Ethel Barrymore

Active - 1914 - 1957  |   Born - Aug 15, 1879 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States  |   Died - Jun 18, 1959   |   Genres - Drama, Romance

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Born into a long-established American theatrical family, Ethel Barrymore dreamed of being a concert pianist, but found that acting was virtually the only profession for which she was truly qualified -- and which ensured a livable income. Like all her forebears, she worked her way up the theatrical ladder from bits to full leads. Though she was quite popular on the road and in Europe, her first full-fledged Broadway hit was Clyde Fitch's 1901 play Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, in the virtuoso role of a supercilious woman of wealth. Her later attempts to excel in the Classics were to no avail; from Captain Jinks on, she was confined to glamorous roles, usually comic in nature, specially written for her. Disdaining movies for the most part (several silent films notwithstanding) Ethel was intrigued at the notion of working with her celebrated brothers John and Lionel Barrymore, but the film vehicle chosen by MGM, Rasputin and the Empress (1932), showed only Lionel to advantage. After ten years of unsuccessful plays -- excepting a "comeback" in the 1940 hit The Corn is Green -- and a brief retirement, she was more open to films, accepting Cary Grant's personal invitation to play Grant's mother in None But the Lonely Heart (1944), for which she won an Oscar. A few encore stage appearances later, Ethel "went Hollywood" full force with strong character roles in such films as The Spiral Staircase (1946), The Farmer's Daughter (1947) and Pinky (1949), her trademarked aristocratic features and crisp enunciation becoming even more pronounced with the advancing years. One of her last efforts was a syndicated anthology, Ethel Barrymore Theatre, in which she hosted and occasionally acted. Even so, Ethel Barrymore was as uncompromising in her assessment of TV as she was of other persons and things that displeased her: Her two-word assessment of The Tube was "It's hell."

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  • After working in theatrical touring productions, she found Broadway success in 1901 with Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines and eventually became known as "the first lady of the American stage." 
  • Rasputin and the Empress (1932) was the only film in which she appeared with her brothers, John and Lionel.
  • Announced her retirement from acting in 1936, only to return to the Broadway stage the following year in The Ghost of Yankee Doodle.
  • Always preferred the stage to the screen; once said about television, "It's hell."
  • Turned down a marriage proposal from Winston Churchill.
  • The great-aunt of actress Drew Barrymore.
  • A Broadway theater on West 47th Street bears her name.