The Puzzling Case of Phyllis Barry
In March 1933, Film Weekly reported on Samuel Goldwyn‘s newest discovery, Phyllis Barry, the British newcomer who “achieves the next best thing to actual stardom (a leading ladyship to Ronald Colman)” in Cynara (1932). The publication went on to write: “It is difficult to say, from her performance in ‘Cynara’ alone, whether she will go far in films… but for the present, at any rate, she has arrived.”
Barry may have arrived, but she didn’t hold Hollywood’s attention for long.
Cynara‘s title was changed to I Was Faithful upon re-release. In some advertisements, like the one above, Barry jumped from an idyllic boat ride to straight up vamp.
Cynara enticed with its main attractions, Colman and Kay Francis as the married couple, but what stuck out to me was third-billed Barry as the shopgirl who comes between them. Who was this Ruth Hussey–Mary Wickes look-a-like? Why hadn’t I heard of her? A cursory search of Barry’s credits didn’t take me far: Cynara appeared as her first talkie, and by and large, Barry’s parts of any substance clustered around the pre-Code period; in fact, from 1935-1947, the bulk of her film appearances went uncredited. This warranted some digging, but I uncovered so few facts about Barry that the effort felt somewhat perfunctory. I’m certain there’s more information out there, but for now, here’s some intriguing details and discrepancies I stumbled upon relating to the life and career of the mysterious Phyllis Barry.
1. Trades publicized that Barry had no film experience when Goldwyn discovered her
Which isn’t technically true. Barry possessed some familiarity with the medium… on the other side of the Earth: Australia. Born into a family of English musical comedy troupers, Barry trained as a dancer and then journeyed to Oz, where she performed in cabarets, stage productions, and two Australian silent films, Painted Daughters (1925) and Sunrise (1926). In the US, she joined Fanchon and Marco, the famed brother and sister producing team whose lavish prologues partially inspired 1933’s Footlight Parade, and traveled west with the group. She caught Goldwyn’s eye in California.
2. Following a camera test, Goldwyn hired Barry to appear in The Kid from Spain (1932) with Eddie Cantor, but she never did
Film Weekly reported that: “It was only when they got her into the studio and started experimenting with her that they realized she was physically and temperamentally ideal” for the role of Doris in Cynara instead.
3. With considerable screen time and what appeared to be a complex character, Doris could have been a breakout part for Barry. Not to mention, she was surrounded by prolific names. So, what happened?
Cynara didn’t perform well at the box office, and critiques ranged, though many leaned towards positive, especially for Colman, Francis and director King Vidor. While Barry also received laudatory notices – Variety applauded her handling Doris with “sensitive shading… accessible to just the right degree” – her reviews noticeably veered towards the negative end of the spectrum, though this wasn’t entirely her fault. Writing in The Chicago Tribune, Mae Tinee claimed that, yes, Barry could act, but “never for a moment does she ‘get over’ ” as Doris and, basically, she was to blame for the picture’s weakness: “I reluctantly accuse Miss Barry of being the fly in the ointment.” Film Weekly also extolled Barry’s talent, but commented that she was “handicapped” because her role “is never very clearly defined, perhaps through fear of censorship.”
It’s all fun and games… until the man behind you introduces you to a married gentleman, Jim (Ronald Colman), and falling in love destroys you.
While Barry adequately handled Doris’ evolution from an innocent girl reluctant to steal a man’s hat on a dare to a woman who does not hesitate to steal another’s husband, her effort didn’t come across as convincing or effective, in my opinion. As I believe she possessed the necessary talent, I think fault lies heavily in a feebly constructed character and story. Could weak material and potential miscasting in her Hollywood debut partly account for Barry’s stalled career? Perhaps, but I can’t be sure.
4. Following Cynara, Barry’s promise faded fast
Barry’s next roles in What! No Beer? (1933) opposite Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante and Diplomaniacs (1933) with Wheeler and Woolsey, both showcasing her comedy chops, earned her some recognition, but nowhere near enough to catapult her to stardom. In fact, Barry’s billings through 1935 oddly vacillate – considerably. For instance, in Marriage on Approval (1933) Barry played a supporting part; she was credited as “Party Guest” in 1934’s Long Lost Father; weeks later in Love Past Thirty (1934) she appears to have seized a co-starring role; later that year she was ‘The Brunette Chambermaid’ in Where Sinners Meet; and then she bounced up to a lead in 1934’s The Moonstone. (Studios behind these projects ranged from RKO to poverty row Monarch to a company called Paul Malvern Productions. Malvern produced that last title, in which Barry was the female star.)
Extremely limited mentions of Barry in trades and movie magazines from the mid 1930s onward confirm the severe decline of characters of substance for the actress. It appears she returned to the English stage sometime in the early-mid 1940s and even popped up in the “Theatrical Cards” for the gentlemen section of The Stage in December 1945: “Harold Waller and Phyllis Barry. At liberty for first-class Rep. Experienced all lines.” However, I failed to find references to her in periodicals after 1946, and this even includes any indication of her passing several years later.
5. Sadly, life imitated art for Barry, and she followed Doris’ fate from Cynara
Commenting on Barry’s casting in Cynara, The Los Angeles Times observed in 1932: “Phyllis Barry’s newly won part and its action more or less parallels her own self and career so far as grilling work and hardships are concerned.” And how unfortunately prophetic that parallel turned out to be. In Cynara, Doris, dejected over losing Colman to Francis, ends her life with poison. In real life, Barry, despondent over her failed film career, committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 45 by overdosing on medication. A heartbreaking end for a talented woman who showed considerable promise during the pre-Code period.
If you happen to have more insight on Barry’s career and/or life, please feel free to share in the comments.
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.