Ethel Barrymore – First Lady of the American Stage

Day 100 of Colourisation Project – August 15

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Born this day, August 15, 1879, Ethel Barrymore was an American actress and a member America’s multi-generational acting dynasty, known to Broadway and Hollywood as ‘The Royal Family.’

The star who descended from two of the theatre’s great families–the Barrymores and the Drews and seemingly destined for the actor’s life recalled once that she had never really wanted to be an actress.

“I always hoped to be a pianist,” she confided. “but I had to eat, and acting seemed like the natural thing to do, since the family was already in it.”

Ethel Barrymore

Photographer:  Sarony  –  Ethel Barrymore   –  Coloured by Loredana Crupi

She gave in to the genetic lure of the stage, making her acting debut in 1894 in the  New York Broadway production of The Rivals. Several productions later and Barrymore was invited to appear in the 1897 London production of Secret Service. English Audiences adored her. She even turned down a marriage proposal from Winston Churchill in 1900 because she thought he didn’t have much of a future. By the time she returned to America in 1898 she had acquired the status of a national celebrity.

Lead roles in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, (1901) Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1905)  Alice By the Fire (1905), Mid-Channel (1910) and Trelawney of the Wells (1911) helped to established Barrymore as ‘the first lady of the American stage.’

In between times she married stockbroker Russell Griswold Colt in 1909 and gave birth to three children while carrying on the family tradition.

Although the stage was her first love, she soon followed her brothers, Lionel and John, to Hollywood where she won over audiences in her first film, The Nightingale (1914). Barrymore became a strong advocate of Actors Equity Association and played an activist role in the strike of 1919.

Steady film roles kept coming her way up to 1919, however they took second billing to her continued stage triumphs: Declassee (1919), her impassioned Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (1922), The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1924) and, especially, The Constant Wife (1926).

In her later years Barrymore began taking on ‘elderly’ roles of mothers and grand-mothers, dowager ladies and spinster aunts. After appearing with her brothers, Rasputin and the Empress (1932) she put Hollywood on hold and focused more on stage work, which included her most endearing role in The Corn is Green (a tour that lasted from 1940 to 1942).

Barrymore appeared in 15 silent movies and 22 talkies between 1914 and 1957 winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and three more Academy Award nominations for The Spiral Staircase (1946), The Paradine Case (1947) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and Pinky (1949). Her last film appearance was in Johnny Trouble (1957). Throughout the 1950s she also made a number of TV appearances including 14 episodes of a TV series Ethel Barrymore Theatre, which she hosted.

Barrymore is a member of the American Theatre Hall of Fame. Her memoir Memories, An Autobiography was published in 1955. The Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City was named after her in 1928.

Ethel Barrymore was one of the most respected stage and film actresses of her time and her legacy lives on in the career of her great-niece, Drew Barrymore, who has also inherited the family genetic disposition.

She died of heart disease at her home in Beverly Hills in 1959 at the age of 79, outliving both of her famous brothers. On that day the marquee lights of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre dimmed for ten minutes in her honour.

As she once said in a famous curtain speech,  “That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.” _________________________________________________________

“To be a success an actress must have the face of Venus, the brain of Minerva, the grace of Terpsichore, the memory of Macaulay, the figure of Juno and the hide of a rhinoceros.”   –  Ethel Barrymore

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