Oscar History

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Oscar Horrors: Drew's Great Aunt Ethel

Here Lies... "Mrs. Warren" the bedridden matriarch of a Victorian mansion that's haunted by a serial killer.

Hasn't Team Experience been doing a great job with the Oscar Horrors series? I figured, after passing out all these assignments, that it was time I chimed in, so I filled in one of my own Supporting Actress viewing gaps with Ethel Barrymore's Oscar nominated work in The Spiral Staircase (1945). This black and white horror flick, an early member of the neverending serial killer subgenre, is set almost entirely in an old mansion where our mute protagonist Helen (Dorothy McGuire of Gentleman's Agreement fame) works. It's not at all clear what her job is since she's neither nurse nor maid nor cook, those duties being performed with "hey, I'm in this movie, too!" gusto by How Green Was My Valley mama Sara Allgood and the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester.

We first meet "Mrs. Warren" twenty minutes into the picture. Nurse Barker (Allgood) warns Helen that their boss is in a mood...

She's sly, too. Even with her eyes closed she seems to be watching you like an evil spirit."

...but the nurse's warning doubles as an impossibly truthful, succinct and funny description of Ethel Barrymore's entire performance. I half imagined Nurse Barker tweeting it with the hashtag #ItsBarrymoreBitch 

"Do you like scary movies?"

Ethel Barrymore died 17 years before her great niece Drew Barrymore was born but I kept thinking of Drew during the movie. Perhaps it was the through line of Barrymore Girls & Acclaimed Performances in Horror Flicks? Drew Barrymore was, infamously, the first kill in Scream (1996). Tough demanding Mrs. Warren might have rescued poor Casey by insisting she hang up that phone immediately and hide under her bed.

In horror parlance Ethel's "Mrs Warren" is no Victim or Final Girl but something like a cross between Psychic "Tangina" and overbearing monster mom... "Mrs. Norma Bates" ? Barrymore makes excellent use of her eyes and modulation of her voice but it's a very limited role consisting of essentially the same three point scene on repeat: 


  1. Sassy Rudeness #ItsBarrymoreBitch
  2. Fade into Ill Health/Sleepiness
  3. Sudden Snap Back to Life for either:
    a) Ominous Pronouncement: "There's been another murder hasn't there? No one told me. I always know everything."
    b)  Direct Warning: "You're not safe here my dear. Leave this house at once."


The Spiral Staircase is something of a predictable dud now since horror movies have been so endlessly dissected, parodied, and Screamed in the last few decades and this is an old school blueprint -- the women here are always doing stupid things like walking into dark basements when they hear noises / feel a draft! --  but it's worth a watch for its quartet of Supporting Actress: domineering Ethel, put-upon fussbudget Sara, drunk funny Elsa and emotional hussy Rhonda Fleming. They all run circles around McGuire, a Damsel in Distress with only her muteness as a defining characteristic, but someone's got to keep your pulse up when you're watching a horror movie. Actresses to the rescue!... in the case of Ethel Barrymore, quite literally.

previously on Oscar horrors

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Reader Comments (7)

I disagree that its a predictable dud. It's got fantastically moody settings, a real sense of dread and Siodmak's direction is solid. I do agree its the women in the cast who stand out, aside from McGuire who I think is excellent since she has to rely on her eyes and body language to convey everything and does that well, a young and very beautiful Rhonda Fleming gets a part more challenging that the usual eye candy roles she was stuck with, the humorous duo of Elsa Lanchester and Sara Allgood, and of course Ethel quietly understated yet she still manages to chew the scenery with her gravitas and spooky presence. All the men are rather stolid but it doesn't detract much from this being a superior and classy fright flick. The people who churn out the blood splattered trash that passes for suspense thrillers today should sit down to watch this and learn how to do this sort of thing properly.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

joel6 -- yes, i'm probably being a bit harsh and I do prefer it to splatter flicks... but then, what don't I prefer to splatter flicks?

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

I like THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE...particularly MacBride, that I prefer her here than in her Oscar nominated work in GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

I have been wanting to see this again. Last time I was a kid and hardly remember it except for it oozing lovely spookiness, so Ms. Barrymore's performance is lost in the fog of time. My favorite role of hers was as the wry and gentle art patron in Portrait of Jennie, with nary a morsel of scenery nibbled.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

brookesboy "with nary a morsel of scenery nibbled"... i shall surely be compelled to quote this at some point soon. love.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Nathan, thank you so much, sir, for the wonderful compliment. And also for your witty and insightful blog. I love coming here!

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I tried to bait people to this article with a picture of Drew in Scream but there weren't so many bites. But then again, I hadn't really heard of this movie prior to wwatching for this post so I guess it's not high on the collective radar.

October 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R
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