Friday, July 3, 2009

The Barretts of Wimpole Street: Poetry in Motionless Emotion


Lately I've been trying to figure out why I've always crushed on Norma Shearer. Yes, she was lovely; yes, she was married to Irving Thalberg, in my opinion the greatest producer from the studio era; yes, she had a pleasing on-screen persona. But her acting ... a style that was born in the silent era and was modified in the sound era in a way that made many performances of that time an odd combination of woodeness and casualness. I'll write more about Norma soon, but recently I watched "The Barretts of Wimple Street," one of her films that surprised me in several ways: it's a literary movie that actually kept me a bit on the edge of my seat, thanks to a sadistic Charles Laughton. Plus you add in the fact that the film takes place mostly in one room in which action is kept at a minimum and it's a wonder at how nicely everything flows together.

But first things first: Released in 1934 by MGM, the movie is taken from the stage version of real-life poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning before she met and married poet Robert Browning. Convalescing from a long illness, Elizabeth meets Robert, an admirer, whose frequent visits help lift her spirits and aid her recovery. However, Elizabeth's father keeps a stern watch on his daughter and rules his family with an iron fist. His clashes with the family lead up to the central conflicts: Robert vs. Mr. Barrett, Elizabeth vs. father, Robert and Elizabeth vs. freedom from father.

Fredric March and Norma Shearer (pictured) deal with the literate, flowery language with ease and skill. March has always been one of my favorite actors -- often overlooked from his era in favor of Gable or Tracy or Bogart, yet March was as natural an actor as you can find, particularly in the 1930s when acting styles often veered into ACTING. Watch a film with March and you know at least one thing about it will be worth seeing.

As for lovely Norma, it's clear with this role she's growing as an actress. Hubby Thalberg had been away from MGM for nine months, dealing with the death of friend Paul Bern, dealing the the tyrrany of Louis B. Mayer and trying to increase his own net worth based upon his invaluable contribution to MGM's success. Upon return from a long trip to Europe, Thalberg discovered the presence of producer David O. Selznick (another great producer of the studio era) at the studio as well as the way of making films changing as well. Eager to re-establish his stature and to continue finding the right roles for his wife, he charged in with a film called "Riptide," which I have not seen but hear is not the best. However, "Barretts" clearly showed that his powers for shepharding projects that could be both prestigious and popular hits had not diminished.

And, in these early days of the enforced production code, he still managed to convey an incestuous overtone to the father/daughter relationship. In fact, Charles Laughton, who plays the father (he relishes every evil line reading -- you can hear him ripping into such a simple line as "I am most displeased" in a way that can make your hairs stand on end), said that while the production code might be in effect, they couldn't take the gleam out of his eye whenever he saw his daughter. Laughton's performance ranks high on the list of evil daddies.

Plus, you gotta love films that include the pet in the credits, but that's the world of 1930s films (thank you, Asta).

But I digress. For Norma, she's growing as an actress. Despite her own nervousness at playing a role that was performed on stage with great effectiveness by Katharine Cornell, she seems at ease with the dialogue and more relaxed throughout than she had been in the past. For me, I'm really seeing her as an actress rather than a star with an alluring screen persona. (The fact that I was engaged from beginning to end is a testament to her as well as her costars, the screenwriter and Thalberg's impeccable instincts.)

And lovely Norma, backed by proud hubby and the power of MGM, found herself in another hit and with another Oscar nomination for best actress. And what a best actress race that was ... but I'll save that one for another time. Plus, with March as her costar, she had to be good. I think of the half-baked "The Dark Angel" with Merle Oberon, released the next year, in which March acts rings around Oberon, who landed an Oscar nomation for her work, for crying out loud. Shearer is so much better in "Barretts," with that odd acting style of just a few years before, on display in "The Divorcee," nearly gone. I bet Shearer could have played this role on stage and been quite effective. Her scenes with March are natural and unforced.

Still ... what is her allure? And why are so few people aware of her today? I'll explore that in another posting.

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