Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Barretts of Wimpole Street directed by Sidney Franklin (starring Norma Shearer, Frederic March, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). Screenplay by Ernest Wajda, Claudine West, and Donald Ogden Stewart from the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier.

Wimpole Street, 1845 — In a time when maids glided across the floor as if on casters (in this case, Wilson, delightfully played by Una O'Connor), the invalid Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) — affectionately known as "Ba" — and her brood of siblings live under the tyrannical rule of their father Edward (Charles Laughton), who allows none of his children to be married, and demands love though all he inspires is fear. Any thought of dissension is met with passive-aggressive emotional manipulation ("You shall never know ... how much you have grieved and wounded your father by refusing to do the little thing he asked.").

Elizabeth's only joy is in writing her poetry, her dog Flush, and the encouraging letters she receives from fellow poet Robert Browning (Fredric March), whose work she respects and adores. Having fallen in love with her through her words, Browning takes it upon himself to visit her unannounced.

In her room (where most of the action takes place), they hit it off wonderfully in a scene filled with genuine joy. In an amusing exchange, Elizabeth asks Robert the meaning of a rather obscure passage in his Sordello. He looks confused for a bit, then replies, "When that passage was written, only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it!"

From that point, we know they are to be married, whatever the cost. And, though her health and her father are obstacles, each will be overcome in turn. Except for its extraordinary characters, this is in many ways a traditional romance. But the movie's great success comes in actually eliciting suspense, even though we all know that Ba eventually became famous as Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

A parallel subplot comes in the form of Elizabeth's sister Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan) and her burgeoning romance with a soldier. Edward puts the kibosh on that quick. ("Is it nothing to you that I shall hate you for this to the end of my life?" "Less than nothing.") Later, it comes out (euphemistically, of course — this was just after the enforcement of the Production Code) that Edward may have some sort of sex addiction that he is railing against (and trying to protect his children from inheriting?), and that he may even have some nonpaternal feelings for Ba. (Their age difference — or lack of it — may have helped: Laughton was 35 to Shearer's 32.)

Laughton plays all of his scenes with fire, but Shearer is the real star here. Some of her readings are a bit "theatrical," but mostly she is terrific as Elizabeth. She even draws the eye away from costar March, though he is perhaps at his most engagingly boyish here. Director Sidney Franklin avoids staginess through a variety of angles

Though it may seem so at first, Ba isn't that much different from other characters Shearer had played. She obviously has no husband to rebel against here, but she does defy her tyrant father's wishes, which Mick LaSalle (Complicated Women) says makes her the "spiritual sister to Jerry in The Divorcee." LaSalle, a vocal fan of Shearer's pre-Code work, also says that this film is the last of hers that "satisfies completely as both a movie and a Shearer showcase," meaning it sort of signifies the end of an era of film history.

Trivia: In 1957, Franklin made a veritable shot-by-shot remake of this film starring Jennifer Jones (Elizabeth) and John Gielgud (Edward). I have not seen it. Gielgud was one of the great actors, but I'm not sure even he could top Laughton's performance in this.


Muscato said...

I'm afraid the role didn't play to Gielgud's strengths; he doesn't bring the whole creepy-sad Laughton thing to and just seem stiff. As for Jones - well, she's no Shearer. The whole remake is pretty pale stuff.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for your take. As much as I like Gielgud, I'll probably just skip it.

Laura said...

For a different point of view, I liked the remake very much -- as much as the original. As much as I like Shearer and March, and O'Sullivan, the original film felt a little more artificial and stagebound to me. Each film has its strong and weak points.

I thought the remake was very well cast and particularly liked Travers, Jones, and McKenna. The romance seemed a little more authentically real and spirited to me in the remake. I'm not certain if the fact I saw the second version before the original has anything to do with my take, but I do like them both and anticipate enjoying each again in future. If you have the opportunity, take a look at the remake and let us know what you think.

Best wishes,

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