Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Barretts of Wimpole Street (dir by Sidney Franklin)


The 1934 best picture nominee, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, takes place largely in one room.

That room is a bedroom located in a mansion that sits on Wimpole Street in London.  The room is occupied by Elizabeth (Norma Shearer), a sickly woman who has spent years in bed and who is barely able to walk.  She is the eldest of 11 siblings and all of them live in the house together, under the watchful eye of their tyrannical father, Edward (Charles Laughton).  Edward has forbidden any of his children from ever leaving home.  None of them are to get married.  In fact, none of them are to have even a relationship.  Even when he hears that a trip to Italy could actually improve Elizabeth’s health, he sternly forbids her from leaving.  Edward is obsessed with sin.  As he explains it, he was once a sinner himself.  In fact, he was such a sinner that he sometimes lost control of himself.  Now that he’s a father and a widower, Edward deals with his less savory impulses through constant prayer and he’s determined to never allow his children to fall into sin as well.

Despite her father’s attempts to keep her isolated from the outisde world, Elizabeth has managed to find an escape.  She’s a poet and her words have won her admirers from around world.  One of those admirers is another poet, a young man named Robert (Fredric March), who frequently writes her letters about his love of her work.  One day, in the middle of a snowfall, Robert shows up at the house on Wimpole Street and requests to see Elizabeth.  Robert tells her that her poetry has not only inspired him but it has also caused him to fall in love with her.  When Elizabeth explains that she is dying and cannot leave the bedroom, Robert says that she’s going to live forever.  After Robert leaves, Elizabeth manages to stand and, for the first time in years, walks over to the window to watch as he departs.

Sounds like a perfect love story, right?  Well, there’s a problem.  Edward has absolutely no intention of allowing Elizabeth to leave the house, regardless of how much her health improves after her initial meeting with Robert.  He is determined to keep her in that bedroom and, this being a pre-code film, it becomes obvious that there’s more to Edward’s behavior than just being an overprotective father.  Though the dialogue may be euphemistic, Edward’s incestuous desires are plain to see.  It’s there every time that he leers as his daughters while also saying that he’ll be sure to pray for their souls.  It’s there in the film’s final moments, when Edward makes a request that’s so dark and cruel that it will take even a modern audience by surprise.  Charles Laughton played a lot of villains over the course of his long career but Edward is perhaps the most monstrous.

As a film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street is undeniably stagy and it’s a bit overlong as well.  Charles Laughton so dominates the film with menace that he threatens to overshadow not just March and Shearer but also Maureen O’Sullivan, who plays one of Elizabeth’s sisters.  But no matter!  I absolutely love The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  The house is gorgeous, the plot is wonderfully melodramatic, and Shearer and March both have a wonderful chemistry.  You can debate whether or not March and Shearer are credible as poets but, ultimately, what matters more is that they are totally believable as soul mates.  From the minute they first meet, you simply buy them as a couple that is meant to be.  Robert’s earnestness is perfectly matched with Elizabeth’s growing strength and it’s impossible not to cheer at least a little when Elizabeth first manages to walk down a staircase without collapsing.

Of course, as any student of literature should be aware, Robert is Robert Browning and Elizabeth is Elizabeth Barrett.  In real life, Robert Browning did arrange a meeting with Elizabeth after having read her poetry and, as well, it’s been said that Elizabeth’s father did not approve of her relationship with Robert.  It’s also apparently true that Edward actually did disinherit any of his children who married.  As for the other details of Edward’s depiction in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, it’s unknown how close to the truth Laughton’s performance may have been.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a wonderful historical romance.  It was Oscar-nominated for best picture, though it lost to a far different romance, It Happened One Night.

Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)


On this date, in 1813, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was first published.  The book was published Thomas Egerton, who bought the rights for £110.  Apparently, Austen didn’t expect the book to become the success that it did.  As a result, she ultimately only made  £140 off of the book.  (Egerton made considerably more.)  When the book was originally published, Austen’s name was nowhere to be found on the manuscript.  Instead, it was credited to “the author of Sense and Sensibility.”

(When Sense and Sensibility was originally released, it was simply credited to “A Lady.”)

The rest, of course, is history.  205 years after it was first published, Pride and Prejudice remains one of the most popular and influential novels ever written.  Every year, new readers discover and fall in love with the story of outspoken Elizabeth Bennet, the proud Mr. Darcy, the pompous Mr. Collins, and the rather sleazy George Wickham.  There have been countless film and television adaptations.  My personal favorite is Joe Wright’s 2005 version, with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth.  My least favorite would have to be Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The very first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was released in 1940.  Originally, the movie was envisioned as being a George Cukor film that would star Norma Shearer and Clark Gable.  However, the film’s production was put on hold after the death of Shearer’s husband, the legendary Irving Thalberg.  When the film finally resumed pre-production in 1939, Gable was now busy with Gone With The Wind.  Cast in his place was Robert Donat (who, interestingly enough, would have played Rhett Butler if Gable had refused the role).  With the film originally meant to be filmed in Europe, the outbreak of World War II led to yet another delay.  By the time production resumed, Cukor had been replaced by Robert Z. Leonard and Norma Shearer had also left the project.  With Gone With The Wind breaking box office records, MGM came up with the idea of once again casting Vivien Leigh opposite of Clark Gable.  However, Gable eventually left the film and Laurence Olivier, looking for a chance to act opposite Leigh, agreed to play Darcy.  However, the studio worried that casting Olivier and Leigh opposite each other would lead to negative stories about the two of them having an affair despite both being married to other people.  So, Leigh was removed from the project and Greer Garson was cast.  Olivier was so annoyed with the decision that, after Pride and Prejudice, it would be eleven years before he would work with another American studio.

