“The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (1934) does two things very well. First, it (or rather Rudolf Besier’s stage play which it closely follows) relates the biography of a famous person by using a few precise and intimate scenes to illustrate the scope, if not every minute detail, of a person’s life. We learn a lot about poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her family, her husband poet Robert Browning, and the times in which she lives with just a few simple strokes of evocative dialogue and tightly structured scenes.
She is a poet of some fame in her London literary circle, enough to be admired by fellow poet Robert Browning. She is an invalid of many years, the prisoner in her father’s house not only of her illness, but of her father. His obsessive love for her, as well as his complete disdain and even hatred for his many other grown children, keeps them all his prisoners. The bullied brothers are financially dependent on their father. The three sisters, being female, are utterly without hope of ever leaving their father’s home except by marriage, and Mr. Barrett has forbidden any of his children to marry. We learn a great deal about their dysfunctional family and the age in which they live, and the rules they are forced to live by just with some elegantly written scenes. We do not need any long drawn out explanations or cinema flashbacks. We are told enough to be able to guess the rest.
The second thing this film does well is tell the story almost as if we are seeing the actual stage play. Much of the action is shot in Elizabeth’s study. Director Sidney Franklin has resisted the typical Hollywood impulse to pull out all the stops and show all the tricks the film industry has up its sleeve. When plays are brought to film, this often is the case and it tends to ruin the intimacy and intensity that made a good play so good to being with; an inside story can be changed for the worse by taking it outside, filling it with flashbacks and cityscapes, crowd scenes and all the devices that make film different from theatre.
The story is compelling, though I don’t believe has been remade since Franklin himself directed an almost exact replica in 1957 in color. A doctor who visits Elizabeth Barrett, played wonderfully by Norma Shearer in the 1934 version, decides that “The will to live is better than a hundred physicians.” She has long ago lost her will to live under the tyranny in the guise of the obsessive love of her father. The stage play delineates the incestuous nature of his possessive attitude towards his daughter Elizabeth more boldly than the film is able to under the Code at that time, but by the end of the film we have understood that when Robert Browning enters the picture, we are seeing the jealousy played of a romantic triangle.
It is also interesting how Elizabeth is at a loss to explain to Robert the reasons for her dysfunctional family’s issues, and she overcompensates for them. She is embarrassed and tries to keep Robert away. Her reaction is the same as any modern woman would express who might be hiding an abusive relationship, shielding an alcoholic parent or spouse, avoiding discussion of a childhood trauma. The characters’ problems and feelings are modern, though their setting is not.
The setting is portrayed very well, with excellently researched costumes, hair styles, and sets, probably again because the stage play is being used as a template. Fredric March, Norma Shearer, and Charles Laughton who plays the bullying and manipulative Edward Moulton-Barrett likewise come off as authentic and believable in their roles. This is a Hollywood film that keeps these performances and this story as intense as the stage play perhaps by respecting the environment of the stage in its ability, its very necessity to focus in on the small things to tell a big story.
That’s all for this week. See you Monday.