The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934 film)

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The Barretts of Wimpole Street
The Barretts of Wimpole Street.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Sidney Franklin
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Screenplay by David Ogden Stewart
Ernest Vajda
Claudine West
Based on The Barretts of Wimpole Street
1930 play
by Rudolf Besier
Starring Norma Shearer
Fredric March
Charles Laughton
Music by Herbert Stothart
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Edited by Margaret Booth
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
September 14, 1934 (1934)
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$820,000 [1]
Box office$1,258,000 (Domestic earnings) [1]
$1,085,000 (Foreign earnings) [1]

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a 1934 American film directed by Sidney Franklin depicting the real-life romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) and Robert Browning (Fredric March), despite the opposition of her abusive father Edward Moulton-Barrett (Charles Laughton). The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and Shearer was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. It was written by Ernest Vajda, Claudine West and Donald Ogden Stewart, from the successful 1930 play The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier, and starring Katharine Cornell.


In 1957, Franklin directed a color remake starring Jennifer Jones, John Gielgud, and Bill Travers.


Norma Shearer, Maureen O'Sullivan and Charles Laughton in The Barretts of Wimpole Street Barretts-of-Wimpole-Street-Shearer-O'Sullivan-Laughton.jpg
Norma Shearer, Maureen O'Sullivan and Charles Laughton in The Barretts of Wimpole Street

In her bedroom where she has been sequestered for years, Elizabeth ("Ba") (Norma Shearer), the eldest Barrett daughter, consults with her doctor. She is recovering from an undisclosed illness and is apparently extremely physically weak, but the doctor advises that a full recovery is possible.

She has a vivacious and brilliant mind, her poetry is frequently published, and she loves fooling around with her siblings, especially her youngest sister, Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan). Her stern father Edward (Charles Laughton), however, wastes no opportunity to remind Elizabeth that she is near death. He seems, perversely, determined to keep her confined, and contravenes the doctors' orders if they conflict with his own feelings. His abusive tyranny over his offspring (three daughters and six sons) is so complete that none dare to defy him. Henrietta is interested in marrying her brothers' friend Surtees (Ralph Forbes), who has a promising career in the military, but she cannot see any way around her insanely possessive father, who has forbidden any of his children to marry, for reasons they do not understand.

Robert Browning (Fredric March), who has been corresponding with Elizabeth for some time, arrives in person and immediately sweeps her off her feet. When she expresses her fear that death may be at hand, he laughs it off and promises to call again. When he leaves her room, she rises from her settee and drags herself to the window so she can see him as he departs.

Months pass, and with a new lease on life, Elizabeth is able to walk and even go downstairs to see Robert. Edward insists she is still very sick, and when the doctors prescribe a trip to Italy for the winter, Edward passive-aggressively forbids it. Exasperated, Robert makes his feelings towards Edward plain to Elizabeth, and they declare their love for each other.

One day, the Barretts' flirtatious, ditzy cousin Bella (Marion Clayton) thoughtlessly reveals Elizabeth's relationship with Robert is in fact romantic. Edward arranges a scheme to get Elizabeth away from Robert, by selling the house and move the family to Surrey, six miles from the nearest railway station.

Film still with Norma Shearer and Fredric March. March-shearer-barretts.jpg
Film still with Norma Shearer and Fredric March.

Unexpectedly, Edward returns from London and catches Henrietta and Surtees modeling his dress uniform for Elizabeth. Brutally grasping her wrists, he forces Henrietta to confess her secret affair. Denouncing her as a whore, he makes her swear on the Bible never to see Surtees again and to lock herself in her room. Ba witnesses all of this. When Edward starts to blame her for aiding and abetting Henrietta's illicit relationship, she reveals her true feelings. Smashing the facade that has allowed her father to keep a dictatorial control over every minute of her waking life – she says that, far from obeying him out of love, she hates him, and denounces him as a tyrant. Unrepentant, her father walks out of the room, saying she can send for him when she has repented of her sins.

Ba conspires with her maid Wilson to let Robert know she will elope with him and Wilson is coming along. Henrietta, when set free, runs to Ba and exclaims that she will break her Bible oath, lie to her father if necessary, and run away with Surtees if she must.

Edward enters and dismisses Henrietta to speak to Ba alone. He opens up to her and confesses his real feelings and the motivation for his "dragon" behavior. Edward apparently thinks of himself as having a sex addiction, and although the language in this scene is extremely euphemistic, we can gather that he tyrannized his wife as well, and that some of the children may actually have been conceived through rape. Edward now suppresses all his desires, equating all sex with sin, and he wants his children never to fall prey to carnal passion. As he goes into detail about how he wants Ba all to himself, to have her confide in him all her thoughts and feelings, he embraces her and actually comes close to making a sexual pass. Horrified by his inhuman behavior, Ba repulses him, and cries out that he must leave her. He apologizes and leaves, saying he'll pray for her.

