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The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
Remind Me

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

Rudolph Besier's play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1931), the love story of Victorian-era poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, was a Broadway hit starring Katharine Cornell as Barrett, Brian Aherne as Browning, and Cedric Hardwicke as Barrett's monstrously domineering father. After seeing the Los Angeles production of the play in 1932, MGM head of production Irving Thalberg bought the rights, with the intention of turning it into one of the studio's prestige productions, starring his wife, Norma Shearer. Ms. Shearer, who had been playing sleek, modern, sexually liberated women, wasn't convinced that the role was right for her and was hesitant to play a wan, neurotic woman who spends most of her time languishing on a sofa.

William Randolph Hearst, whose Cosmopolitan Pictures was headquartered at MGM, had no such hesitation. He thought his mistress Marion Davies would be perfect as Elizabeth. While he was at it, Hearst wanted another role for the actress that Thalberg had earmarked for Shearer, Marie Antoinette. Suddenly, Shearer began to show an intense interest in starring in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). And she took matters into her own hands, visiting Davies in the sumptuous bungalow that served as her dressing room on the lot. After some heart-to-heart girl talk, Davies, a gifted comedienne who had no illusions about her dramatic abilities and no interest in the part, agreed that Elizabeth was not for her. At the same time, MGM head Louis B. Mayer told Hearst that Davies would not be cast as either Elizabeth Barrett Browning nor Marie Antoinette. A furious Hearst took Davies, her bungalow, and Cosmopolitan Pictures to Warner Brothers, and refused to allow any of his newspapers to review The Barretts of Wimpole Street, or even to mention Norma Shearer for several years.

Sidney Franklin was chosen to direct The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Franklin was a director that Shearer was comfortable with, and this would be the last of five films they made together. (Franklin was the original director of 1938's Marie Antoinette, but Mayer replaced him with W.S. Van Dyke, to Shearer's dismay). MGM wanted Brian Aherne to recreate his stage performance as Robert Browning, but Aherne did not want to be tied to a long-term contract, and refused. Instead, Fredric March, who had co-starred with Shearer in Smilin' Through (1932) got the part. March later said that he was not happy with his performance, and didn't think he was right for the role. "I think Sidney Franklin paid more attention to Norma," he told critic Lawrence J. Quirk, "and maybe he let me get out of hand....[the character] brought out the worst ham elements in me, and I feel I failed in the role." Most critics agreed.

Charles Laughton, fresh from his Oscar®-winning performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), was Thalberg's personal choice to play Barrett's overbearing father. Although Laughton was only three years older than Shearer, he was willing to age himself with white muttonchop whiskers. Those whiskers were a source of great merriment one day for Shearer and co-star Maureen O'Sullivan who couldn't stop laughing about them. Shooting was cancelled for the day, when Laughton stomped off the set in disgust. Laughton also agreed to lose 50 pounds, and during filming he got vicarious pleasure out of watching Shearer devour huge meals. He was less happy about toning down the hints of incest in the play as a concession to the censors. "But they can't censor the gleam in my eye," Laughton told Thalberg. A tormented and insecure man, Laughton could be extremely difficult to work with, but he and Shearer got along well and became good friends.

For her part, Shearer turned in an excellent performance in spite of her misgivings, once she found the key to her role. "Elizabeth Barrett was an invalid simply because she had no vitality," Shearer said in an interview. "She was not ill. I tried to make her vital only from the first moment she saw Robert Browning....He brought her warmth and life." The Barretts of Wimpole Street was one of Shearer's personal favorites. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, and the film was nominated for Best Picture. But that was the year that It Happened One Night (1934) swept the major awards. That same year, however, Shearer was voted favorite motion picture actress in a poll of British filmgoers.

In 1957, MGM remade The Barretts of Wimpole Street with Sidney Franklin again directing, starring Jennifer Jones, Bill Travers and John Gielgud. The film was shot in England, in color and Cinemascope, and with a predominantly British cast. It was well received, but many critics at the time remembered the 1934 version fondly and expressed their preference for it.

Director: Sidney Franklin
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Ernest Vajda, Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart, from the play by Rudolph Besier
Cinematography: William Daniels
Editor: Margaret Booth
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Norma Shearer (Elizabeth Barrett), Fredric March (Robert Browning), Charles Laughton (Edward Moulton Barrett), Maureen O'Sullivan (Henrietta Barrett), Katharine Alexander (Arabel Barrett), Una O'Connor (Wilson), Marion Clayton (Bella Hedley), Ralph Forbes (Captain Surtees Cook).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri