Nov 26, 2013

Norma Shearer, The Barretts of Wimpole Street

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Another year, another melodramatic romance starring Norma Shearer. The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a film I didn't quite enjoy save for its rather shocking final act revelation. While the dynamics of the storyline is certainly interesting at times and kinda-sorta-maybe based off the real lives of poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, this is a drama done dull. I mean, I can't garner much excitement over a film that sees Shearer basically locked in a house the entire time and features two scenes in which the viewer has to guess whether or not Shearer can make it up/down a flight of stairs--very much a filmed play and not really cinematic. At the end of the day, this is an average to above-average picture with performances that are good but hardly worth fussing over.

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Shearer, decked out in a horrible haircut (or is it a wig?) plays the sick poet whose diabolical and obsessive father (played by a wonderful Charles Laughton) maintains a chokehold on her life. She's pen-pals with fellow poet Fredric March, they meet and fall in love, yadda yadda, you get the idea. This is definitely a more restrained Shearer, and while many may equate that to superior work, I equate it to blandness. It doesn't help that Laughton absolutely steals the picture every time he enters a scene, his unsettling glances of displeasure securing a position in my nightmares.

 photo ScreenShot2013-11-25at104752AM.jpgI feel bad not being as enthusiastic about Shearer's performance in the same vein as I was with Grace Moore's. From a technical standpoint, Norma Shearer is a much more superior actress to Grace and her performance is better. But my enjoyment levels of both performances are about the same. This may be due to my belief Shearer isn't doing anything here that's any newer than anything she did in her previous three nominations. As talented as she is to Moore, I can't say she has much range. A bulk of her work calls for her to give several closeups that register as either "concerned", "disappointed", or "sad with tears", as well as a token scene in which she professes her undying love for her leading man, and while it was alright the first time around, I am getting less and less enthused by each subsequent reincarnation. And while I felt that she did an excellent job at conveying the inner complicated emotional turmoil of her Jan Ashe, I thought that this time around she was surprisingly one dimensional in her portrayal of what should have been a richly challenging character. I mean, this is a woman who has almost seen death, who is given a chance to live and love despite thinking she'd never get the chance again, who is mentally tormented by her father, who finds out that her siblings may have been produced out of rape(!!) and that her father is kind of an incestuous sicko(!!!!!!!), and yet not once during Shearer's performance was I floored. Basically, the story and the concept of the role had a bigger impact on me than Shearer's actual work.


  1. I really liked her in this one but need to re-watch it someday...

    1. I don't know...A Free Soul aside, I find that I'm often bored by her, and I can't put my finger on why that is!

  2. There wasn't much rapport on the set between March and director Sidney Franklin or March and Laughton, but Laughton and Norma got along superbly. Laughton had promised Irving Thalberg to stay on a strict diet throughout the filming, and was amused by Norma's mock torturing of him, dining on bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade, making ecstatic faces as she ate.

    Graciously, she also threw a welcome to Hollywood party for the English star, asking who he'd like to meet. "It was a command performance, and Mrs. Thalberg was able to summon Chaplin, Garbo, Fairbanks, Harlow and Jeanette MacDonald. Like Norma, Laughton was most taken with Jeanette, a witty and assured prima donna who openly relished success."

    1. Frankly, this is not a Shearer performance that's among my very favorites either, but we're both in disagreement with audiences at the time. Both in America and Great Britain the film made an enormous profit.

      Sidney Franklin was a man of great personal taste and culture but not a very inspired director. More critically, he was one, like Robert Z Leonard, that Shearer knew she could maneuver, and when left to her own devices and the opportunity to over-study her character, Shearer could become her own worst adviser. Nor does Franklin succeed in freeing the story from its stagy trappings, and it feels claustrophobic.

      Put some blame on censorship czar Joseph L. Breen and a little on Irving Thalberg too. Irving did not feel that the envelope-pushing 'free soul' characters of Norma's early sound career, and that she preferred, was 'his Norma,' despite The Divorcee winning her an early Oscar. Rather something of an elitist, Thalberg resented the fact that Broadway actors were held in such reverence while film actors came in for disdain, at least in those early sound years. He resolved he was going to build Norma into the Katherine Cornell of the movies, and that proved to be occasionally to Norma's detriment as her benefit.

