The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street
Fredric March and Norma Shearer

'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' is a romantic costume drama made in 1934, directed by Sidney Franklin and starring Norma Shearer, Fredric March and Charles Laughton. It was adapted from the play by Rudolf Besier which opened on Broadway in 1931 with Katherine Cornell in the role of Elizabeth Barrett. The movie was remade in 1957 by the same director, using virtually the identical script, and starring Jennifer Jones as Elizabeth and Bill Travers as Browning, although most people prefer the acting and realism of the earlier version.

The film was favorably received by the critics and was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award and Norma Shearer was nominated for the Best Actress Award (her fourth). In the year of 'It Happened One Night' which made a clean sweep of the major Awards, neither nomination was successful.

'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' is one of the finest stage to screen adaptations of the 1930's. It is first class entertainment with an excellent script, and first rate direction and photography. Above all there are many great performances which make this film appealing even today.


The movie is a fictionalised account of the real-life romance between two of England's best known nineteenth century poets, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrettt. Elizabeth has a brilliant mind but is an invalid. She and her siblings are tyrannised by their father who forbids them to marry. But when Elizabeth is courted by the young poet Robert Browning she defies her father's instructions.


The Rudolph Besier stage play of the same name was written in 1930 and became a big international hit the following year. Irving Thalberg, MGM's head of production, bought the rights in 1932 and persuaded his wife, Norma Shearer, to play the starring role of Elizabeth Barrett. Shearer was initially reluctant as she felt the role did not suit her modern image but soon changed her mind when William Randolph Hearst suggested his mistress, Marion Davies, for the role. Hearst was not a man to cross and, when Shearer was chosen for the part, he forbade any of his newspapers to review the film or even mention the name of Norma Shearer for several years.
Director and Cast
Sidney Franklin had worked with Norma Shearer on four films previously and was a comfortable choice for her. In the stage version of the play, the part of Robert Browning was played by English actor, Brian Aherne, but he turned the movie role down, not wanting to be tied to a long term studio contract. Fredric March had co-starred with Shearer in 1932's 'Smilin' Through which got him the Browning role. March later said that he felt that Franklin neglected his part in the film and paid too much attention to Shearer.
Charles Laughton had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1933 for his performance in 'The Private Life of Henry VIII' and he was the first choice of Irving Thalberg to play Edward Moulton-Barrett, the possessive father of Shearer's character. He was only three years older than Shearer but was happy to be aged with makeup and whiskers. He also successfully lost 50 pounds in weight for the role. The hints of incest in the play had to be toned down to get the movie past the censors. "But they can't censor the gleam in my eye," Laughton memorably told Thalberg.
1957 Remake
After the success of the film, the stage version made a brief return to Broadway but there was no cross casting between the two versions. The movie was remade in 1957, again directed by Sidney Franklin and starring Jennifer Jones, Bill Travers and John Gielgud. It was critically praised but is generally considered inferior to the 1934 original.

'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' is one of the finest stage to screen adaptations of the 1930's. It is fine entertainment with an excellent script, and first rate direction and photography. Above all there are many great performances which make this film appealing even today.

Main Cast

The leading cast members were all experienced and talented performers and helped to make the movie a major success. Norma Shearer really carries the film and gives one of her best performances as Elizabeth Barrett, aided by the artful camera work and helpful close ups of cinematographer, William Daniels. Shearer is well supported and complemented by Fredric March as a handsome and dashing Robert Browning. Charles Laughton, as Elizabeth''s possessive and dangerously jealous father (although in reality only 3 years older than Norma Shearer), is his usual formidable self and nearly steals the show. The supporting players, also, give strong performances, particularly Maureen O'Sullivan as the naive Henrietta, Elizabeth''s younger sister. Una O'Connor as Wilson, Elizabeth's loyal maid, and Marion Clayton Anderson as the scatterbrain cousin Bella.
Norma Shearer ... Elizabeth Barrett
Fredric March ... Robert Browning
Charles Laughton ... Edward Moulton-Barrett
Maureen O'Sullivan ... Henrietta Barrett
Katharine Alexander ... Arabel Barrett
Vernon Downing ... Octavius Barrett
Ralph Forbes ... Captain Surtees Cook
Marion Clayton ... Bella Hedley
Ian Wolfe ... Harry Bevan
Ferdinand Munier ... Dr Chambers
Una O'Connor ... Wilson
Leo G. Carroll ... Dr Waterlow
Norma Shearer (1902-83)
In the lead female role Norma gives one of her finest performances and really carries the film along. She was a Canadian actress who became one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1930's, known as the "first lady of MGM". She was nominated six times for the Academy Award for Best Actress, winning once, for her role in 'The Divorcee' in 1930.
Her career started in the silent era and she easily made the transition to Talkies, aided by her brother Douglas, who was Recording Director at MGM. Norma and Douglas were the first Oscar-winning brother and sister.
Fredric March(1897-1975)
Fredric March was an elegant, and talented stage and movie actor who appeared in over sixty movies, often as a romantic lead, over a long career of more than 40 years, starting just as Hollywood was changing from silent movies to Talkies. He had a classically trained voice and extreme good looks which suited him for a wide range of roles from light comedy to serious contemporary drama. He was nominated five times for the Best Actor Academy award and won twice, in 1932 for 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' and in 1946 for 'The Best Years of Our Lives'. His brilliant stage work was also critically acclaimed and he won two Tony Awards for Best Actor.
Charles Laughton(1899-1962)
Charles Laughton was a supremely talented stage and film actor born in England who became an American citizen in 1950. He began his career on the English stage but quickly saw the artistic possibilities of movies and in Hollywood he established a reputation for serious, high quality character acting in a number of classic films many of which are still popular today. Some of his larger than life characterisations of historical or literary figures such as Captain Bligh in 'Mutiny on the Bounty' and Quasimodo in 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' are regarded as acting masterworks.
As well as a brilliant actor he was also a screenwriter, producer and director. During his career he received three nominations for the Best Actor Academy Award and he won the Oscar once in 1933 for 'The Private Life of Henry VIII', the first English actor to win the award.
Maureen O'Sullivan(1911-98)
Maureen O'Sullivan was a fresh-faced beauty with flowing brunette locks, and an often bikini-clad curvaceous figure. In a long acting career of 64 years and comprising over 60 films,her best known role by far was as the heroine, Jane, in six of Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan films during the 1930's and early 1940's. She also became well known as the mother of Mia Farrow and so for a short time, the mother-in-law of Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen.
Una O'Connor (1880-1959)
Una was born in Belfast and worked for many years on the stage in Ireland and England. She became a highly successful supporting actress in Hollywood, appearing in such classics as 'Cavalcade' in 1933, Little Lord Fauntleroy' in 1936 and 'The Bells of St. Mary's' in 1945.


Director ... Sidney Franklin
Producer ... Irving Thalberg
Screenplay ... Ernest Vajda, Claudine West and Donald Ogden Stewart
Original Stage Play by ... Rudolph Besier
Music ... Herbert Stothart
Cinematography ... William H. Daniels
Distribution Company ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date ... September 21, 1934
Running time ... 110 minutes

Academy Awards

No Wins:
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Best Actress ... Norma Shearer