Barretts of Wimpole Street, The (1934): Sidney Franklin’s Period Romance Starring Norma Shearer

The Barretts of Wimpole Street, MGM’s literary adaptation of the famous stage play, is a typical product of the studio during the reign of wunderkind Irving Thalberg, head of production and husband of Norma Shearer, the star of the film.

Stiff, stuffy, and “prestigious,” this period romance, directed by craftsman Sidney Franklin, tells the story of the near-invalid Elizabeth Barrett (Shearer), who finds renewed vitality and happiness through the love of fellow poet Robert Browning (Frederic March), despite efforts of her nasty, tyrannical father (Charles Laughton, splendid if also overacting).

Confined by her overprotective father to her room, with only her dog as company but with poetry for solace and comfort, Elizabeth is unable to reach out to her brothers and sisters, who are also suffocated by their dictatorial dad. The essence of the melodrama is in the battle of wills between the father and Browning. Climax occurs when Elizabeth fights against her father’s clutches, realizing that his love for her is not just smoldering, but personal and dangerous too.

Franklin is unable to conceal the theatrical origins of the source material, and thus all the thespians give stagy, overblown performances. Stealing every scene he is in, Laughton is well-cast as the villain of the piece. The film benefits from MGM’s reliable troupe of supporting actors, including the young Maureen O’Sullivan as Henrietta, Elizabeth’s hapless younger sister, and Una O’Connor as Wilson, Elizabeth’s loyal and dedicated maid.

The film was remade by MGM in 1956, again under the helm of Sidney Franklin, but with better results, based on a good cast, headed by John Gielgud as the father, Jennifer Jones as Elizabeth, and Bill Travers as Robert Browning, and more polished production values, particularly Freddie Young’s cinemtography.

Cast:
Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer)
Robert Browning (Fredric March)
Edward Moulton Barrett (Charles Laughton)

Credits

Produced by Irving Thalberg.
Directed by Sidney Franklin.
Screenplay: Ernest Vajda, Claudine West, and Donald Ogden Stewart, based on the play by Rudolph Besier.
Camera: William Daniels.
Editor: Margaret Booth.
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Costumes: Adrian

Running time: 110 Minutes

Oscar Nominations: 2

Picture, produced by Irving Thalberg
Actress: Norma Shearer

Oscar Context

“The Barretts of Wimpole Street” competed for the Best Picture with nine other films: “Cleopatra,” “Flirtation Walk,” “The Gay Divorcee,” “Here Comes the Navy,” “The House of Rothchild,” “Imitation of Life,” “It Happened One Night,” “One Night of Love,” “The Thin Man,” “Viva Villa!” and “The White Parade.”

“It Happened One Night” swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Claudette Colbert.