Tuesday, May 08, 2012


The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957)

This film is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating entries over there.

Passionate love and scintillating verse dominated the twenty-month courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett that eventually culminated in marriage on September 12, 1846, at Marylebone Church in London. The renowned English poets, described as the “most romantic literary couple from the Victorian era,” exchanged hundreds of letters affirming and reaffirming their mutual love and friendship.

“I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett — I do, as I say, love these verses with all my heart,” Robert, the more expressive of the two, wrote after he read Elizabeth’s poems for the first time.

It wasn’t long before he fell in love with Elizabeth and expressed his feelings for her in nearly all his letters.

In one letter, written on December 27, 1845, Robert declares, “For ever and for ever I do love you, dearest — love you with my whole heart — in life, in death.”

Then, on February 23, 1846, a few months before they were married, he gushes, “Bless you, my sweetest. I love you with my whole heart; ever shall love you.” 

Elizabeth, the eldest of the nine Barrett children, reciprocated his love both during their affair and after their marriage. In August 1851, five years after they tied the knot, Elizabeth wrote to her old friend Mrs. Martin:

“So far from regretting my marriage, it has made the happiness and honour of my life; and every unkindness received from my own house makes me press nearer to the tenderest and noblest of human hearts proved by the uninterrupted devotion of nearly five years. Husband, lover, nurse — not one of these, has Robert been to me, but all three together. I neither regret my marriage, therefore, nor the manner of it, because the manner of it was a necessity of the act. I thought so at the time, I think so now; and I believe that the world in general will decide (if the world is to be really appealed to) that my opinion upon this subject (after five years) is worth more.”

Her words “every unkindness received from my own house…” are particularly significant for Elizabeth is alluding to a long life of tyranny under her widowed father, whose possessiveness of his eldest daughter bordered on incest. Elizabeth, therefore, felt deeply indebted to Robert for saving her life — by marrying her when she was ill and whisking her off to Italy where they lived for fifteen years before she died in his arms on June 29, 1861.

It is the tyranny of her father on one hand and the devotion of her lover on the other that is at the core of The Barretts of Wimpole Street made by Sidney Franklin in 1957. This colour film is apparently a scene-by-scene replica of the black-and-white version directed by Franklin in 1934.

John Gielgud and Jennifer Jones in a tense scene.

In the original edition, Charles Laughton plays Edward Moulton-Barrett, the father, a role that is tailor-made for John Gielgud in the latter version. While Norma Shearer and Fredric March act as Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in the 1934 film, they are replaced by Jennifer Jones and Bill Travers in the 1957 offering.

I cannot compare the two versions as I haven’t seen the first.

Had there been a 2012 version, however, I’d have liked to see either Colin Firth or Johnny Depp as Robert Browning, Winona Ryder as Elizabeth Barrett, and Gene Hackman, provided he is still acting at the age of eighty, as Barrett Senior (I can picture him gritting his teeth, grabbing Elizabeth by her arm and pulling her roughly to him). But this is neither here nor there.

Bill Travers and Jennifer Jones take their vows.

The wonderful John Gielgud is terrific as Edward Moulton-Barrett, the widower, as he goes around the Wimpole household terrorising his adult children who are not allowed to have affairs or marry without his consent.

Elizabeth (Jennifer Jones), known by her nickname Ba, gets the brunt of her father’s insane behaviour — he is more possessive of her than his other children and confines her to a room most of the time, with only her beloved dog Flush and her maid Wilson (Jean Anderson) as her faithful companions. Elizabeth loves her father and does what he says, partly out of fear and partly because she thinks he knows best. After all, he is her “Papah” and she is quite ill, with rheumatic fever, it would seem; a fact Barrett keeps reminding her if only to ensure she does not move out of his sight.

Enter Robert Browning (Bill Travers), the dashing poet with long sideburns, and Father Barrett’s questionable conduct is at once exposed. Having prohibited his other daughter Henrietta Barrett (Virginia McKenna) from seeing Captain Surtees Cook (Vernon Gray), he turns his amorous attention to Elizabeth. In one scene — in fact, the scene of the movie — he grabs hold of his daughter, pulls her towards him and tries to embrace her in a very non-parental way, and castigates her for bringing another man into her life.

Elizabeth is shocked beyond belief and agrees to marry Robert and elope with him to Italy with her dog, Flush, and maid Wilson. The film ends on a happy note, though, in real life Edward Moulton-Barrett disowned his daughter while her brothers refused to accept Robert because he was from a lower class.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street, originally based on a play written by Rudolf Besier in 1930, is more about the Robert Browning-Elizabeth Barrett romance and the fight for one’s happiness and less about a widowed father who is almost insane with jealousy over his daughter.


  1. Probably one I should watch but I'm afraid I've never seen it.

  2. Great choice Prashant and a great reminder of a flm I had certainly discarded from my forebrain - it has been decades since I saw this one (dubbed into Italian and panned and scanned too). Unfortunately it doesn't appear to be very easy to get hold of, which is a real shame. Interesting to note that over 20 years apart director Sidney Franklin returned to the same material - I hadn;t noticed that it was the same director!

  3. A delightful movie. And one I also haven't seen in years.

  4. Charles, I wouldn't have watched this film had I not been surfing channels and caught it on TCM. A fine movie.

  5. Thanks, Sergio! It's a very well-made film with just the right scale of emotion by the leading cast. John Gielgud is formidable on screen. You do, however, wonder why none of the grown-up children oppose him but then it's a period film and one based on a fairly true story. Elizabeth and her sister Henrietta stand up to their despotic father but, clearly, it's not enough till Liz elopes. Sidney Franklin has duplicated at least one other film he made but I can't recall. He was probably experimenting.

  6. Patti, it certainly is a delightful movie and I am hoping I can see the black-and-white version soon. It should be fun watching Charles Laughton, the versatile Fredric March, and Norma Shearer in the same roles.

  7. Thanks for your wonderful write-up. I would watch Gielgud read the telephone book; he was so good on screen. But, alas, I've not seen this film.

  8. Ron, thanks for your kind words. Gielgud had a powerful screen presence, no doubt. Funny thing is though I have seen many of his films, I don't remember any of the titles. I guess character actors like Gielgud play their roles and quietly move on but not without leaving a mark.

  9. This a great old movie-consider reading Flush, Virginia Woolf's fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog

  10. Mel, I enjoyed this film. I didn't know Virginia Woolf had written a fictional biography of Flush. That's really interesting. Thanks for bringing it to my notice. I'll check it out.