Other Noteworthy Performances: Boris Karloff (The Black Cat), Charles Vanel (Les Miserables), Michel Simon (L’Atalante), Henry Krauss (Les Miserables), Boris Karloff (The Lost Patrol), Sam Jaffe (The Scarlet Empress)
I chose Charles Laughton as the best actor for 1933 in The Private Life of Henry VIII and here in 1934 I am choosing him again for recognition, but as best supporting actor in the historical/ romantic (at least according to the publicity) picture The Barretts of Wimpole Street. The movie lacks the passion or interest one might expect when watching the budding romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, two of the greatest poets of the English language. One would think that they would speak to each other in more than platitudes and clichés. It’s all mannered, stodgy, and it doesn’t help that two of my least favorite actors of the 1930s play Elizabeth and Robert: Norma Shearer and Fredric March. The only time there is any sign of life in the picture is when Elizabeth’s tyrannical father Edward Moulton-Barrett creeps into a room and crushes any and all happiness and goodwill among the people in the room.
Charles Laughton plays Edward masterfully. Later critics might look back at it and dismiss the performance as a dry run for a similar stickler for the rules character Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, but Laughton makes Edward more than a villain doing everything in his power to chain Elizabeth to him (physically and emotionally) and destroy her budding romance with Robert. He adds unexpected depth to a thinly written character that a lesser actor would have turned into tyrannical stereotype. With a simple uncertain, questioning look we see that he is a man who craves the love of his daughter, but because of his unyielding principles he cannot be flexible. He isn’t a monster: like most people who behave monstrously, he only commits monstrous acts. He believes he is in the right, unaware that he is using his power to shackle his daughter to him and helping to extinguish her love for him. His best moments come when he isn’t speaking and we can see him struggle inside. If he relents he loses his daughter, the only one of seven other children that he really loves. He is a man trapped by his own emotional shortcomings and uncompromising nature, faults he could never recognize, thus assuring himself a life of solitude as he forces Elizabeth to run off and marry Robert. Laughton simply does a great job and the movie would have benefited from more time with him, rather than the two boring leads.