Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934)

Once upon a time, the romance of Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning was one of the world’s most celebrated love stories, although today it’s a tale that only English majors with a particular interest in the 19th century are likely to know well. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), adapted from the play by Rudolph Besier, takes the usual poetic license with history, but it’s a lovely vision, nonetheless, with strong performances from Norma Shearer and Fredric March as the literary lovers. Viewers don’t really need to know anything about the poets to appreciate the elegant costumes, the tender love scenes, or the striking depiction of Victorian domestic dysfunction, but those well-versed in the works of both Barrett and Browning are likely to enjoy the film that much more. Memorable appearances by Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Una O’Connor will give classic movie fans a particular thrill, as well.

Norma Shearer plays celebrated poet Elizabeth Barrett, an invalid who lives at Wimpole Street with a large collection of siblings and their overbearing father, Edward (Charles Laughton). The younger Barretts live in fear of Edward, who refuses to let any of them marry, and even Elizabeth, his favorite, shrinks from his relentless control. Strong-willed Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan) engages in a forbidden romance that enrages her father, but his ire is even greater when he suspects that Elizabeth has more than platonic feelings for the energetic young poet, Robert Browning (Fredric March).

Shearer embodies Barrett’s intelligence and frailty beautifully, and she looks fabulous in the sumptuous period gowns and the poet’s signature curls. Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the fourth of her career. Fredric March makes an excellent foil to her languid lady with his boundless energy and enthusiasm; he dashes into the room at their first meeting, an irresistible force determined to pull Elizabeth into life and love despite her own misgivings. The two talk of poetry briefly, invoking Browning’s early work, Sordello, in particular, but their later conversations turn almost entirely to affairs of the heart. That reluctance to be literary might be one of the film’s real weaknesses, since it denies uninitiated viewers a chance to figure out what these two poets are actually famous for, and it seems a shame that Barrett’s “How Do I Love Thee?” never gets an airing, since it was first written during the period that the film chronicles.

The supporting players fill the Wimpole Street house with well-defined characters who help to shape the lovers’ story in one way or another. Charles Laughton offers a compelling argument for patricide in his portrayal of Edward; the incestuous nature of his obsession with Elizabeth spills out in one climactic scene, but throughout the entire film he makes the viewer’s skin crawl with his thick lips, pitiless religiosity, and absolute suffocation of his children. Maureen O’Sullivan, as Henrietta, gets several excellent scenes of rebellion against him; she’s less a saint than Elizabeth, but her fiery courage makes us root for her to escape her father’s clutches by any means necessary. (The real Henrietta Moulton-Barrett did eventually marry Surtees Cook, although her father immediately disinherited her.) The delightful Una O’Connor also makes a noteworthy contribution as Elizabeth’s maid, Wilson, who loves Elizabeth far more than she fears Edward.

In addition to the Best Actress nomination for Shearer, The Barretts of Wimpole Street also earned a nod for Best Picture, but it lost on both counts to the big winner of 1934, It Happened One Night. Director Sidney Franklin liked his film so much that he remade it in 1957 with Jennifer Jones as Elizabeth Barrett and Bill Travers as Robert Browning. See more of Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930), A Free Soul (1931), and The Women (1939), and catch Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), A Star is Born (1937), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The versatile but always brilliant Charles Laughton also stars in Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957). Look for Una O’Connor in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939), and see quite a lot of Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and its sequels.

Learn more about Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning from The Poetry Foundation.