The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

Synopsis:

Sickly poetess Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer, A Free Soul) meets and falls in love with fellow poet Robert Browning (Fredric March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), which causes the ire of her stern and controlling father, the monstrous Edward Barrett (Charles Laughton, The Private Life of Henry VIII).

Reaction & Thoughts:

This is a fictionalized reenactment of the courtship between two literary giants, Elizabeth “Ba” Barrett and Robert Browning, who fell madly in love with each other after meeting in 1845. The Barretts of Wimpole Street mixes historical fact, fiction and speculation — it’s a fine movie that somehow left me cold.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a straight adaptation of the well-regarded 1930 stage play by Rudolf Besier of the same. Produced by MGM’s “Boy Wonder” (and star Norma Shearer’s husband), Irving Thalberg (Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty), this is an effective but colossally unimaginative movie.

The film takes place mainly in one room and there are long stretches where there is nothing but people talking to each other. Director Sidney Franklin (The Good Earth) is essentially preserving a theatre piece for posterity — there is no attempt to open up the play. The dialogue is very good, but this film clearly exemplifies the type of “canned theater” I tend to find uninteresting.

The film’s biggest drawback is that the narrative doesn’t have sufficient background information. The Barretts of Wimpole Street isn’t as romantic as it could have been either. Here you have the love story of two great poets reduced to melodrama. There is hardly any poetry in the film and that’s a shame. Again, this could have been a little more romantic and interesting.

I did enjoy the performances. Shearer and Fredric March are fine as the “star-crossed lovers.” Charles Laughton plays Mr. Barrett with authority, but the character is too one-dimensional; he is a big lug of hate and selfishness. That said, Laughton does a great job suggesting the father’s incestuous feelings towards his daughter. Because of the censors, the film tiptoes around the controversial issue and Laughton finds subtle ways to drop hints to let the audience know what’s going on.

The rest of the actors perform their roles with class and authenticity. Maureen O’Sullivan (Tarzan the Ape Man and The Thin Man), who plays Elizabeth’s younger sister, Henrietta, is a little too theatrical for my taste, though. O’Sullivan succumbs to shrillness during dramatic scenes. The cast also includes British character actors Una O’Connor (Bride of Frankenstein and Witness for the Prosecution) as a servant and Leo G. Carroll (Spellbound and North by Northwest) as a physician.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a good but flawed movie, the exact sort of thing I find compelling and frustrating in equal amounts. I enjoyed watching the movie, but I wished it had been done with a little more energy and creativity. Director Sidney Franklin remade the film in 1957. B&W, 110 minutes, Not Rated.

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4 responses to “The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

  1. For some reason, I always thought this was a British TV series! Though I don’t mind ‘one room’ movies (12 Angry Men, Rear Window), I think I’ll have to pass on this one…I’d probably feel the same way about it that you did.

    Liked by 1 person

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