Film / The Barretts of Wimpole Street

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Charles Laughton explores Evil Is Hammy

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a 1934 film directed by Sidney Franklin, dramatizing the Real Life courtship and marriage of Victorian Britain poets Elizabeth Barrett (Sonnets from the Portuguese) and Robert Browning.

In 1845 Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer), then 35 years old, is a well-known poet. She is also an invalid and a shut-in, who has not left her room in years and hardly ever even stands on her feet. It quickly becomes apparent that "Ba" is not quite as much of an invalid as she's made out to be, and in fact has been semi-imprisoned by her cold, domineering father Edward Moulton-Barrett (Charles Laughton). Ba, who is already rebelling against her father's dictatorial control, has even more reason to rebel when admirer and fellow poet Robert Browning (Fredric March) pays a social call, and declares his love for her.

Based on a stage play that starred famous stage actress Katharine Cornell. Cornell declined an offer to star in this film, and in fact never appeared in any film except for a cameo As Herself in Stage Door Canteen.

A remake, again directed by Sidney Franklin and starring Jennifer Jones and John Gielgud, was released in 1957.


Tropes:

  • And Your Little Dog, Too!: At the end, having been informed that Elizabeth has left home forever, Edward goes into Villainous B.S.O.D. for a minute. Then he snaps out of it, saying "Yes...I'll have her dog." He turns to one of his sons and orders for Elizabeth's dog to be destroyed, only for a triumphant Henrietta to tell him that Ba took the dog with her.
  • As Himself: Flush the dog gets this credit.
  • Based on a True Story: Edward Moulton-Barrett might or might not have been a deeply disturbed Covert Pervert as the film suggests, but he did oppose the courtship of Elizabeth and Robert, and he did disinherit her after she got married, and did so for all his children who got married. The film fails to mention that Elizabeth's brothers were also against her marriage, and shunned Robert Browning, believing him to be a Gold Digger.
  • Could Say It, But...: Part of Edward's passive-aggressive (but mostly aggressive) behavior towards Elizabeth.
    "I shall never in any way reproach you. You shall never know by deed or word or hint of mine how much you have grieved and wounded your father by refusing to do what he asked."
  • Elmuh Fudd Syndwome: Three years before the trope namer made his debut. In any case, Ba's incredibly irritating Cousin Bella talks this way. ("We're going to Pawis on our honeymoon! Then Wome!")
  • Expospeak: A conversation between Elizabeth and her doctor in the first scene neatly establishes that 1) Elizabeth is a published poet, 2) she is an invalid and a shut-in, and 3) Robert Browning has written her a fan letter.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: When the fantasy is something like, say, getting married, or even going outside.
  • Good-Looking Privates: Not a private, an officer, but—Capt. Cook is so handsome in his dress uniform that Henrietta insists he come in so Elizabeth can see him in all his Bling of War. This leads to an ugly confrontation when Edward returns unexpectedly and catches the three of them in Elizabeth's room.
  • Incest Subtext: It gradually becomes clear that Edward's fixation on his daughter is not about her health but about something far darker. After more or less admitting that he repeatedly raped his late wife (see Marital Rape License below), as well as commenting about how Sex Is Evil And He Is Horny, Edward embraces Elizabeth and starts saying some most un-fatherly things about how they have to be together forever. It's after this little talk that Elizabeth decides to get the hell out and go away with Robert. The studio demanded the Incest Subtext be toned down but Charles Laughton later said they couldn't tone down the "gleam" in his eye.
    "For the love of heaven, my darling, don't let this raise any further barrier between us....My darling, in our new home we shall draw close to each other again. Nothing and no one can come between us, my child, my darling."
  • It's All About Me: Edward's real reason for keeping Elizabeth in his home as a virtual prisoner. When all his hectoring about her health fails to dissuade Elizabeth from taking a trip to Italy, he falls back on guilt. He accuses her of abandoning him and leaving him alone—his eight other children not being sufficient companionship.
  • Love Before First Sight: Robert announces this at his first meeting with Elizabeth, saying he has already fallen in love with her through her poetry and her letters.
  • Marital Rape License: Edward, as part of his Villainous Breakdown at the end, strongly implies—at least as far as 1934 censorship allowed—that all of his children after Elizabeth, totaling eight, resulted from Edward raping his wife.
    "You my eldest child were born of love, only love. But the others, long before they came, love died out and fear took its place. Fear—and all because I saw the right and did it. Not that she ever opposed me, ever once."
  • Nice Hat: As befitting a very rich lady in Victorian England, Elizabeth wears one heck of a fancy hat on the rare occasions when she goes outside. Wide brim with a flower on top.
  • Overprotective Dad: Edward. He has essentially imprisoned his daughter, forcing her to drink porter beer that she loathes because the doctor says it's good for her, insisting that her curtains be closed, forbidding her from attempting to walk downstairs. And he acts this way with his other daughters, refusing to let Henrietta even see her suitor, Captain Cook of the British Army.
  • Pervert Dad: See Incest Subtext above.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Elizabeth finally lets Edward have it near the end, telling him that she sees he doesn't really love his family at all, and that he is a "shadow" over their lives.
  • Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: In his Villainous Breakdown, Edward more or less admits that his own unyielding grip on Elizabeth and Henrietta is driven by his own belief that sex is sinful, because it led to him raping his wife.
    "You know nothing of the brutal tyranny of the senses, and how even the strongest and best are driven by it to hell!"
  • Sexless Marriage: Apart from her father's tyranny, Elizabeth cites this as a reason to not marry Robert, saying that she can't provide him "passionate love" or children, due to her ill health. (In Real Life Elizabeth Barrett wound up delivering a son.)
  • Shrug of God: In-Universe. At their first meeting, Elizabeth asks Robert about a particularly obscure passage in one of his poems. Robert puzzles over it for a bit and then admits that he doesn't know what it means either.
  • Wedding Day: Ends with Elizabeth and Robert's marriage.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Edward's Villainous Breakdown starts hitting high gear when, after finding out about Henrietta and Capt. Cook, he grabs her arms and twists painfully, while demanding that she vow to give him up.
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