Cast & Crew
In London of 1845, renowned poet Elizabeth Browning lives quietly as an invalid with her tyranical, pious father Edward and her six younger brothers and two younger sisters, Henrietta and Anabel. Although nearly forty years old, Elizabeth is so dominated by her widowed businessman father that she is unable to refuse even his most trivial command. By denying them parental approval to court men, Edward, who believes that romantic love is a sin, also controls Henrietta and Anabel, and only allows Elizabeth to correspond with fellow poet Robert Browning because he believes the relationship is strictly professional. When Robert finally visits the bedridden Elizabeth, however, he reveals that, through her letters and poetry, he has fallen in love with her. Elizabeth tries to dismiss Robert's proclamations, but he is adamant and declares his intention to see her often. Three months later, Elizabeth's physical condition, which previously had been diagnosed as terminal, improves so greatly that her doctors recommend that she spend the winter in Italy. Buoyed by the news, Elizabeth descends the house stairs by herself and thrills Robert with her love-induced rejuvenation. After Robert announces that he, too, is going to Italy, Edward arrives and, soundly chastizing Elizabeth for over-extending herself, instantly deflates his daughter's resolve. Edward then refuses to grant Elizabeth permission to go to Italy and calls her selfish and ungrateful for suggesting the separation. Although Elizabeth briefly defends her right to live and be happy, she once again gives in to Edward and tells Robert the trip to Italy is cancelled. Determined to free Elizabeth from her father, Robert forcefully proposes to her, but while admitting her love, Elizabeth maintains that she is too ill to marry. Later, however, Elizabeth learns that Edward, who has been apprised of Robert's true feelings, is buying a house in Surrey in order to separate her from the poet. Sobered by the seriousness of Edward's actions, Elizabeth promises Robert that she will give him a decision regarding their marriage before her father returns from Surrey. To the surprise of Elizabeth and Henrietta, who has been been courting Captain Surtees Cook in secret, Edward returns home early and catches his daughters entertaining the officer. Outraged by Henrietta's confession of love, Edward demands that, unless she swears on a Bible that she will not see Cook again, he will disown her. Henrietta reluctantly makes the vow, after which Elizabeth condemns her father and, through her maid Wilson, sends a letter to Robert in which she accepts his proposal. Overjoyed, Robert tells Wilson that Elizabeth and he are eloping to Italy that night. Elizabeth is terrified by the immediacy of Robert's plan and at first balks, but when Edward clearly reveals the unnatural, clinging nature of his love for her, she regains her courage and prepares to leave. After Elizabeth sneaks away with Wilson, Henrietta, who has vowed to break her pledge regarding Cook, informs her father of her departure. Stunned by his loss, Edward vindictively orders one of his sons to destroy Elizabeth's dog, but is told that the animal is safe with his mistress. While Edward fumes at his defeat, Elizabeth weds Robert.
Jack D. Moore
Donald Ogden Stewart
Irving G. Thalberg
Edwin B. Willis
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
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
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)
Remade literally word-for-word and scene-for-scene by the very same director, Sidney Franklin, and by the same studio, MGM, in 1957.
When producer Irving Thalberg cast his wife, Norma Shearer, in the role of Elizabeth Barrett, William Randolph Hearst was enraged that his protege, Marion Davies, was not given the role. So Hearst pulled Davies out of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and placed her with Warner Brothers for the remainder of her career, and for over a year, the name "Norma Shearer" did not appear in any Hearst newspapers.
Rudolf Besier's play had its initial performance at the Malvern Festival in England on August 20, 1930. The title on the viewed print was A Forbidden Alliance, presumably a television title created to avoid confusion with M-G-M's 1957 remake of Besier's play. According to modern biographical sources, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose father, Edward Moulton, took the name Barrett after he acquired a Jamaican estate, suffered a spinal injury at the age of fifteen that left her a semi-invalid for many years. As portrayed in the film, Barrett married Robert Browning in 1846 and lived most of her remaining years in Italy.
A 1932 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Marion Davies was to star in the picture. M-G-M borrowed Charles Laughton from Paramount for the production. According to a production news item in Hollywood Reporter, the studio tested over one hundred actors in an effort to find six who looked sufficiently alike to be cast as Elizabeth's brothers. A pre-production Hollywood Reporter news item announced that M-G-M was borrowing Mona Barrie from Fox for a part in the film, but that actress did not appear in the final film.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture but lost to It Happened One Night. Norma Shearer was nominated as Best Actress but lost to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. Film Daily's "Poll of Critics" voted the film as one the ten best pictures of 1934. Modern sources add George Kirby (Coachman), Robert Bolder (Old man) and Margaret Seddon to the cast. Besier's play has been adapted several times: On September 9, 1946, Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a version starring Loretta Young and Brian Aherne, in his original stage role; on December 5, 1950, the CBS television network broadcast a version on its Prudential Playhouse, which was produced and directed by Donald Davis and starred Helen Hayes and Robert Pastene; the ABC television network broadcast a version for Kraft Theatre on October 22, 1953, which starred Valerie Cossart and Alexander Scourby and was produced and directed by Fielder Cook; on June 8, 1955, CBS broadcast another version, directed by James Sheldon and starring Geraldine Fitzgerald and Robert Douglas; the NBC television network broadcast its version, which was adapted by Besier and directed by Vincent Donehume and starred Katharine Cornell and Anthony Quayle, on April 2, 1956; and in 1957, M-G-M released its second version, which also was directed by Sidney Franklin and starred Jennifer Jones, Bill Travers and John Gielgud.