brother Lionel really making a name for himself at MGM ( and winning an 1931 Academy Award for “A Free Soul” ). If you’re at all curious about Ethel Barrymore’s transition from stage-to-screen, I wholeheartedly urge you to read Crystal’s post for the recent Classic Movie History Project blogathon where she covers this. Now, I’m a pretty recent convert to Ethel Barrymore. Oh, I’ve seen some of her movies before, but was too blinded by Jeanne Crain, Jennifer Jones, Cary Grant, Dorothy McGuire, Gregory Peck, etc. to pay attention to Ethel. ( “Who’s she? ACK!” ) Then came the dawn. Something poignantly palpable finally registered on my radar while watching Barrymore play Miss Spinney in “Portrait of Jennie.” I’ve been hers ever since. I’ve got to re-visit a lot of those movies I’ve already seen, to watch HER specifically. For right here and right now, one of those movies I’ll re-explore for the Barrymore blogathon, is “NIGHT SONG.”
“NIGHT SONG” ( 1947 ) starring Merle Oberon and Dana Andrews, is an enjoyable romantic drama about a Society Girl who falls in love with a pianist…a blind pianist…and she pretends to be blind in order to help him. That’s the short of it. Underneath the long of it ( and the story of love at first sight or love at first “sound” ) we see the what, when and why of who we fall in love with when we fall in love. Read a little more about the movie here on my previous blog post: ( “NIGHT SONG” ). What I want to talk about here, and the real stand-out in this movie, for me, is today’s birthday girl, Ethel Barrymore.
She’s 68 years old at the time of this movie and if you think she’s a saturnine old lady well, you don’t know Ethel Barrymore. She plays the aunt and guardian of Merle Oberon. Oberon’s looks are exotically other worldly but Ethel…this is no wizened woman you keep on the shelf. She’s down-to-earth, has tons of common sense, charisma, sage advice she tosses like bouquets and is patently beautiful. Director John Cromwell gives Barrymore lots of bits and moments to flesh out her character and do her thing. She doesn’t really advance the story, but supports it well and give us an insight to her guardian angel role.
She knows when to hold ‘em and knows when to fold ‘em. And she’s a “closer” too. When Oberon has difficulty engaging and encouraging Andrews to play his composition, it’s Ethel who deflects the tense situation and closes the deal. ( And Andrews thinks it’s all HIS idea ). Would you think I’m fresh if I say she is a cutie in this movie? She is…she IS. The proof is in the pudding in her scenes with my man Hoagey Carmichael.
You usually see classic films feature the lead couple and then the supporting couple. Well that’s just what Barrymore is with Carmichael: the supporting couple. His easy down-home way compliments Ethel’s, slightly more upper-crust demeanor but nonetheless down-to-earth ways, wonderfully. They are a joy to watch together. Yes they’re co-conspirators in helping Andrews get what he’s scared to reach for, but darned if Hoagey and Ethel are not flirting. ( Ohhhhkay, am I being too 21st century with my new discovery? ) She has very “knowing” ways. DareIsay she’s not out of the running in the romance department herself?
Seriously, she smokes cigarettes, reads detective stories and check out her manner in this scene below:
Quips and cracks, Barrymore-style on page 2…