Monday, November 24, 2008

The Heart of the Deep Valley (1947)

The lonely one offers his hand too quickly to whomever he
~Friedrich Nietszche
Ida Lupino in full armor in the '40sNo matter how glossy, tough or crazy the veneer that
Ida Lupino's characters donned in her movies in the '40s, there was, it seems to me, something achingly vulnerable and alone about this woman. The characters' palpable loneliness seems to exist even when they are the lynchpin in their often dysfunctional family.
The actress was a tiny woman, only about 5'4", with burning, sad eyes who appears to have had a habit of biting her lip when she thought no one
was looking. Despite this slight frame and occasionally tentative manner in real life, her most vivid characters often pay the spiritual price of getting on with life. Among these portraits is the supposedly hard-bitten striver in The Hard Way (1942), who will literally do anything for her sister (Joan Leslie), the girl overwhelmed with the problems of her alcoholic thespian father (Monty Woolley) in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942), the housekeeper trying to protect her eccentric sisters in Ladies in Retirement (1941), or the young Emily Bronte in Devotion (1946) trying to save her brother Branwell (Arthur Kennedy), from his own self-destruction, are often trying to keep the family intact, despite the odds and the cost...more

That's All There Is, There Isn't Anymore

"That's all there is, there isn't any more..."
~Ethel Barrymore's curtain call line, designed to send insistently worshipful audiences on their way.
The movie industry, where Ethel Barrymore claimed "[h]alf the people in Hollywood are dying to be discovered and the other half are afraid they will be," was simply a way for the doyenne of the American stage to make money. Thankfully, though, in the process of collecting remarkable fees for their time, ( $40k for the silent The Final Judgment in 1915, which is apparently lost), the lady turned in some memorably effective performances. In exchange for lending her considerable prestige to such dubious fare as the undemanding parts she played in That Midnight Kiss (1949) or Johnny Trouble (1957), the actress is a haunting presence in some better movies that offer us some clue about what kind of power Ethel Barrymore could have for an audience—even while her contemporaries on stage, the legendary Maud Adams and Laurette Taylor, are simply unknowable.

Mention "The Barrymores" to a classic film fan of a certain age, and the comparatively young and deft contemporary actress Drew may not be the first name that comes to mind. You'll find many of this cherished band attached to the ubiquitous and occasionally brilliant Lionel Barrymore's performances, (thanks to his long tenure at M.G.M., he is still familiar to many, though it is his little known performance as the death-defying grandfather in On Borrowed Time (1939) that flares most vividly in my memory). Others will claim fealty to the glamorous, self-destructive John Barrymore, whose wildly uneven film work, including his truly brilliant comedic work in Twentieth Century (1934) and his lacerating dramatic appearance in Counsellor-At-Law (1933) are still high water marks in cinematic acting for me. Less than 30 performances exist on film for their sister, but some of them are very appealing to me.

Few, however, seem to be overly fond of the cool reserve of talent of their sister displayed by Ethel Barrymore, for whom last Friday, August 15th, marked the one hundredth and twenty ninth anniversary of her birth in 1879. That may be partly due to her reluctance to embrace the movies. There is something less easily defined about her screen persona; a refusal on her part to fill in all the blanks of her cryptic cinematic characters, who say more with a flash of her still beautiful dark eyes or the suggestion of a smile than any screenwriter could ever suggest in a page of dialogue. Frankly, Ethel Barrymore always acted as though she was slumming in most of her movies. In several cases, she was often right about that too.


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