Things have been a bit slow around here on the blog. Life got a bit hectic in the last two months and so I didn’t have the time that I wanted to watch movies to blog about. But hopefully things will be getting back to normal now and so I have returned with a film from the Warner Archive about the courtship of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, as well as the Barrett family and their patriarch.
In the home of Edward Barrett (Charles Laughton), the doctor has come to visit the eldest daughter. Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) has been ill for many years and standing, let alone walking, is very difficult and painful. Despite her misgivings, Elizabeth’s doctor assures her that full recovery is possible if only she has the will to make it so. Elizabeth has no outlet aside from her beautiful and brilliant poetry, which is often published, and her many siblings. In particular she enjoys spending time with her sister Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan) but their fun is cut short by the disapproval and tyrannical behavior of their father. Edward Barrett wastes no time in telling Elizabeth that her doctor is mistaken and that she is still very ill, in fact she may very well be close to death. He even defies the doctors orders in his almost perverse attempt to keep her confined to her rooms. He demands strict obedience from all his children and has forbidden any of his children from marrying.
In spite of her father’s wishes, or perhaps in part because of them, Henrietta continues to see a friend of her brothers named Surtees Cook (Ralph Forbes). The two secretly see each other and love begins to blossom. Surtees has a promising career in the military and wants to marry Henrietta. She loves him and wishes to be his wife but refuses him due to her father’s iron rule, as she can see no way around it. It is Elizabeth who encourages her to do whatever she can in order to be happy. It is soon after, during a snowstorm, that Elizabeth Barrett meets Robert Browning (Fredric March). A fellow poet, Robert Browning is quite famous throughout London and has fallen in love with Elizabeth over several months of reading her poetry. Deciding that he must meet her, he arrives in a swirl of life and snow and changes everything. He declares his admiration for her and Elizabeth responds by telling him that she could die at any moment. He responds by laughing this off and encouraging her to seize the day and live her life fully. As he takes his leave, Elizabeth stands and makes her way unsteadily to the window for the first time in years just to see him once more.
Months pass and Elizabeth blossoms. She becomes stronger and healthier with each passing day, her new found lust for life astounding her doctors and worrying her father. For his part, Edward continues to admonish his daughter against becoming too adventurous and warns her that another relapse may be close at hand. Elizabeth’s doctors propose a trip to Italy in order to aid in her recovery and Robert is more than happy to support this plan. In fact, he had plans to go to Italy himself at just about the same time. He comes to call on Elizabeth and in her joy, she walks down the stairs to greet him surprising everyone. Of course, her father not only squashes her plans to go to Italy but also her new found spirit and carries her back upstairs. Some time later, the Barrett’s chatty cousin Bella has come to visit Elizabeth. When she hears that Elizabeth is not going to Italy she resolves to convince her uncle Edward to allow it because she firmly believes that she can talk any man into anything. She goes downstairs to prove this point when Henrietta announces that Robert Browning has come to visit Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Robert declare their love for each other but Elizabeth still fears her father finding anything out about Robert’s and her relationship. Downstairs meanwhile, Bella has just spilled the beans that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett are rather more than good friends just as Edward Barrett was beginning to consider the trip to Italy. Instead, he begins to plot a trip of his own for Elizabeth…one that will take her far away from Robert Browning.
THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET made me think of THE HEIRESS…if the father in THE HEIRESS was just ever so slightly, oh what’s the word, insane. Based on the famous 1930 play of the same name, THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET omitted most of the references to Edward Barrett’s sexually aggressive behavior towards his children, which was a large part of the play but which has no basis in historical record. The real Edward Barrett did have a strange habit of disinheriting any of his children who married, but that is as far as it went as far as documentation is concerned. In the play, Edward has rather incestuous intentions towards his daughters with special attention lavished on Elizabeth. In the film however, there is only vague reference to this with a great deal of euphemisms used to imply that Edward is a sex addict who not only has designs on his daughters, but also had many child with his late wife as a result of marital rape. Yeah. Of the script changes, Charles Laughton said “They can censor it all they like, but they can’t censor the gleam out of my eye”. Watching the film you definitely get the sense that all is not quite right in the Barrett household and this unease only increases as the story progresses. I started off watching this and thinking it was a perfectly fine historical romance and about halfway through things started taking a turn that made it something more.
This is really Norma Shearer’s movie. She has to carry the entire story and much of it while sitting on a couch, unable to move about freely, in the same set-piece for most of the film. Even when she is offscreen her presence is still felt, just waiting until she appears again. I think that too often Norma Shearer gets pegged as either “The Divorcee”, “The Woman from THE WOMEN”, or “Mrs. Irving Thalberg”. Well, yes she was all of these but she was also a really good actress who could do more than put on a slinky gown and be charming. She could also be quiet, emotional, and dramatic. She could be intelligent, witty, and strong. She does a wonderful job as Elizabeth Barrett and it isn’t until the credits roll that you remember that she isn’t. I will admit that at first I felt like I was watching Norma Shearer in a costume but after some time I forgot all that and only saw Elizabeth.
THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET was definitely different than I thought it would be. More than a romance based in history and more than a historical saga with a love story, this is a film that tells of a love and of a darkness that came about when Robert Browning met Elizabeth Barrett.