As a dual portrait of two very different women who became nannies for two equally different families, "Martha and Ethel" offers a unique view of servants' lives and also gives us a rare glimpse of upper-crust American life over the past half-century.
The downtrodden and the disenfranchised tend to attract filmmakers lots more than nannies and the rich, but then producer-director Jyll Johnstone and co-producer Barbara Ettinger, friends since childhood in Manhattan, are telling us about their own nannies and their own families.
They are, thankfully, in no way apologetic about their privileged backgrounds, and they get their nannies, Martha and Ethel, respectively, to open up as they do their parents and siblings.
When so many wives are working as well as husbands, nannies are no longer the province of the wealthy. It was different when the Johnstones hired Martha Kneifel in 1941, just before the birth of their first of five children, and when the Ettingers in 1954 hired Ethel Edwards, who helped raise their six children.
The most significant thing about both Martha, who died at 91 last fall, and Ethel, now in her 90s, is that they were following their calling and that they seem truly to have no regrets in devoting their lives to other people's children.
Ethel is a tall, elegant black woman from a South Carolina sharecropping family with a radiant personality. When we meet German-born Martha, who is plain and short, she's vivacious and affectionate, but the Johnstone children remember her as a stern disciplinarian, as strong and detached as their glamorous, fashion-plate socialite mother.
The Johnstones don't seem to have been harmed by the influence of Martha and their equally formidable mother, and they admit that their nanny did instill in them a sense of discipline. Much of Martha's portion of the film involves an attempt on the part of several of the children to connect emotionally with her.
Ethel's relationship with the Ettingers has been entirely different. While not losing a sense of who she is, Ethel, a woman of warmth and wisdom, really became a part of the Ettinger family, loving its six children as if they were her own. When the Ettingers' marriage broke up, Ethel gradually became Mrs. Ettinger's friend and companion as the children grew up. To this day the two women, in a "Driving Miss Daisy" relationship, live under the same roof, deeply appreciative of each other--but, yes, Ethel continues to wear her uniform.
There's a great deal of self-satisfaction in Mrs. Johnstone, who feels she and Martha both did their jobs well. Mr. Johnstone and Mr. Ettinger don't figure much in the film; both seem politely grateful about the women who did most of the raising of their children.
All of this information about Martha and Ethel and the families they worked for unfolds like a good novel, and we're left with both a sense of particular lives lived. You have the feeling that there's lots more to be explored about the Johnstones and their relationships with one another, but that's a whole other movie.
* MPAA rating: G . Times guidelines: The film is suitable for all ages.
'Martha and Ethel'
A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Canobie Films production. Director-producer Jyll Johnstone. Co-producer Barbara Ettinger. Writers Alysha Cohen, Ettinger, Christina Houlihan, Johnstone, Frank Ortega, Sharon Woods. Cinematographer Joseph Friedman. Editor Toby Shimin. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
* In limited release at the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.