      Thalberg was assisted in a left-handed manner by Breen's dropping the axe on 'racy' movies when he came to power in the Hays office in mid-1934. Instantly, "every star actress got her virginity back. If she lost it again, she was in big trouble." Breen would allow no ambiguity about a leading lady's maiden state, and such competitively coveted roles by Shearer, Crawford, Harlow, Garbo, Mae West, and no shortage of others, would be no more.

      To Norma's fine credit, let me also note that she openly endorsed the campaign to have Bette Davis added to 1934's nominees.

  3. William Randolph Hearst very much wanted The Barretts of Wimpole Street for Marion Davies, and of course Irving Thalberg wanted it for Norma Shearer.

    Hearst underwrote a test of Marion in the part in a digest of scenes that ran about an hour, and no longer exists. In 1990, the test's only remaining living witness was MGM chief film editor, Margaret Booth. Shearer biographer Gavin Lambert then interviewed Booth about the matter, reporting "when asked about the test, Booth replied with an understated, 'Mr. Mayer was not impressed,' then allowed herself a not altogether discreet smile."

    When it became clear that Marion was out of the running for Marie Antoinette as well, which Mayer would only okay if Hearst entirely financed the production costs, a bald vote of 'no confidence' in Davies' talent, off they went to Warners for the remaining three years of Marion's movie career, and Norma's name was not mentioned in Hearst newspapers for over a year.

    While a genuinely talented actress, especially in comedy, Marion Davies was never made of the all-consuming ambition of a Norma Shearer or a Joan Crawford. Personally disappointed at the loss of both Elizabeth and Antoinette, Marion was also incapable of holding a grudge, and despite the corporate jockeying over their heads to position the two actresses as rivals, principally by Hearst, Marion and Norma remained warm friends always.

  4. Barretts was the second of two films in which Maureen O'Hara co-starred with Norma. Since Shearer tended to 'live' her parts, the impressions left with O'Hara were decidedly different too.

    Maureen had a few scenes at the end of 1932's Strange Interlude as the intimidated daughter-in-law of a forbidding and aged Norma. During filming, and in a very atypical instance of star imperiousness, Norma took a disliking to the attentions that were paid Maureen by Clark Gable. Norma had her maid hand-deliver a note to Clark asking him to 'please not chat up Miss O'Sullivan quite so much.'

    No one left alive knows the exact wording, but Gable replied by the same means, essentially telling his co-star where she could head in. Less than two full years into his own movie stardom, Gable took shit from no leading lady, the boss's wife no exception.

    Barretts was an entirely different memory for O'Sullivan as she recounted for a David Letterman audience in the 1980s. Almost certainly due to the fact that Norma now played a very protective older sister to the Henrietta Barrett character, Maureen's warmer, vivid memories were of an affectionate friendship, Norma serving eggnog in her trailer, ordering clothes from Bullocks to try on approval, having an orchestra on the set to play between scenes, and generally acting the perfect hostess.

    O'Sullivan also had Letterman's audience holding their sides with the revelation that "'Cheetah' was a homosexual, madly in love with Johnny [Weissmuller]," and jealous anytime Maureen came near.

    1. Of course I always mean O'Sullivan and never O'Hara. Oy, dumb mistakes.

  5. This is one of my favorite Shearer performances, along with "Marie Antoinette", "The Women" and "Romeo and Juliet". Her growth as an actress continued with this role as she was continuing to drop some of the silent film mannerisms that peppered earlier performances. I think she replaces some of that style with an intense but subtle underplaying here that provides subtext to many of her line readings and, as always, she is excellent in scenes with action but no dialog (when she hobbles to the window for one more look at Browning and when she attempts but fails to climb the stairs). I also think her work in the final scene with Laughton is superb. Where I find March a little hammy and Laughton completely over-the-top at times, I think Shearer's underplaying makes her work more contemporary.