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Trivia -- Week of January 23, 2006


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Greetings, everybody! I found an intriguing rumination from Ethel Barrymore in the April 10, 1926 issue of Liberty. Near the end of her article "Backstage." she explains why she was reluctant to work with her brothers John and Lionel on the same stage. She writes:

 

Some have asked . . . why not play Ophelia to my brother John's Hamlet, or Desdemona to Lionel's Othello?

 

Some years ago, it was even rumored that we intended doing this -- a Hamlet production in which Lionel would be the King with John and me; and an Othello with John as Iago to Lionel's Othello and my Desdemona.

 

Really, the idea is absurd. We never contemplated such a thing. Impassioned scenes of love and jealousy such as this would demand would never be accepted from brother and sister. As greatly as I would like to appear in a cast with my brothers, it would be asking too much from intelligent patrons of the theater -- and from the actors.

 

Could this explain the "fascinating failure" of the 1932 film RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS with all three Barrymores? As much as I like them all, maybe the filial ties were too much to overcome in this picture with all its passions -- even though it's exciting to see John, Lionel and Ethel on the screen together. It might also explain why Ethel didn't set foot in front of a movie camera for another 12 years. She respected her audience as much as her brothers.

 

Maybe Ethel knew this better than John and Lionel, who worked together many times on screen. After all, she outlasted them both, on the stage and in life.

 

Now, on to this week's movie trivia . . .

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Some have asked . . . why not play Ophelia to my brother John's Hamlet, or Desdemona to Lionel's Othello?

 

Some years ago, it was even rumored that we intended doing this -- a Hamlet production in which Lionel would be the King with John and me; and an Othello with John as Iago to Lionel's Othello and my Desdemona.

 

Really, the idea is absurd. We never contemplated such a thing. Impassioned scenes of love and jealousy such as this would demand would never be accepted from brother and sister. As greatly as I would like to appear in a cast with my brothers, it would be asking too much from intelligent patrons of the theater -- and from the actors.

 

I remember, years ago, when my mother asked idly why Adele Astaire never played the female lead opposite her more famous brother, Fred. I didn't realize at the time that my reply had been given by Ethel Barrymore fifty-five years earlier.

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Actually, Fred and Adele did--but strictly in light comedy, non-love-scene type stuff and mostly early in their careers. (If you think about it, partnered dancing is a rather innately romantic activity.) After they hit it big, they were always cast as brother and sister or guardian and ward (with the exception of another comedic skit in "The Band Wagon," Adele's last musical).

 

Such was Fred's association with his sister that he had to make a great show of becoming the leading man--and the dance that he choreographed to Cole Porter's fervent "Night and Day" served this function very nicely indeed.

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