“You’re everything in the world to me; you know that. Without you, I should be quite alone.”
Bed-ridden poet Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) and her sister Henrietta (Margaret O’Sullivan) fight against the wishes of their tyrannically possessive father (Charles Laughton) in pursuing romance with their suitors — poet Robert Browning (Fredric March) and a soldier (Ralph Forbes).
The Barretts of Wimpole Street — based upon a 1930 play about the romance between poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning — is probably best remembered these days as one of the 12 films nominated for Best Picture of the Year in 1934. It also provided Norma Shearer with one of her six Best Actress nominations, and she herself remains the primary reason to check it out: despite playing a put-upon “cripple” facing seemingly insurmountable odds in her quest for health and romance (a situation absolutely ripe for potentially cloying melodrama), Shearer’s performance is never less than fully nuanced and authentically sympathetic. The film itself (directed by Sidney Franklin, who also helmed a nearly identical remake in the 1950s with Jennifer Jones) is overly stagy but provides a surprisingly creepy depiction of parental favoritism and warped paternal despotism. Despite being just a few years older than Shearer in real life, Laughton convincingly plays her emotionally incestuous father — a man determined to keep his beloved daughter permanently by his side, and deny her any chance at romantic happiness; however, Laughton is so naturally adept at playing a creepy baddy that one can’t help wishing for an even more nuanced interpretation on his part. Meanwhile, March is suitably bold (if undistinguished) as Browning; he apparently regretted not doing even more with this role.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
- A creepy look at an emotionally incestuous father-daughter relationship
- William Daniels’ atmospheric cinematography
Yes, simply for Shearer’s lovely performance. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.