Groucho Marx called her “the funniest woman in Hollywood” and Gloria Stuart, in her autobiography I JUST KEPT HOPING, agreed by stating “Ethel Kenyon is one of the wittiest women anybody ever knew.”
Ethel Kenyon was leading lady to Buck Jones in 1931’s “Branded”. “I was born Ethel Elizabeth Kenyon in Indianapolis, IN, on June 17, 1904. When I was a little girl, my mother and I moved to Hollywood. It was at the time that I appeared in a small role—one or two scenes—in a Keystone Kop picture. I don’t recall the title—but I do have a still of it. I am beside one of the Kops. This led to my interest in becoming an actress.”
Ethel later moved to New York, where she landed a role in “Strike Up the Band” on Broadway. “I met and married Eddie Sutherland, the director, and we moved to Hollywood. (Sutherland directed silents beginning in 1920 on through the mid ‘40s, including “Secrets of the French Police”, “Murders In the Zoo” etc.) That’s how I got back into pictures. I was there among the directors and writers, who were our friends. We were with film people all the time. It just came about because of my being around them. But I really didn’t work that much—in pictures.”
As to why she only worked in film a couple of years, the witty Kenyon states, “Because I was always getting married! (Laughs)” When Sutherland and Ethel divorced, “We threw a huge party! (Laughs) It was written about in all the papers! We remained friends, of course. My second husband was Charles Butterworth, the character actor. After that, I went to New York and (in 1944) married Ernest Heyn, editor of SPORTS magazine. We have a daughter, Dalma.”
About her western, “Branded”, she’s quick to state—“I never saw westerns at that time. I hadn’t seen any of Buck Jones’ other pictures. And I never saw him again in person after we did the film. The movie was kind of cute, incidentally. I was amazed! I never saw so many horses in my life!” When I commented she appeared to be an expert horsewoman, Kenyon begged to disagree. “They put me on a horse—then somebody else did all those riding scenes. I couldn’t ride a horse in my life—still can’t. It did look like me, though. (Laughs)” Ethel’s first scene occurs as Buck Jones sees her from the rear, and kicks her in the posterior. “Everybody laughed and kidded me, shouting ‘She deserved it!’ (Laughs) The picture was better than I thought—I was not just making sweet faces—but was a tough gal. I wasn’t too bad! I wasn’t an actress, but I am so amazed that now I might start saying I was!”
Asked about the director of “Branded”, D. Ross Lederman, Ethel firmly states, “The only thing I remember about any director or direction was at one point, he said, ‘When they come after you, lay down on the floor—fainting.’ I told him it was ‘lie down’ and he promptly told me ‘I’m the director—it’s lay.’ (Laughs)”
Harry Cohn was the head of Columbia, releasing “Branded”. “He was a dreadful man—he didn’t chase me around his desk, though. (Laughs) Everybody disliked him. He was an uncultivated man. Nobody at the studio liked him—he was always going around turning the lights off!”
As for her leading man, “Buck Jones seemed very nice. We all were very sweet and cuddly then. In fact, I thought I was going to be just the sweet ingénue in the picture—I had forgotten how I really was! (Laughs)”
In the Golden Age of Motion Pictures, the ‘30s and ‘40s, she unfortunately didn’t do many films—but her friends were of the Hollywood elite. “Groucho Marx was a very good friend of mine—we’d see him all the time—this was when he was married to Ruth. He married several times since! I was friends with Nunnally Johnson and his wife Dorris Bowden—as well as Nunnally’s previous wife, Claudette Colbert—when she was married to the dentist; and of course (comedian) Robert Benchley, who was a very good friend. When I left Charlie Butterworth, Benchley moved in with Charles—at the Garden of Allah. I stayed at the Garden when I would visit California, and Gloria Stuart’s daughter would ask ‘Why is Mrs. Butterworth staying upstairs and Mr. Butterworth downstairs?’ (Laughs) The answer is that I was Mrs. Heyn by that time! (Laughs)”
Perhaps Ethel’s most famous friend was Humphrey Bogart. “Nobody called him Bogie then—he was married to Mayo Methot. I also knew him back in New York as well—but I don’t remember anything about his previous wife, Mary Phillips. Mayo is the one who sticks in my mind. (Laughs) I would see Humphrey all the time back then—I liked him a lot!”
As to her post-Hollywood life, Ethel says, “I wrote a scenario once—for Norman Krasna, but I don’t recall it ever seeing light of day. In more recent times, I wrote a humor column for AMERICAN WEEKLY and also one for the MEDICAL JOURNAL. Both were penned under the name Ethel Kenyon.”
The witty, charming Ethel Kenyon was 99 when she died January 22, 2004, in NYC.
Ethel’s Western Filmography
Movie: Branded (‘31)—Buck Jones.