I was first drawn to The Barretts of Wimpole Street because the stage version starring Katharine Cornell and Brian Aherne (pictured at left) is on my ever-growing list of time machine plays, that if I ever get access to a TARDIS, I'll be sure to go back and watch. Written in 1930 by Rudolpf Besier, the original Broadway production ran for more than 300 performances at the Empire theater. That run was followed by a highly successful cross-country tour and then a world tour that took Aherne to far-flung places like the Australian outback about which he writes charmingly in his autobiography A Proper Job. I was intrigued by the story although, the film version stars Norma Shearer and Fredric March, (as if they were a pair to sneeze at!)
It's not often that a movie is made about one writer let alone two. Writing usually just isn't exciting enough as an activity to be the subject of a movie. And writer's lives, while they have their moments of drama, tend to be about observation more than experience. Fictional writers of the ilk of Carrie Bradshaw abound, but it's really pretty rare that a real life author is the subject of a film. The most we usually get on film is an actor portraying Sommerset Maughm appearing as a rye character in an adaptation of one his books. Occasionally a biopic about a writer, like say Becoming Jane about Jane Austen, will make it into the mainstream, but it is unusual if it is faithful to reality in any way. But Barretts is truly rare in that it focuses on the lives of two writers and it is not wildly off the mark. The story revolves around Barrett's father who was steadfastly opposed to any marriage by any of his children and the hiding in plain site courtship that she carried on with admirer and fellow-poet Robert Browning. It is based loosely on the mass of correspondence between the two famous poets from 1945 until their elopement in 1946. Much of the dialog in the film is quoted from or paraphrased from the letters. This makes for a slightly artificial and odd way of communicating, since in real life, people don't speak as they would write. The work succeeded despite this stagey quality and despite the fact that the problems of two rich neurotic thirty year old virgins couldn't have had much appeal to people facing life in America in the early 1930s.
Or could it?
I've been trying to work out what it was in the play that resonated with audiences in the grip of the Depression. At first I thought that it was just escapist fantasy, yearning for a time and place where money problems seems simply to not exist. In reality of course, money was an issue. Robert Browning was a poor poet who managed on a very small income from his father. If Elizabeth Barrett Browning had not had her own small income, free from the machinations of her father, there would be no possible elopement and no drama. The couple had a mutual friend the painter, Robert Haydon, who committed suicide as a result of a huge financial loss. But the movie simplifies even further what the play barely mentions.
Escapism alone can not explain the popularity of the play and film. The play focuses instead on the father's opposition to marriage, implying rather strongly that he was a rapist, molester and that incestous feelings were behind his strange and vehement opposition to his daughters marrying. In real life Edward Mouton Barrett was opposed to all of his 12 children marrying and disinherited the boys and girls who disobeyed him. In some of Elizabeth's letters there are hints of physical abuse, but no explicit examples are ever named. The application of modern psychology to Mr. Barrett's strange attitudes (Elizabeth describes them as "eccentricity and something more") was probably appealing to 1930s audiences as well as the lurid subject matter. Most appealing of all, was probably the theme of breaking away from one's extended family and focusing on creating a new, separate "nuclear" family. Demographically many Americans were in this boat. The Depression caused many families to stay together perhaps longer than the young people could wish as marriages were happening later, etc. My own grandparents were forced to move back in with my great-grand parents, with not always harmonious results.
As for the production of the film, it was first promised to Marion Davies. After a battle royale with Norma Shearer, the role was reassigned and the kerflufle that followed led to Davies, and the substantial bank roll behind William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan pictures, leaving MGM. As a result Hearst papers refused to review the film, which probably hurt its box office a bit. Not wanting anything to do with this hornet's nest of studio politics, Brian Aherne ran a mile from the part. The role fell to a somewhat unhappy Fredric March who complained that director, Sydney Franklin was so focused on Shearer that he allowed him to get away with the worst excesses of hamish acting. Not only does this seem like unfair criticism (it's the director's fault that you can't control your hamish instincts?) it is just plain wrong. March is actually quite wonderful and perfectly suited to the part. In real life, Robert Browning was an intense dude. This was a man who had major life crisis in his twenties because he read a poem by Percy B. Shelley. He wildly declared his love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning in his first letter to her and then spent the next 16 months trying to prove his feelings were not mere fanboy gushing. He could be overly enthusiastic (friends described him as loud-mouthed), impetuous and even unreasonably optimistic. Had he not been all these things as well as a cracking great poet he never would have gotten Elizabeth Barrett Browning to marry him.
Norma Shearer is equally well-suited, though it is not what we typically think of as a Shearer material. I think this film is often neglected by Shearer fans, because it was technically post-code. While some of the references to incest were toned down from the play, these changes were actually very minor and the film stands as one of her edgiest and most powerful performances. While Norma is emotionally restrained and subtle, she really sells the idea that is a woman battling for her life and independence, standing up to a tyrannical, even dangerous father. In one of her letters to Robert Browning, Elizabeth declares that her father would rather see her dead on his doorstep than married. I don't know how anyone could watch the last ten minutes of the film and not hum "I am woman here me roar" to themselves while Norma, with the help of her maid, Wilson (Una O'Connor) gains the strength to pick up and leave her oppressive environment for the man she loves. Franklin gives her a gorgeous close-up as she surveys for a final time the room where she's spent most of her adult life. It's powerful stuff and it hasn't been diluted a bit by the intervening seven decades since it was shot.
The unacknowledged star of the show is Charles Laughton who is at his scary best as the bullying, manipulative father. "They can't censor the twinkle in my eye" he famously groused when producers had to tone down some of his more overtly sexual moments. In a scene where his niece sits in his lap and fondles his whiskers, the stage directions for the play insist that he slaps her roughly on the thigh while she squeals in delight. This is really the only purge I can find in his scenes, which survive almost verbatim from the stage version of the script. Laughton is aided by the wonderful Maureen O'Sullivan who plays Elizabeth's lively sister Henrietta. O'Sullivan gets a great scene at the end where she relishes delivering Elizabeth's good-bye letter to their father and one very funny scene early on between she and a tongue-tied suitor whom she continually admonishes not to speak before he can get a word out to her. I'm pretty sure Woody Allen ripped off the whole concept for a similar scene in Bullets over Broadway. This sparkling bit of nonsense was invented by screenwriter Ernest Vajda for the film as comic relief.
I've spent most of the intervening ten days since I first watched the film reading everything I could get my hands on about the two poets who are subject of the film, including a volume of their letters, the script of the play, Barrett-Browning's volume of poetry written during their courtship, Sonnetts from the Portugese, and a feminist biography of her life, which dismisses the film as reducing her to a cheerful invalid who has to be rescued by a man. The problem with this assessment is the same one that haunts Barrets of Wimpole Street. When you add a layer of contemporary expectations to something that happened in the past you are really just twisting it to your own ends. We may never really understand the tortured relationship between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father. It is probably certain that it was not as dysfunctional as what appeared on stage or screen in the 1930s. I am equally certain that this film was not intended to be a weak-kneed reinforcement of Barrett-Browning as a cheerful invalid. Of all the films in which I've seen Shearer since starting this blog, I liked The Barretts of Wimpole Street the best. I think it deserves a second look from fans as it may be the height of her achievement as a barrier- breaker for the way in which women were depicted in film.
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