Eleanor Woodruff: “The Ethel Barrymore of Motion Pictures”

Like Alice LakeMaurice Chevalier, Ben Blue, H.L. Mencken, Billy Gilbert, Dickie Moore, Cynthia Myers, Nora Lane, Walter B. Gibson, Shep Fields, and Sir Ian Holm, stage and screen actress Eleanor Woodruff (1891-1980) was born of a September 12.

Woodruff was from a middle class background in small town Pennsylvania, near the New York border. Education at the National School of Oratory on Philadelphia prepared her for her first stage experience touring with the Philadelphia Orpheum Stock Company, appearing in productions of Beverly of Graustark, The Five Frankfurters, et al. Pathé Frères operated an American studio in New Jersey and that is where she began her film career in 1913, switching to Vitagraph a couple of years later. Her soubriquet “The Ethel Barrymore of Motion Pictures” is admirable for its gall, at least this early in her career, doubly so once Barrymore began acting in films herself about a year after Woodruff did.

Woodruff appeared in fewer than three dozen films, all but one of them made between 1913 and 1916. Some of the better remembered ones included the serial The Perils of Pauline (1914), and Theda Bara’s first film The Stain (1914). Following The Weakness of Man (1916) with Holbrook Blinn, she had enough juice to star on Broadway, her artistic home for the next 15 years. Her debut there was in Booth Tarkington’s Mister Antonio (1916) opposite Otis Skinner. Her hottest stretch has to have been the years 1922 through 1924, when she appeared in the original American productions of Shaw’s Back to Methusaleh (1922) Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1922-23), and Cohan’s The Song and Dance Man (1923-34).

Following her 14th Broadway play, Somerset Maugham’s The Breadwinner (1931), Woodruff retired to marry her own Breadwinner, a banker named Dorsey Richardson. In her post theatrical life, Woodruff pursued her love of interior decorating. Richardson was later an economic adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. He outlived Woodruff by only about a year.

For more on silent film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.