Wednesday, February 28, 2018


Poets inspire TCMs daytime lineup on Wednesday, March 21st.

Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861) and Robert Browning (1812-1889) lived lives of extraordinary creativity and literary success. Their work has inspired poetry in others, and scholarly study.

In 1931 the Brownings were the inspiration for Rudolf Bessier's most successful play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. That success came when Katherine Cornell produced and starred on Broadway opposite Brian Aherne in the play. Elizabeth Barrett Browning became a signature role for the star, and she and Aherne revived the play often.

The 1934 film version was given MGMs best treatment with the play adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart (Holiday), Claudine West (Random Harvest) and Ernest Vajda (The Guardsman), and directed by Sidney Franklin (Private Lives). William H. Daniels (Romeo and Juliet) was the cinematographer and Adrian (Marie Antoinette) designed the glorious gowns.

When it came to casting, only the best and top stars would do for the production. Norma Shearer had won the Oscar for The Divorcee, and the role of Elizabeth Barrett Browning would number among her five other nominations. Fredric March had won the Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and would win again for The Best Years of Our Lives, with five nominations overall. Shearer and March had recently starred in the successful romantic melodrama Smilin' Through. Charles Laughton had won the Oscar for The Private Lives of Henry VIII and would be nominated twice more in his film career.

Edward Moulton-Barrett views his family as his personal fiefdom. None of his nine adult children  (twelve in reality) are allowed to marry. All are under his sway, and years of being browbeaten by a tyrant have made them slaves to Pa's will.

Eldest daughter Elizabeth has become a successful poet although plagued by illness and a spinal injury. Her status in the household as an invalid is perpetuated by the treatment of her overbearing father. She is his favourite and it is not a healthy relationship.

The tyranny under which the Barretts of Wimpole Street live will break during the course of the play. Also a successful writer, Robert Browning has reached out to Elizabeth with his heart and patiently waits for her to find the strength to respond in kind. His joy and positivity open Elizabeth's eyes to her desire to live a fuller life, away from the stifling influence of her father. 

The studio assembled a fine cast to support the three leading players, Maureen O'Sullivan, Una O'Connor, and Leo G. Carroll among them. Marion Clayton and Ian Wolfe are amusing as a flirty cousin with a speech impediment and her fiance. Ralph Forbes is a lovesick soldier smitten with Maureen as the youngest sister.

I love the opportunity to see the famous plays of earlier days, both in new interpretations and filmed closer to the time of their original productions. I read this play long before I ever saw this film. The language is, at times, quite fulsome which befits the poetic minds of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. The sincerity of the actors is important in the emotional reality they convey.

The character of Edward is another of Laughton's great villain portrayals. His admission to Elizabeth near the finale is shocking, as is his plan for a final revenge when his authority is tested. The following movie season Laughton's Inspector Javert will pursue Fredric March as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Take that Robert Browning!

Whether you're a fan of greeting card verses, the subject of the early morning screening of Three Men on a Horse, or your own poetic endeavours lead to A Fine Madness, a late afternoon screening; consider the fine films on TCM on Wednesday, March 21st, especially the Best Picture and Best Actress nominated The Barretts of Wimpole Street at 10:30 a.m.


  1. A great movie, and my preferred version, though the later Jennifer Jones remake attempts to follow it pretty closely.

    1. Learning you are a fan of this film made me wonder if I had missed your article on its greatness. Indeed, back in 2007 I was only considering entering the blogging world, and had a lot of reading to catch up on.

      I appreciated your comments on the filming of a play, and I couldn't agree more.

      I often wonder about the directors who return to an earlier project, and didn't realize Franklin's Wimpole Street could be added to that list. I haven't seen the 1957 film, and now am quite curious.

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