On April 26, 1878 in Sheffield, England actress Lillie Roberts presented her husband actor-manager Samuel Rupert Woods with a daughter, Ethel. Three years later the couple presented the girl on stage and a 80 year career began. Known professional as Ethel Griffies (A youthful bid for independence? A youthful indiscretion? Ethel Woods sounded too much some ancient king? Advice from a fortune teller to have a 13 lettered name?), the actress learned her craft in the provinces and made her London debut in 1899 at the Haymarket. Her Broadway debut would occur in 1924 in a short run production of Havoc directed by and co-starring Leo G. Carroll.
Forty-three years on the New York stage would see some also rans including The Shop at Sly Corner featuring Boris Karloff and Una O'Connor which closed in one week in 1949 and The Natural Look featuring Gene Hackman, Zorha Lampert, Jerry Orbach, Doris Roberts and Brenda Vaccaro which opened and closed on March 11, 1967. Ethel did enjoy successes such as Irving Berlin's Miss Liberty in 1949-50, The Criminal Code in 1929-30 (filmed by Howard Hawks), Frederick Knott's Write Me a Murder in 1961-62 and John Galsworthy's Old English directed by and starring George Arliss. Ethel Griffies would make the film version with George Arliss, also appearing in his movies The House of Rothschild and The Millionaire.
Old English was not Ethel's first foray unto the silver screen. In 1917 she appeared in The Cost of a Kiss and that same year she married the movie's co-star, Edward Cooper. Five years Ethel's junior, the marriage would last 40 years until Edward's death in 1956. This was Ethel's second marriage. Her first husband, Walter Beaumont passed in 1910.
Edward Cooper's Broadway career encompassed roles in plays as varied as Hay Fever and The Hasty Heart. He appeared in Lady Dedlock with Ethel in the 1928-29 season. On-screen the couple are featured in, besides The Cost of a Kiss, Torch Singer, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Holy Matrimony.
Edward Cooper has over 75 movie/tv credits to his name, most often uncredited in the role of a butler as in Clive of India, On the Avenue, Small Town Girl, Crack-Up, The Dark Angel and more. The next time you spot the prison clerk in 1935s Les Miserables, the BBC official in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp or the Indian Chief in Diplomaniacs say to yourself "That's the guy who married Mrs. Whack!".
Mrs. Whack may be my favourite character in Ethel Griffie's movie career. She and the incredible Zeffie Tilbury as Mrs. Moncaster in 1935s Werewolf of London steal the picture as Horror's best comedy relief. Obsessed botanist Henry Hull was bitten by werewolf Warner Oland in Tibet and now, jaunty scarf around neck and walking stick in hand, Hull stalks the streets of London by the light of the full moon. Competing landladies and drinking companions Whack and Moncastle are alternately curious and frightened by the philosophical and dangerous stranger in their midst. You never saw a flirt like Mrs. Whack!
Ethel didn't always require an acting partner the likes of Miss Tilbury to make her presence felt. In 1944s The White Cliffs of Dover she dominates fellow train travelers Irene Dunne and Frank Morgan with nary a word. While her forceful personality is played for laughs in that British flag waver, in John Ford's 1941 Oscar winner How Green Was My Valley she is quite intimidating as the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs. Nicholas.
Ethel played another tippler, Grace Poole in the 1934 and 1943 versions of Jane Eyre. She played as many landladies as her husband played butlers, in fact, playing that role in both the 1931 and 1940 versions of Waterloo Bridge.
Well-remembered titles from the 1930s include Alice in Wonderland, Doctor Bull, Four Frightened People, The Painted Veil and Anna Karenina and from the 1940s you can see Ethel in Stranger on the Third Floor (landlady), Billy the Kid, A Yank in the R.A.F., The Keys of the Kingdom, Forever and a Day and The Horn Blows at Midnight.
In Caftan Woman's universe actors get an extra gold star for appearing in a Charlie Chan picture and Ethel has two to her credit in the waning days of that series' run at 20th Century Fox.
1941s Dead Men Tell finds Ethel as Patience Nodbury, a superstitious eccentric with a treasure map and a murderous ghostly ancestor. Sidney Toler's Chan is so patient in his scene with Miss Nodbury that he might be channeling Warner Oland, that is when Oland isn't biting botanists in Tibet.
1942s Castle in the Desert gives Ethel another eccentric in Madame Saturnia, a mystic, a busybody and, of course, a murder suspect. She seems almost sane compared to some of the crackpots the Inspector and Jimmy (Sen Yung) are dealing with in this outing.
The Chan series notwithstanding, to the general public an actor's bid for immortality comes through an association with either Walt Disney or Alfred Hitchcock. Ethel certainly has her Hitchcock connection as Mrs. Bundy, the emphatic amateur ornithologist in 1963s The Birds. She is most enjoyable in the diner scene where, at 83 years old, Ethel has lost none of her ability to dominate a scene and hold your attention.
In his IMDb mini-bio on Ethel, Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide, states: "Presumably at the invitation of fellow Briton Arthur Treacher, Ethel Griffies was a frequent guest on TVs Merv Griffin Show in the late 1960s, never failing to bring down the house with her wickedly witty comments on her 80 years in show business."
Doesn't that make you long for a specialty channel devoted to retro talk shows? I would love to hear Ethel's story in her own words. Luckily we still have decades of movie work to enjoy.