Ba summons Wilson, puts on her cloak and hat, takes her little dog Flush and departs. As the two sneak down the stairs, we hear Edward saying grace over dinner. A few moments later, we hear the hysterical laughter of Ba's sister Arabel (Katharine Alexander). The boys rush upstairs, followed by Henrietta, to find that Ba has left one letter for each of the siblings and Edward. Edward reads his letter and staggers to the window. As if drunk, he insanely mutters "I'll have her dog", and bids his son Octavius take Flush to the vet and have her killed. Octavius cries out that it is unjust, and Henrietta triumphantly drives the final blow; "In her letter to me Ba writes that she has taken Flush with her..." The film closes with a brief scene of Elizabeth's and Robert's marriage, with Wilson as a witness and Flush waiting patiently by the church door.


Depiction of the Brownings' courtship

Although the names of the individuals involved are correct in the play and films motivations of individuals cannot be known. The numerous love letters that Robert and Elizabeth exchanged before their marriage, however, can give readers a great deal of information about this famous courtship in their own words. The correspondence was well underway before they ever met in person, he having admired the collection Poems that she published in 1844. He opens his first letter to her, 'I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,' and a little later in that first letter he says 'I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too' (January 10, 1845). [2]

Several editions of these letters have been published, starting with one by their son in 1898. Flush: A Biography , the version by Virginia Woolf, from the perspective of Elizabeth's dog, is also an imaginative reconstruction, though more closely based on reading the letters. Both the play and film reflect popular concerns at the time, particularly Freudian analysis. Although Edward Barrett's behavior in disinheriting any of the children who married seems bizarre, there is no evidence of his being sexually aggressive toward any of the family members. [3] While all overt suggestions of incest were removed from the script, Charles Laughton, who played Edward, assured producer Irving Thalberg, "They can't censor the gleam in my eye." [4]


Andre Sennwald of The New York Times called the film "a drama of beauty, dignity and nobility", praising Shearer's performance as "a brave and touching piece of acting" and Laughton as "superb." [5] Variety called it "truly an actor's picture" with a "final stretch that grips and holds", but that overall it was "slow" and "talky" and suggested its running time could have been shortened. [6] Film Daily lauded it as "Unquestionably one of the greatest love stories ever filmed", with "a superb performance" by Shearer and one of Laughton's "most dominating performances." [7] "I found myself pleasantly surprised by the performances of Miss Shearer and Mr. March", wrote St. Clair McKelway for The New Yorker . Although McKelway found it "hard to accept Miss Shearer in her role", he called it "sensibly handled from beginning to end, and every now and then Mr. Laughton creates moments as effective, I think, as any you have seen on the screen." [8] The Barretts of Wimpole Street topped the Film Daily year-end poll of 424 critics as the best film of 1934. [9]

The film was also a big hit at the box office. [10] According to MGM records the film earned $1,258,000 in the US and Canada and $1,085,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $668,000. [11] Its unexpected success in rural U.S. markets, despite its upper-class themes, was mentioned in the 1935 Variety article famously headlined "Sticks Nix Hick Pix". [12]


In 1957, Sidney Franklin filmed a word-for-word, and nearly shot-for-shot Metrocolor remake, of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, in CinemaScope. This version starred Jennifer Jones as Elizabeth, John Gielgud as her father, Bill Travers as Robert Browning, and Keith Baxter in his film debut. [13]

Both of the films were released by MGM.

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  1. 1 2 3 Glancy, H. Mark When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' Film 1939-1945 (Manchester University Press, 1999)
  2. 'The Brownings' Correspondence', ed. P. Kelley, et al., Wedgestone Press, vol. 10, pg. 17
  3. The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, Daniel Karlin. Oxford University Press, pgs. 1 and 3
  4. Lambert, Gavin (1990). Norma Shearer: A Life. New York: Knopf Doubleday. p. 208. ISBN   9780394551586.
  5. Sennwald, Andre (September 29, 1934). "Movie Review – The Barretts of Wimpole Street". The New York Times . Retrieved July 23, 2015.
  6. "Barretts of Wimpole St". Variety . New York. October 2, 1934. p. 37.
  7. "Reviews of the New Features". Film Daily . New York. September 8, 1934. p. 3.
  8. McKelway, St. Clair (October 6, 1934). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker . p. 87.
  9. ""Barretts" Leads Ten Best Pictures". Film Daily . New York. January 3, 1934. p. 1.
  10. Churchill, Douglas W. "The Year in Hollywood; 1934 May Be Remembered as the Beginning of the Sweetness-and-Light Era", archives [subscribed access], The New York Times, December 30, 1934: X5. Retrieved December 16, 2013.
  11. The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study.
  12. "Sticks nix hick pix: Not interested in farm drama". Variety. July 17, 1935.
  13. 1957 film re-make: website. Retrieved on January 15, 2008.