Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection,
[reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-54231] , 1937
Ethel Barrymore appeared as a guest on Bing Crosby’s radio show on December 21, 1949. It was his annual Christmas show, usually devoted to the singing of carols. Miss Barrymore joined him for amusing patter about the new artificial Christmas trees that came in white and in pink, and they spoke wistfully of all the Christmases Barrymore spent on the road with her children as she played in theaters across the country.
Announcer Ken Carpenter teased Bing on his wearing a suit and tie, getting all spruced up in honor of their esteemed guest, whom Bing respectfully addressed as “Miss Barrymore.”
They might speak with equanimity on baseball (she was a fan), but there was no chumminess with this famous guest, yet Ethel Barrymore deigned to do something the dignified thespian never would in her younger days: she parodied herself.
When Bing asked her opinion of his pseudo-rival Bob Hope, she replied, “Well, there’s his childlike simplicity.”
She answered, “That’s all there is. There isn’t anymore.”
She hardly got the line out before cracking up, and the audience roared with laughter also. It was a line from a play she had done almost fifty years earlier – a line that made her famous.
This post is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please have a look at the other participating blogs for some terrific posts.
The “trilogy” in this case, of course, comes from the dynamic trio of siblings who dominated theatre in the early decades of the twentieth century, and came to have a prominent place in film—most especially becoming icons of pop culture in a way entertainers had never been before, or perhaps since.
We have a great book on the trio by theatre critic Hollis Alpert, The Barrymores (NY: The Dial Press, 1964), which dramatically demonstrates the siblings’ dominance of art and culture in the U.S. with an introduction that drops us down on Broadway in the first week of March 1920.
There, at the Plymouth Theatre, John Barrymore, the youngest of the trio at about 37, made his Shakespearian debut in Richard III.
Ethel, the middle child and the reigning grand dame of theatre at 40 years old played over at the Empire in the smash hit, Déclasée.
Lionel, the eldest at 41, known for being a versatile character actor, played at the Criterion in The Letter of the Law.
These three siblings were stars on Broadway at the same time. The media took note and around about this time began to refer to the Barrymores as “the royal family of theatre.”
The Barrymore boys have facing pages in
Stars of the Photoplay, 1930
Stars of the Photoplay, 1930
They became so well known by this moniker that when playwrights George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber wrote their comedy, and rather wicked parody, of the Barrymores, they titled it The Royal Family. It opened at the Selwyn Theatre in 1927. It poked fun particularly at John, known as a heavy-drinking womanizer; and Ethel, for being a prima donna of the stage. John saw it when it played in Los Angeles (Fredric March played the character Tony, which was based on John, and March also appeared in the film version in 1930) and reportedly thought it was funny, but Ethel was not happy. She had yet to learn to laugh at herself or shrug off the innumerable imitators of herself and her brothers.
Library of Congress
One of the first instances of being imitated occurred in 1904 over her famous “There isn’t anymore” line. She was playing in a comedy called Sunday on Broadway where her role was a young orphaned woman raised by rough miners in the West, who comes to London to meet her aunts. Charles Frohman, famous theatrical producer of the day, sat in on the rehearsal. In a pivotal scene, she is supposed to read aloud a letter from her rough miner guardians to her genteel aunts, but she stops herself because there is a part that is too personal for them to hear. She just runs offstage.
Ethel suggested to producer Mr. Frohman that it would make more sense for her to say something, in an awkward and embarrassed manner, before she runs off. He asked what, not given to interference by young ingénues.
She is reported to have said, “Oh, maybe something like, ‘That’s all there is. There isn’t anymore.'”
He left it in. She said it on stage, and because of situation in the plot, and undoubtedly her delivery, it brought the house down. Author Mr. Alpert notes, “…that line of added dialogue became virtually her trademark—to a degree that annoyed her.” (p.111)
She began to be imitated by comics on the vaudeville stage with this line.
However, though she had a brief foray into silent films in the teens, she preferred the theatre, where she remained, for the most part, until the late 1940s and a string of films, one of which earning her an Academy Award. We covered her work in The Spiral Staircase (1945) here and Portrait of Jennie (1948) here. She and her brothers all appeared in Rasputin and the Empress in 1933, which we discussed in this previous post.
Library of Congress
Her brothers took to film early and remained there, Lionel as a character man who appeared in over 200 movies, including his long gig in the Dr. Kildare series. As versatile in real life as he was in acting, Lionel was also an artist, a composer, a director, and a novelist. He is also reported to have claimed to have invented the microphone boom for the movies when he suggested a mic be put on a pole above the actors when sound issues were a major problem in the early days of the talkies.
Lionel also was known to a generation for playing Mr. Scrooge on the radio every Christmas in A Christmas Carol. And like Ethel, he was also parodied in pop culture. According to author Mr. Alpert, “So familiar was his drawling voice that an imitation of it turned up every other week on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.” He is also lampooned in cartoons and the movies, including by his fellow MGM star, Mickey Rooney.
John, of course, was The Great Profile, who played romantic leads until his own dissipated lifestyle and his casual attitude toward his work led him to parody himself far more effectively than another comic probably could. We discussed his Twentieth Century (1934) here. He starred in The Great Profile (1940) as a famous actor who drinks heavily. Two years later, John Barrymore was dead.
They were descended from a long line of actors on both their paternal and maternal sides of their family, the Drews, and as children they watched the great Edwin Booth and Helen Modjeska and Fanny Davenport on stage in the theater in Philadelphia that their grandmother ran. None of the trio were ambitious for theatrical careers despite this, but it pulled them in by circumstance and there they outshone all their contemporaries and their famous thespian ancestors. John did not take his work seriously. Lionel had other interests as compelling for him. Ethel had no desire as a child to be on stage, and indeed, spent every opening night of her life nearly paralyzed with stage fright, and yet by the end of her career, her life, she was the most beloved actress the theatre had never known.
Library of Congress
In 1901, she was appearing at the Garrick Theatre on Broadway in Captain Jinks, and staying at Mrs. Wilson’s boarding house on 36th Street, in walking distance. She was about 22 years old. Her brother John came to escort her to the theater that evening, and when they came in sight of it, she gasped at the her name lit up in the new-fangled electric lights. She cried. It became more than the family trade to fall back on then, it was something personal. When she died in 1959, the last of her siblings, the lights dimmed on the marquee and inside the house of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. She had appeared there when it opened in 1928, as the first leading lady on that stage.
The children of these Barrymores enjoyed varying degrees of success in their own acting careers (or not). It seemed serendipitous for John’s granddaughter to be named Drew Barrymore after both sides of the acting family. Though she has climbed the ladder of fame in a way her preceding generation did not, it is unlikely that anyone in any acting family will achieve the kind of critical respect, and also pop culture fame of John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore. Today, we have celebrity, which is not the same thing. Those three were truly greats, we can neither replicate their brand of greatness or the times in which it shone. Because...
That’s all there is. There isn’t anymore.
Kindly have a look at the other posts on The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Hollywood.
Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star.
by Jacqueline T. Lynch
The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.
The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer. You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.
If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.
My new syndicated column on classic film is up at http://www.go60.us/govoice/advice-and-more/item/2025-ccc-movie-fan, or check with your local paper.