The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Sidney Franklin, 1934)
This is Norma Shearer as queen of the MGM lot, taking on a role that had been associated with Katherine Cornell, who played Elizabeth Barrett in the 1931 Broadway production of Rudolf Besier's play and then toured the country with it. Irving Thalberg, the head of production at MGM, offered the role in the film version to Cornell, but she turned it down -- as she did all film offers. (Cornell reportedly was afraid of having her performances recorded on film because she feared they would grow dated and ludicrous, as so many performances from the silent era had become.) The logical choice for the movie then became Shearer, Thalberg's wife, who was entering a new phase in her career: Having turned 30 in 1932, she was beginning to outgrow the more lively persona that she displayed in her earlier movies. Unfortunately for her reputation today, most of the films she began to make have effaced the earlier image: She seems distantly "respectable" in them. The Barretts of Wimpole Street was one of her more popular vehicles, and although the film as a whole is stodgy, Shearer makes a credible transition from the oppressed invalid of the early part of the film to the defiant woman who elopes with her lover, Robert Browning (Fredric March), at the end. It helps that Charles Laughton hams it up wonderfully as Edward Moulton-Barrett, Elizabeth's father, who is determined to keep any of his eight children from marrying as long as he is alive. Although the Production Code forbade any explicit mention of either incest or sexual obsession, Laughton's performance makes it clear in the climactic scene not only that he is disturbed by his own sexuality and may have forced himself on his late wife, but also that he has incestuous feelings for Elizabeth. Her horror at this revelation precipitates her elopement with Browning.