Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”

17 Aug

The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a tense post-WWII thriller that manages to both thrill and also explore the results of the belief that some people are stronger or better than others.

Post-WWII people were appalled at the widespread eugenics practiced by Nazis, culminating in the nearly unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. What made it so unsettling, however, is that such beliefs in eugenics had been embraced, though less aggressively, by many other countries and people. For me, Ethel Barrymore’s character embodies this position perfectly in The Spiral Staircase.

The story is an old dark house thriller. Someone is murdering women with disabilities in a small town set in the early 1900s (when cars and horses briefly shared the road). Helen (Dorothy McGuire), is a servant at the Warren mansion, on the outskirts of town, who has been unable to speak ever since witnessing her parents burned alive in their home (PTSD was another concern for post-WWII audiences). Everyone is concerned that she will be the next target and insists she stay safely inside the house. Except that the killer turns out to be one of the people inside the house.

It’s a stormy night, people come and go, but eventually it seems as if one-by-one the killer is neutralizing everyone until there is only Helen and the killer.

Ethel Barrymore plays Mrs. Warren, the owner of the house. She is the second wife of the now deceased Mr. Warren, a dynamic man’s man who despised weakness and only admired strength: physical endurance, the ability to hunt and shoot, etc. Mrs. Warren lives in the house with her step-son (George Brent) and her own son (Gordon Oliver), but agrees with her late husband that they are both “weaklings.”

She herself is a dynamic character, though now bedridden and with her mind wondering. But she remains fixed on one idea the entire night: the need to get Helen out of the house or to hide Helen, because she knows that the evil is within the house, not outside it, as everyone else supposes.

(Spoilers) I think what I admire about Ethel Barrymore’s performance is that she really doesn’t try to make her character sympathetic, though she does want to save (and ultimately does save) Helen. She’s wily and cunning, demanding, querulous and openly disdainful of people she despises. She also share’s her late husband’s views about strength and weakness, though she would never take it so far as to actually murder anyone. She is even appalled by murder.

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

But she’s also complicit in the crimes. She believed the murderer was her son (as opposed to her step-son) and could not bring herself to denounce him. As a result, the murders went on. She only finally musters the strength of will to shoot (somewhat like you shoot a mad dog) the killer when she realizes that it is not her son.

(End Spoilers)  The the sheer power of Ethel Barrymore’s personality suggests what Mr. Warren must have been like…and what it would have been like to live in a house with two such people.

Power, I think, is the word for Ethel Barrymore in the film. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a man being stronger-willed then her…though her character clearly idealizes the late Mr. Warren as a man of power. But despite being bed ridden and with a wondering mind, she can suggest what Mrs. Warren would have been like when well. And one can see how her step-son and son might have been warped by it.

This post is part of “The Third Annual Barrymore Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. The rest of the posts about the three Barrymore’s can be found here.


Posted by on August 17, 2017 in Movies


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25 responses to “Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”

  1. maddylovesherclassicfilms

    August 17, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    This is such an atmospheric and excellent film. I agree with your description of Ethel in this film. Her performance here is all in the eyes, and in the way she says certain words. She conveys so much with just a look. One of her best performances for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 17, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      Good point! She does have very speaking eyes. And despite being in bad health, it seems, for many of her later movies she always seems to draw one’s attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Simoa

    August 17, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Gosh, I love this film soooooo much. I’ve been trying to track it down for ages. I don’t remember Ethel much in this film (I know), but powerful is the perfect way to describe her. I just know that even as an invalid, she was intimidating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 17, 2017 at 2:32 pm

      It’s a great film, isn’t it! Dorothy McGuire is great, too. I bet she would have done well in silent movies, too.

      It does seem hard to get. I eventually ended up with a used copy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    August 17, 2017 at 6:29 pm

    Excellent breakdown of Mrs. Warren and the talent of the inimitable Ethel Barrymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 17, 2017 at 8:17 pm

      Thanks! It makes me realize that I really need to see more of her films! 🙂


  4. Michaela

    August 17, 2017 at 7:09 pm

    I saw this film a few years ago and TCM has scarcely played it ever since, so I’ve only watched it twice. Those two times, however, have left quite an impression on me. I’m easily scared and this film really creeped me out. It’s so excellently done.

    You took an interesting perspective on this. I hadn’t considered Barrymore’s character, her husband, or the environment that led to her son and stepson’s issues. It makes a lot of sense, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 17, 2017 at 8:27 pm

      It’s a creepy idea, isn’t it! The book is really creepy, too. I was reading it late one evening while it was raining and quickly decided I should find something else to read. 🙂


  5. Virginie Pronovost

    August 18, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    Awesome review Christina! 🙂 Crystal introduced me to this film and I loved it as it was very Hitchcockian. 🙂 Ethel Barrymore plays a very strong and interesting woman in this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 18, 2017 at 7:11 pm

      Thanks! That’s true, it definitely has that Hitchcock vibe! I wonder if Ethel Barrymore could ever play a weak character? She must have been quite the woman offscreen, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Leticia

    August 19, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    What a great post! Could I be proud that I was able to discover who was the murder before the revelation? 😉
    I loved all you wrote about Barrymore’s character. If the woman we see on the screen is only a shadow of what she once has been, we can wonder how tough, yet flawed, she was.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 19, 2017 at 4:01 pm

      You definitely could be! I accidentally read who the killer was before watching, alas. 😦 That must have been fun (and gratifying) to watch the film not knowing before hand. It seems like that can be rare; so often we know about the film before watching it.


  7. In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood

    August 21, 2017 at 11:36 am

    Hi Christina. Thanks so much for joining in on the blogathon. This is my all time favorite film, and your excellent article certainly did it justice. Now I need to watch it again. Great review.

    I also invite you to read my article for the blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 22, 2017 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks so much for hosting! It was great to revisit this film and to learn to appreciate the Barrymore family more! 🙂


  8. stephencwinter

    August 22, 2017 at 4:14 am

    I worry that the evil philosophy of the Nazis is being forgotten and is making a come back.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Eric Binford

    August 22, 2017 at 10:52 am

    WOW! I have seen the movie countless times and it never occurred to me to make a connection between the movie and the Nazi eugenics … that makes perfect sense! It is based on a book from the 1930s by Ethel Lina White so you could say that she was ahead of her time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 22, 2017 at 2:20 pm

      Good point! It makes one wonder what gave her the idea and if she was really worried about the general eugenics vibe of the time?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood

    August 31, 2017 at 9:28 am

    Hey Christina. I know I commented on this post, but I’m back again with a new blogathon. I know I’m addicted. Anyway I’d love to invite you to participate. Here is the link below with more details.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      August 31, 2017 at 11:21 am

      It is very addictive, isn’t it! Thanks for the invitation! I would love to join! I’ve really been wanting to watch some of her silent films. 🙂


      • In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood

        August 31, 2017 at 11:26 am

        It definitely is. Would love to have you join. I’m going to be ordering some of her silent films soon. I want to write about one for the blogathon, but don’t know what yet. What topic do you want to do?

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          August 31, 2017 at 11:51 am

          Could I write about The Temptress (1926)? I think it’s supposed to be her second American film…and also has Lionel Barrymore in it!

          It will be great to learn more about her and her silent films. Looking forward to discovering what silent film you write about, too!


  11. Realweegiemidget Reviews

    December 22, 2020 at 11:24 pm

    Hi. Hope you are keeping well. Loved this review you had me on the edge of my seat with your great writing.



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