Wednesday 5 November 2008

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

A year after The Private Life of Henry VIII, Charles Laughton was established in Hollywood with an Oscar under his belt. MGM consequently cast him in a series of films playing other real people of historic importance, most notably Rembrandt van Rijn, Captain William Bligh of the Bounty and the Emperor Claudius. Here he's Edward Moulton-Barrett, the patriarch of the Barrett family that included Victorian England's favourite poetess, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He's completely believable as the stern and principled father of twelve who abhors the slightest dissent from his wishes by any of them, even though Laughton was a mere three years older than Norma Shearer, who plays Elizabeth.

She's very much the focus here, regardless of how the title might suggest that other Barretts might get much of a look in and how you might expect a cast of this calibre to be granted plenty of opportunity for scene stealing by all and sundry. At this point in her life, starting in 1845, she's already a published poetess and a long term invalid, effectively exiled by her father to her room, where he does all he can to aid her recovery, according to his own emphatic beliefs of course. He brings her the best doctors, but often ignores their advice; he refuses to allow more than three of her siblings into her room at any one time; he prescribes tankards of porter which she despises and expects her to drink them out of love not fear. In seeking the best for her, of course, he denies her all that is best.

Shearer is very good as Elizabeth Barrett, however much we want to strangle her character. She was one of the greatest poets of the age, bright and intelligent and educated in the classics to a degree that would scare the socks off any student today, reading as a teen the major Latin and Greek works in their original languages along with the entire Old Testament in Hebrew. Yet here she seems afraid to actually live, resisting all the many opportunities she receives while using her father's intransigence and her undefined illness as a perennial excuse.

Then into her life like a tornado comes Robert Browning, a poet himself, who has fallen emphatically in love with her through her poems and her correspondence and so invites himself to her house to meet her, whereupon he continues to romance her and to continually propose marriage, even though he knows that she's forbidden to marry anyone. Browning is played by Fredric March and his earnest emphasis is palpable. In fact all three of the leads are excellent and were each worthy of the Oscar nomination that Shearer received.

Every time I read anything about Norma Shearer, there's an inevitable mention that she was married to MGM's wunderkind Irving Thalberg and therefore had everyone's attention for reasons well beyond her own talent. Yet she was still a very good actress who gave a number of very good performances. Here it's most obvious in the scenes in which she finally finds the courage to follow her heart, finding her way out of a land of entrenched excuses to freedom at cost.

March is a fine foil for her. March was one of the greatest actors of the day, one who is unfortunately frequently overlooked today, and he shines in a role that has him hogtied from moment one. He's a man in love with someone who loves him back and he can see with a poet's insight the joyous future that they could have, but he's continually and consistently rebuffed. 'I shall always remain an invalid,' she says, declining his proposals yet again. And it isn't because of her, of course, it's because of her father and because of her illness.

And then there's Laughton. Hogtied himself in a role which called mostly for stubborn intransigence, Laughton spends almost the entire film literally standing still, resolute against the world and its temptations, the inherent immobility of the character making it difficult to actually portray the emotions that an actor needs to do. Laughton is restricted to acting with his face and voice, along with some very subtle body movements, all of which makes his success even more admirable. He's a picture of suppressed rage and frustration, feared and obeyed, and in the hands of a lesser actor it would have been a one dimensional portrait. In Laughton's hands we see his own torment and how he projects it outwards to those around him.

I mentioned a talented cast. If Shearer, March and Laughton aren't enough for you, there are a slew of excellent character actors in tow. Most obvious is Maureen O'Sullivan as Henrietta, the wildest of the Barretts, another young lady who wants to get married but can't because of her father, but they keep on coming. Ian Wolfe is truly and embarrassingly scary as cousin Bella's fiance, but only as called to be by the part. Cousin Bella is Marion Clayton, who is almost as embarrassingly scary herself. Una O'Connor is a wonderful maid for Elizabeth, so at home in the hoop skirt that she glides across the floor like a dalek, showing everyone else up as clumsy. Leo G Carroll, credited without the G, is one of Elizabeth's doctors. Then there's Katharine Alexander and Ralph Forbes and more.

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