Someone needs to cut a trailer wherein The Barretts of Wimpole Street becomes a horror movie. It may detail the romantic tale of two famous writers finding love and happiness with each other, but, at its heart, it’s the tale of one woman’s desperate attempt to escape the clutches of her lecherous, incestuous father. The overbearing nature of the father/daughter storyline overshadows the romance so much I believe Elizabeth Barrett Browning would have married the first man who said “hi” to her.
Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) is a handicapped shut-in under the thumb of her tyrannical father, Edward (Charles Laughton). The Barrett children are forbidden to marry, but Elizabeth’s affection for the poet Robert Browning (Fredric March) threatens the family dynamics.
I was under the assumption this was a romanticization of the relationship between Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and Robert Browning. As an English major whose read works from both, I was intrigued to watch their romance unfold and how they aided each other in their writing; Elizabeth, especially, is important to the world of women writers. However, Robert Browning and his romance with Elizabeth takes a backseat. Let’s just say there’s a reason this is called The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Its been cited that the Production Code drastically attempted to cut down on the incesty tone, but Laughton famously said there was no way to remove “the gleam” in his character’s eye. Laughton is cold, callous, and sociopathic to the point of requesting one of Elizabeth’s brothers kill her dog upon discovering she’s left to get married. Laughton sucks up all the air, leaving nothing but dark thoughts and fright whenever he enters the room. Unfortunately, this deflates the love story between Elizabeth and Robert. How is this not Elizabeth’s attempt to escape being her father’s mock-wife?
The rest of the movie is dominated by conversations between characters, leaving the whole affair rather dry and dull. The script certainly provides enough to chew on through the beautiful exchanges between Elizabeth and Robert. March is lively, but lacks the passion of his character in Smilin’ Through, possibly because he’s a crutch for Elizabeth. There’s never a feeling this is his story alongside Shearer’s; he’s simply a means to an end. For her part, Shearer remains in “Serious Drama” mode, aided by a script which gives her grandiose platitudes to spout about being surrounded by death and finding life by Robert’s side. As Kathleen in Smilin’ Through there was a legitimacy to her romantic notions which sound hollow here, probably due to the pomposity and terror of Laughton’s machinations for Elizabeth.
This is Laughton’s picture and the sheer horror of his presence is what unsettles you. He’s the dark shadow perpetually hanging over the two lovers, leaving you to root for them by default. It’s certainly enough to keep you from second-guessing the weak plotline. Outside of Laughton’s love for Shearer’s character, the romance is thin and the relationships of the other characters is even thinner. I couldn’t find one explanation presented for what crippled Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. I had to use Wikipedia to find out she suffered from spinal issues and became addicted to laudanum. There’s a movie I’d watch! I was also confused by a sequence wherein at least six men come into Elizabeth’s room. Are they her brothers or was she REALLY popular with the gents? There is a side plot about Elizabeth’s sister, Henrietta (Maureen O’Sullivan) and her love with a young soldier. Considering the central romance of our titled characters Henrietta’s plot sounds exactly the same and seems to act as a means of someone going outside.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street isn’t as laconic and romantic as Smilin’ Through. I enjoyed Shearer and March in that far more than I did there characters here. Laughton’s character and acting are in fine form and worth watching, just watch this with horror movie glasses as opposed to romantic ones.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.