Essential: THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1957)
Sidney Franklin directed MGM’s original version of this story in 1934. It was based on a successful stage play that Irving Thalberg purchased for his wife Norma Shearer. On Broadway, Katharine Cornell had been very successful playing Elizabeth Barrett Browning; in fact, she reprised the role several times throughout her illustrious stage career. When Shearer appeared in the first big screen version, she too had a hit, winning over skeptical critics with her carefully measured performance of the reclusive poet. A lot of Shearer’s success could be attributed to Franklin, so when MGM decided to remake the property, Franklin was again assigned to direct.
Originally MGM had planned to put Grace Kelly in the remake, but she turned down several roles and was put on suspension. So Jennifer Jones stepped in, which was a dream come true for the actress who had longed to play the part on screen. Jones, under her first stage name, had used a scene from the original play to audition for drama school when she was younger. Once Jones was signed, she and Sidney Franklin went to London where they joined an all-British cast and crew to begin the new project. Robert Browning would be played by handsome leading man Bill Travers; and Travers’ wife Virginia McKenna was also cast, playing one of Elizabeth’s sisters.
While the earlier film featured Charles Laughton as domineering Edward Moulten-Barrett, this later production utilized the acting services of John Gielgud. Gielgud is exceptional as the tyrannical Victorian father, and his performance is a bit more modest than Laughton’s had been. For instance, Laughton would use his eyes to suggest incestuous tendencies that may have been an aspect of the father-daughter relationship. However, biographers agree that none of this can be proved about the Barretts; only that Edward was very controlling and did threaten to disinherit his daughters if they married suitors who didn’t meet with his approval (which seemed to be all of them).
Sidney Franklin had directed Jennifer Jones in retake scenes from her earlier 1947 motion picture DUEL IN THE SUN. But other than this, he hadn’t directed a film in twenty years when this remake was produced. He had spent the 1940s and much of the 1950s serving as a writer-producer at Metro. But he was once again coaching actors in this extravagantly budgeted British undertaking. It would be his last film as director, and perhaps because television was now ruling the entertainment industry, the picture did not fare well too well when it hit movie screens. That doesn’t make it any less worthy of our attention now, since the efforts of Miss Jones and everyone else involved make it a beautiful and special experience. There’s something poetic about it.
THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET will air on TCM on September 26th.