Last year, I was pleased to join the 1st Annual Barrymore Blogathon by writing about Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo. This year, I shift to Ethel Barrymore on her 136th birthday. In 1948, at age 69, she played the role of Grandma in Moonrise, one of the last films to be directed by Frank Borzage, 15 years Ethel Barrymore’s junior. Borzage loved directing films about young love, and the lesser-known B noir Moonrise gave him that opportunity, which he transformed into an engaging voyage through wonderful expressionist settings and style. And he wisely included Barrymore in a supporting role.
Thematically, Moonrise (1948) is about the redemptive power of love alongside the persistence of hate. Its plot is straightforward, but its style is lyrical, dream-like, featuring romanticized rural settings. It stars a compelling Dane Cook as Danny, a young man who is tormented and bullied into violence of his own, based on the fact that his father was hanged for his crimes. Gail Russell is engagingly sympathetic as Gilly, the gal that Danny sets his heart on. Henry Morgan plays another victim of the bullies — including Harry Carey Jr. and very young Lloyd Bridges. Worthy of even more attention is Rex Ingram as Mose, an educated, elderly African-American man who lives on the edge of a swamp where race doesn’t matter. He advises Danny based on his own experience as an outsider: “Blood is red, it keeps you alive. It doesn’t tell you what you have to do” and “It’s all right for a dog to chase a coon but not a man.”
Ethel Barrymore has her big scene as Danny’s grandmother late in the film. She is the one who finally shares the full truth of his father with him, enabling Danny to let go of misunderstandings that keep him from following a mature, responsible path in life.
Critics compare the film to Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) in style, but there is greater romanticism, especially in Moonrise‘s Hollywood-style ending. We could also wish Barrymore had as compelling a role as Lillian Gish in Hunter, but the grand dame resonates well in her minor appearance as a strong, wise woman who knows the importance of truth-telling. And the film deserves to be better known.
Because Moonrise is in the public domain, copies may be less than vivid, yet it can be watched for free. Why not celebrate Ethel’s birthday with a screening of your own?
This post is a contribution to the 2nd Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon.