Well, this was not what I expected.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) is the film adaptation of the Broadway hit production by the same name, and should not be confused with the 1957 version, which was word-for-word, scene for scene, the exact same film with a different cast. This film is a rather creative account of the romance between Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, which was forbidden by Elizabeth’s brutish and tyrannical father. Although history attests to the fact that Elizabeth’s father forbid any of his children to marry, playwright Rudolph Besier provides a dark and disturbing theory for Mr. Barrett’s motive. Regardless of its unpleasant, incestuous insinuations, this film was a box office hit in its time.
Although the cast was praised by critics for their performance in Wimpole Street, the two leading actors were initially hesitant to take on their roles. Norma Shearer was said to have been uncomfortable with the notion of playing Elizabeth Barrett, as most of her previous roles allowed her to play strong, “modern” women. Elizabeth Barrett’s modest and pious character was quite the stark contrast to Shearer’s typical film persona. Despite her hesitation, however, Shearer would end up receiving an Academy Award nomination for her part in the picture. Robert Browning, as played by Fredric March, was just as one would expect him to be: brilliant, lively, and persistent; though March openly derided his own performance in later years, there is little hint of his personal discomfort on the screen. For his part, the notoriously difficult Charles Laughton, who played Elizabeth’s domineering father, delivered a well-received performance for his ability to effectively convey his incestuous desires despite the limitations that the Production Code placed on the script.
While watching the romance between these poets is sure to interest Victorian Era bibliophiles, the most interesting aspect of the film is certainly the psychological perspective of the Barrett family dynamics. While Shearer and March perform beautifully, the real star of this film is surely Laughton, who succeeds in making stomachs turn and blood boil. Any audience would sympathize with the Barrett children, especially Elizabeth and her sister Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan), who find love and yet must sacrifice and fight for it. When their father learns that Henrietta is in love with a young man, he demonizes her, and makes her swear on her mother’s Bible never to see or communicate with her love again. Although Henrietta insists that she has done nothing inappropriate, and that the young man’s intentions are honest and noble, her father is relentless in degrading her.
When Henrietta makes it clear that she will never forgive her father for this injustice, she asks, “Is it nothing to you that I shall hate you for this to the end of my life?”
Their father coldly and confidently replies, “Less than nothing.”
Although Henrietta attempts to explain to her father that she wants a love like he and her mother shared, he later explains to Elizabeth in secret that her mother did not, and likely could not, have loved him, and insinuates that he forced himself upon her, resulting in Elizabeth’s brothers and sisters. He further explains that Elizabeth is his favorite daughter because she was the only child conceived when love was mutual between him and her mother. This revelation is certainly a disturbing plot twist, although (not so) subtly foreshadowed by a creepy scene in which Mr. Barrett’s niece sits on his lap, stroking his whiskers as she praises him.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street is another in a long line of Hollywood biopics that plays loosely with historical fact–though, to be honest, the fault for that lies more with the Rudolf Besier play on which the film is based. Although through my education in literary studies I have read a great deal of both poets, I had never previously heard of any incestual motive on the part of Elizabeth’s father. From most accounts, Mr. Barrett disapproved of Robert Browning on the grounds that he believed him to be a fortune hunter. To the practical skeptic, this seems likely, as the Barrett family had great wealth. Elizabeth was 38 years old and had been considered to be an invalid for a number of years before meeting Robert, who proclaimed his love for her in one of his first letters to her, prior to meeting her. There have been many theories for the motives behind Mr. Barrett forbidding any of his children to marry; however, if the allegations provided in this film are indeed true, we will likely never know for certain.
Last month, Warner Archive released the long-out-of-print The Barretts of Wimpole Street through their MOD (manufactured on demand) imprint. This is not a remastered print, though it is a clear presentation of the film. However, as per usual with the MOD releases, there are no extra features or scene selection options on this DVD.
True Classics thanks Warner Archive for providing a copy of The Barretts of Wimpole Street for the purposes of this review.