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Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”

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.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2017 in Movies

 

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“The Jealous Lover” from A Story of Three Loves (1953)

James Mason and Moira Shearer

A Story of Three Loves (1953) is an anthology film containing three unrelated short, romantic stories, all of a bittersweet nature. One story follows the romance between Leslie Caron (who sadly does not dance) and Farley Granger, except that Granger is really a boy turned into a man by fairy godmother Ethel Barrymore. Another is the romance between a suicidal Nazi prison camp survivor and a reckless trapeze artist played by Kirk Douglas.

But it was the first story – “The Jealous Lover” – that I was especially interested in viewing. It stars James Mason, Moira Shearer, and Agnes Moorehead and features a lovely dance by Shearer, set to Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

Paula is an aspiring dancer who is told that she must quit dancing at the cusp of a breakthrough in her career. She has a bad heart and is told that if she dances, she will die. James Mason is Charles Coudray, an impresario searching for a way to improve his most recent ballet, something that seems to elude him. When he sees Paula, he believes he might have found what he’s been looking for.

The plot is, it must be admitted, a bit of a pastiche of other ballet works. Paula (Shearer) has a weak heart that could kill her if she dances, rather like the title character of the ballet “Giselle.” But she feels that life without ballet is not really life at all, rather like her character in Red Shoes (fortunately, James Mason is no Lermontov). And the idea of a dancer/artist as inspiration for an impresario or dancer/artist in need of an impresario? That’s been done many times, including in the film starring James Mason: The Seventh Veil.

There are so few opportunities to see Moira Shearer dance, however, that I am grateful for every single appearance on film she made (rather like Wendy Hiller, an actress who generally shunned film and preferred stage). And James Mason, it must be said, is probably the best actor at acting opposite magnificent artists. He does so in A Star is Born with Judy Garland, and here, with Moira Shearer. He is able to be a part of the scene, reacting to the artist, and yet defer to the artist. Not many people are able to do that (click here for a scene between Mason and Shearer, when he catches her dancing on stage).

The other thing that interested me about “The Jealous Lover” is that the choreography is done by Frederrick Ashton, who is credited with creating a distinctive English, lyrical style of ballet (Moira Shearer danced in his Cinderella before making Red Shoes). He choreographed many ballets that now form English ballet’s core repertoire and I couldn’t help but wonder if his work on the film in 1953 provided the inspiration for his ballet to the entire “Rhapsody to a Theme of Paganini” in 1980, which was created for Mikhail Baryshnikov.

If you like ballet, I would definitely recommend you give it a viewing. And if you want more Moira Shearer and Frederrick Ashton, then you can’t go wrong with Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman, which Ashton actually appears in as a character.

This has been part of the “En Pointe: A Ballet Blogathon.” Be sure to check out all the other posts about ballet, which can be found here.

Below is a clip of Moira Shearer dancing to part of the Rhapsody. It begins at 3:27 minutes into the video.

Below is an introduction to “Rhapsody,” choreographed by Ashton in 1980, and being performed by The Royal Ballet.

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2017 in Movies

 

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“En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon” Begins Today!

Today, I am delighted to say, is the day to celebrate all things ballet in film! Co-host Michaela and I will be updating the posts as they arrive throughout the weekend. Her home page for this event can be found, here.

Just a quick reminder! Because of how popular the ballet blogathon proved to be, we added an extra day. The blogathon is now from August 4th-6th.

It has been wonderful to discover so many other fans of ballet and to discover just how often ballet has been the theme of film. It has helped me to appreciate that ballet is very much alive and well, with a well-founded presence on screen and stage.

 

 

Day 1

Realweegiemidget Reviews – Black Swan (2010)

Love Letters to Old Hollywood – Twelve Favorite Water Ballets from Esther Williams

Thoughts All Sorts – Ballerina (aka Leap!) (2016)

Caftan Woman – The Mad Genius (1931)

The Midnite Drive-In – White Nights (1985)

Taking Up Room – An American in Paris (1951) 

Wolffian Classics Movies Digest Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Movies Silently  – The Dancer’s Peril (1917)

Christina Wehner“The Jealous Lover” from A Story of Three Loves (1953)

Diary of a Movie Maniac – Dancers (1987)

Into the Writer Lea – Dance as a Means of Showing, Not Telling, Cinderella (1955)

Sat in Your Lap – On The Town (1949) and The Pirate (1948)

Silver Scenes – The Death of the Swan : The Unfinished Dance (1947) and Ballerina (1937)

Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie ReviewsLimelight (1952)

Day 2

Taking Up Room – Save the Last Dance (2001)

The Dream Book Blog – Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel (1932)

To 10 Film Lists – The Red Shoes (1948)

Lifesdailylessonsblog – The Song of Scheherazde (1947)

Love Letters to Old Hollywood – Shall We Dance (1937)

Cary Grant Won’t Eat You – The Fun of Center Stage (2000)

Pure Entertainment Preservation Society  – Hans Christian Andersen

Critica Retro – Never Let Me Go (1953)

Anybody Got a Match? – Silk Stockings (1957)

Day 3

Crimson KimonoExposed (1983)

Cinematic Scribblings – Red Shoes (1948)

Silver Scenes – Russian Ballet Films of the 1940s-1960s

Christina Wehner  “A Winter’s Tale” (2014)

The Wonderful World of Cinema – The Ballet Scenes from Les Uns et les Autres (1981)

Phyllis Loves Classic Movies – Never Let Me Go (1953)

Blogferatu – Black Swan (2010)

 
30 Comments

Posted by on August 4, 2017 in Movies

 

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