The Barretts of Wimpole Street is one of the finest play-to-film adaptations of the 1930s. Although its script, photography, and direction are all first-rate, it is still the grand performances that make this film appealing even today. The above-the-title trio had all won Academy Awards in the two or three years prior, and demonstrate their supreme thespian abilities in their roles. Towering above all is Norma Shearer, as bedridden invalid Elizabeth "Ba" Barrett. Although she speaks the lines in that sophisticated voice of hers, the scenes that strike the viewer greatest are ironically those without dialog at all. Take for example the scene immediately following her first visit with Browning. After he leaves her bedroom, the invalid struggles to her feet, and in one take, tries with all her heart to get over to the window so she can see him once more, leaving. In another scene, set a few months later, she is informed that Mr. Browning has come to visit her. Again, overcoming her bedridden state, she not only gets up, but also decides to go to see him downstairs instead of having him come up. Her eyes and hands express so much, and as she descends (without much dialog), her whole self-sense seem to elevate. Only a short while later, however, her domineering father orders her back upstairs. He wishes to carry her, but she insists on walking. In a magnificent William Daniels close-up, the camera stays on her face as her father tells her off camera that she will not succeed. Shearer's genius here lies in the change of facial expressions, as her reactions to her father's criticisms finally take their toll and she collapses. Quite simply, its another of Norma Shearer's brilliant characterizations, and one of the most different roles the actress ever played. March, second-billed as Browning, is a little histrionic. He gave a better performance opposite Shearer in 1932's Smilin' Through, but his performance here does not detract from the film, and his forcefulness seems strangely potent at times. As the glowering father, Laughton is amazing. The infamous "gleam" in his eye is there in many scenes, and when he carries his daughter up the stairs, its almost perverted (albeit brilliant). Maureen O'Sullavan is phenomenal as Elizabeth's young-and-in-love, rebellious sister, and Una O'Connor is in great form as her graceful maid.
A feast for fine acting, The Barretts of Wimpole Street is one of the most appealing of all costume dramas of Hollywood's golden age. It still stands (as it shall for many years to come) as a lasting tribute to two larger-than-life literary icons.
****point of interest****in 1957, Barretts was admirably remade by the same director (Sidney Franklin) at M-G-M (as was this version). Although not nearly as good as the original, fine performances from Jennifer Jones (Elizabeth) and John Gielgud (Papa Barrett) again captured on film Rudolph Besier's classic roles.
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