Despite all of the drama behind-the-scenes, MGM’s version of Pride and Prejudice is a thoroughly delightful film, one full of charming performances and witty lines.  Though she was 36 when she made Pride and Prejudice, Garson is still the perfect Elizabeth, giving a lively and intelligent performance that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat staid films that she was making at the same time with Walter Pidgeon.  As for Olivier, from the first minute he appears, he simply is Darcy.  That said, my favorite performance in the film was Edmund Gwenn’s.  Cast as Mr. Bennet,  Gwenn brought the same warmth and gentle humor to the role that he would later bring to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.  I also liked the performances of Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and Edward Ashley as disreputable Mr. Wickham.

Pride and Prejudice is not an exact adaptation.  For one thing, the movie takes place in the early Victoria era, supposedly because MGM wanted to cut costs by reusing some of the same costumes that were previously used in Gone With The Wind.  As well, Lady Catherine (Edna May Oliver) is no longer as evil as she was in the novel.  Finally, because the production code forbid ridicule of religion, the theological career of Mr. Collins (Melville Cooper) was considerably downplayed.  Not even Jane Austen (or, more specifically, the film’s screenwriter, Aldous Huxley) could defy the Code.

Seventy-eight years after it was first released, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice holds up surprisingly well.  It’s an enjoyable film and one that, despite a few plot changes, remains true to the spirit of Austen.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #14: Suspicion (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


Suspicion_film_poster

First off, a warning.  The following review of the 1941 best picture nominee Suspicion will include spoilers.  So, if you haven’t seen the film and you’re obsessive about avoiding major spoilers, then don’t read the review.  Simple, no?

Two years ago, I was having lunch with some of my fellow administrative assistants.  One of them was talking about how she had watched an “old movie” the previous night.  From listening to the vague details that she offered up, I was able to figure out that she had apparently stumbled across TCM for the first time in her life.  From listening to her talk, I would not be surprised if she was literally describing the first time she had ever actually seen a black-and-white movie.  Needless to say, my first instinct was to correct everything she was saying but I resisted.  (For some reason, at that time, I was feeling self-conscious about being perceived as being a know-it-all.)  But, as she kept talking, I found it harder and harder to keep quiet.  Listening to her talk about old movies was like attending an art history lecture given by someone who had flunked out of a finger painting class.  Finally, when the conversation had moved on to someone who we all knew was sleeping with her much older boss, our self-proclaimed old film expert announced that age didn’t matter.  “I’d go out with Cary Grant,” she said, “and he’s old.”

Before I could stop myself, I added, “He’s also dead.”

Oh my God, the look of shock on her face!  I actually felt really guilty because I could tell that she had apparently taken a lot of happiness from the idea that suave, witty, and handsome Cary Grant was still out there.  And can you blame her?  In a career that spanned three decades and included several classic dramas and comedies, Cary Grant epitomized charm.  Some of his movies may seem dated now but Grant was such a charismatic and natural actor that it’s impossible not to get swept up in his performances.

(Who would be the contemporary Cary Grant?  I’ve heard some people compare George Clooney to Grant.  And it’s true that Clooney has Grant’s charm but, whereas Grant always came across as very natural, you’re always very aware that George Clooney is giving a performance.)

It was Grant’s charm that made him the perfect choice for the male lead in Suspicion but it was that same charm that made the film so controversial.  In Suspicion, Grant plays Johnnie.  Johnnie meets, charms, and — after the proverbial whirlwind courtship — marries Lina (Joan Fontaine), a sheltered heiress.  It’s only after Lina marries Johnnie that she discovers that he’s broke, unemployed, and addicted to gambling.  With everyone from her family to her friends telling her that Johnnie is only interested in her money, Lina starts to worry that Johnnie is plotting to kill her.  Lina starts to view all of Johnnie’s actions with suspicion, wondering if there’s an innocent explanation for his occasionally odd behavior or if it’s all more evidence that he’s planning to kill her.  When he brings her a glass of milk, Lina has to decide whether or not to risk drinking it…

Suspicion was based on a novel in which Johnnie was a murderer and which ended with Lina voluntarily drinking that poisoned milk.  In the film, however, Johnnie is not a murderer.  Apparently, it was felt that Grant was so charming and so likable that audiences would never accept him as a murderer.  Instead, he’s an embezzler and all of his strange behavior is due to him being ashamed of his past and feeling that he’s not worthy of Lina.  Once Lina realizes that Johnnie isn’t trying to kill her, she promises him that she’ll stay with him.

And a lot of people (including director Alfred Hitchcock, who claimed it was forced on him by the film’s producers) have criticized that ending but you know what?

It works.  If I had to choose between Joan Fontaine essentially committing suicide or Joan Fontaine promising to love Cary Grant even if Grant goes to prison, I’m going to go with the second choice.  Ultimately, Suspicion works because you can imagine being swept off your feet by Grant’s character.  But what makes Suspicion enjoyable, to me, is that Johnnie ultimately turns out to be exactly who we were hoping he would be.

Needless to say, Suspicion works as a great double feature with Rebecca.  Watch one after the other and have a great night of menace and romance.