History according to Hollywood is a fascinating thing, and this film is ripe for comparison to the actual facts. For the most part, the story is a quite accurate portrayal of the courtship between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. The large Barrett family did all live together in Wimpole Street, and were forbidden marriage by their domineering father. Elizabeth was the first to wed (and her elopement actually put some stress on her relationship with her brothers); she was immediately disowned by her father. Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan) was romantically involved with Captain Surtees Cook (Ralph Forbes); they ultimately married and had three children. Elizabeth's brother Alfred also married before his father's death; both he and Henrietta were disinherited. (See The Brownings' Correspondence) Elizabeth did seem to recover some of her health after meeting Robert Browning, and Mr. Barrett did forbid Elizabeth to go to Italy for her health. In 1846, Elizabeth and Robert eloped to St. Marylebone Church with Elizabeth's maid, Wilson (Una O'Connor) in attendance; within the week, they left for Italy, where they remained for the rest of Elizabeth's life. In 1849, Elizabeth gave birth to her only son, Robert "Pen" Browning (she suffered four miscarriages). Elizabeth died at age 55 in 1861. After her death, Robert returned to England with Pen; they moved to a residence close to Anabel Barrett (Katharine Alexander), who acted as a surrogate mother to Pen and a confidant to Robert. Robert would live until 1889, age 77. (The Poetry Foundation)
Charles Laughton, as the Barrett patriarch is impressive. Though only three years older than Ms. Shearer, he sears the screen with his overbearing and frightening presence. Laughton is not afraid to make Mr. Barrett a monster. In fact, when he was told by producer Irving Thalberg that, thanks to the censors, the film would need to play down the incest angle of Barrett's affection for his eldest daughter, Laughton objected, telling Thalberg that "...they can't censor the gleam in my eye." (TCM article).
Allegedly, Fredric March was disappointed with his performance, feeling that director Sidney Franklin was more interested in the character of Elizabeth, and that his performance suffered by comparison. March felt his performance was too over-the-top, and while he is quite passionate and exuberant, we really felt it worked. Browning was 6 years younger than Elizabeth; March's performance emphasizes that age gap, and also transmits the idea of someone who really could transfer his strength into the body of a sick woman. We found him to be delightful and even the New York Times in their review was rather complimentary.
It's only thanks to Mr. Thalberg that Ms. Shearer agreed to play Elizabeth - she was unsure of taking on a role so closely linked to Katherine Cornell (though Ms. Cornell was not interested in appearing in films - she would eventually do ONE - she appeared in Stage Door Canteen during the second World War.) But she is lovely in the role; she was nominated for an Oscar for the performance (she lost to Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night). The film was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (also losing to It Happened One Night). Marion Davies was originally set to star (William Randolph Hearst yearned for his lady to play more serious parts). However, Ms. Davies bowed out (after a conversation with Ms. Shearer). Ms. Davies was much happier in her comedies and was not comfortable with appearing in such a serious part (AFI Catalog).
Una O'Connor as Wilson is wonderful. Ms. O'Connor plays the part more as a surrogate mother to the ailing Elizabeth, and less as her servant. With a walk that makes her almost appear to glide across the screen, and her stubborn determination to protect her charge, Ms. O'Connor is a delight.
We were somewhat less enthralled with Marion Clayton as Barrett cousin Bella Hedley and Ian Wolfe as her fiance Harry Bevan. Their odd speech patterns (she with a little girl lisp and he with an affected upper class tone) just seemed pointless. We kept wanting them to just shut up and go away. (Bella does serve a purpose to the overall story; Harry, not so much).
The costumes, as designed by Adrian, are magnificent, especially Elizabeth's fur ensemble at the end of the film. The play was primarily set in Elizabeth's sitting room, and the film really does very little to extend it from that location (we do outside once with Henrietta, and to Browning's home with Wilson. The rest of the film is set in the Barrett house, and is Elizabeth's perspective) . Despite that, the film is entertaining and not in the least claustrophobic.
We have a little bit of a treat for you - Robert Osborne's introduction during Norma Shearer's TCM turn as star of the month. (Thanks, TCM!)
We'll leave you with the scene from the beginning of the film, where the ailing and shy Ms. Barrett meets the gregarious Mr. Browning: