The Barretts of Wimpole Street is an artistic cinematic translation of the Katherine Cornell stage success [by Rudolf Besier].
As a film it’s slow. Very. The first hour is wandering, planting-the-plot stuff that has some difficulty cementing the interest, but in the final stretch it grips and holds. It’s talky throughout – truly an actor’s picture, with long speeches, verbose philosophical observations.
The romance between Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) and Robert Browning (Fredric March) is a beautiful exposition in its ethereal and physically rehabilitating effect on the ailing Barrett. The unnatural love of Papa Barrett is graphically depicted by Charles Laughton, as the psychopathic, hateful character whose twisted affections for his children especially daughter Elizabeth, almost proves her physical and spiritual undoing.
Not the least of the many good performances is the nifty chore turned in by Marion Clayton as the lisping Bella Hadley. Maureen O’Sullivan, Katherine Alexander, Una O’Connor (exceptional as the mincing Wilson, the maid) and Ralph Forbes all register in a long but not too involved cast which director Sidney Franklin has at all times kept well in hand and never permitted to become confusing.
The confining locale of London’s Wimpole Street in 1845 limits the action to the interior of the Barretts’ home, but the general persuasiveness of all the histrionics achieves much in offsetting the lack of physical action.
March’s bravado style is well suited to the role of the ardent Browning, the poet. Shearer is at all times sincerely compelling in her role, even in the bedridden portions.
1934: Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Norma Shearer)