In the 1930s, Norma Shearer and Fredric March were two of the most popular movie stars in Hollywood. Referred to as “Queen Norma” and “King Fredric” (alright, maybe March wasn’t ever called that. It’s nice to pretend…but he was immensely popular. So there.), both were at the top of their game. Shearer was the darling of MGM, which secured her the most respectable and successful roles. This came as no surprise, of course, since she was the bride of MGM’s very own “Boy Wonder”, producer Irving Thalberg. Shearer faced criticism (and still does) for her success and whether or not it was earned. Joan Crawford, who had an infamous feud with Shearer, was once quoted as saying “What do you expect? She sleeps with the boss.” There’s no denying being married to the top MGM producer had its advantages in the roles offered, but once cast it was up to Shearer to do something with it. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930’s The Divorcée. Shearer was also nominated for a second Best Actress award that same year for her performance in Their Own Desire (1929); she would go on to receive four more nominations, ending with her performance in the lavish production of Marie Antoinette (1938).
Fredric March was a contract star at Paramount Studios, finding early success with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role as Tony Cavendish in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930). The following year, March won an Oscar for his dual role in Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Despite his Oscar, and being one of the top stars in Hollywood, Paramount Studios continually cast March in less than desirable films. In 1932, March was loaned out to MGM for what would be the first of two pairings with Queen Norma: Smilin’ Through (1932), directed by Sidney Franklin. According to biographer Deborah C. Peterson, March was eager to work on his first MGM film alongside a professional actress such as Shearer. MGM was the upper-crust of the Hollywood studio system, and their films would be distributed in the best theaters, giving March a better chance to showcase his talent.
Sir John Carteret, played by the incomparable Leslie Howard (he’s more than Ashley Wilkes, people) is engaged to be married to the beautiful Moonyeen Clare (Norma Shearer). Their romance is passionate, but it’s one of these “I can’t spend a single waking moment away from you” type deals, making for a particularly tragic finish for the pair. On the eve of their wedding, Moonyeen is visited by ex-beau Jeremy Wayne (Fredric March). He drunkenly pleads with her to come back to him. The next day at the wedding, Jeremy busts up the ceremony with gun in hand. Once again completely pissed drunk, Jeremy sets his mark for John, but instead shoots and kills Moonyeen. Running off into the darkness, Jeremy never faces justice for his crime. Sir John grows to become an embittered old man. His one saving grace is a young orphaned girl he adopts at the urging of his best friend Dr. Owen (O.P. Heggie). The little girl, Kathleen, is the niece of Moonyeen. The older Kathleen (also played by Shearer) bears a strong resemblance to her aunt.
Kathleen meets a young, handsome American who has come to England to sign up to fight in WWI. This fine gent is Kenneth Wayne (also Fredric March, but sans ‘stache), the son of Jeremy Wayne, the man who murdered her aunt. Complicating matters is that Kathleen has never been told the story behind Aunt Moonyeen’s demise and Kenneth, too, is unaware of his late father’s dark past. Once learning of the romance between Kathleen and Jeremy Wayne’s son, Sir John forbids any further contact between the pair, despite the fact that Kenneth has only honorable intentions and is nothing like his father. On the eve of his deployment to the front lines, Kathleen and Kenneth must make the choice whether or not to defy Sir John’s demands and marry. Fearful of leaving her without any means, Kenneth makes the difficult decision not to wed Kathleen, asking her to wait for him. And she does—for four long years.
Smilin’ Through was one of the most successful films of 1932, garnering an Academy Award Nomination for Best Picture (the winner that year being Cavalcade). Despite being a five-hanky picture, the story is still compelling, with great performances throughout. Shearer has a few over-the-top episodes, especially during the farewell scene between Kathleen and Kenneth. Known for having scene chewing tendencies, March’s performance is surprisingly subdued, providing a bit of balance to that of Shearer’s.
Two years later in 1934, Shearer and March co-starred together again in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the story of the courtship between real life poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. Despite MGM’s branding of Barretts as a romantic biopic, it’s actually a rather disturbing study of an abusive and tyrannical father’s suffocating grip on his grown children. Edward Moulton-Barrett (Charles Laughton) is the brutal patriarch who rules over his stately home on Wimpole Street in London. The widowed Edward refuses to allow his nine children (six sons and three daughters) to marry. Instead of raising his children with love, he uses the fear of God and damnation to maintain order.
Edward’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth (Shearer), is confined to her room with an unnamed illness. She’s weak, but her doctors believe that if she spends the upcoming winter in a warmer climate, her health would drastically improve. Elizabeth is thrilled with the prospect of feeling better and living in warmth and sunshine, but her overbearing father would never approve of such a journey. He’s most concerned with Elizabeth’s health, but he sticks to his old fashioned conventions which ultimately keeps her from getting well (and keeps her under his control).
Although she is bedridden, Elizabeth finds purpose and feeds her mind through her published poetry. It’s with her works that she begins written correspondence with poet and admirer, Robert Browning. His letters are like little boosts of energy—glimmers of hope that maybe there is a chance at a better life. On one afternoon, Mr. Browning (Fredric March) pays an unannounced call to Elizabeth. The two discuss poetry, life and love. Robert’s visit is short, but he promises to visit again, and does so weekly. And why is Robert Browning allowed to call on Elizabeth when courtships are expressly forbidden in the Barrett household? Edward is under the impression that Robert and Elizabeth’s relationship is purely cerebral. With each visit, Robert focuses on helping improve Elizabeth’s spirit, which he acknowledges is wounded by her father and a huge reason why she cannot get well. Elizabeth becomes stronger with each passing week and begins to walk, astounding her doctors, all while infuriating her father. Edward soon realizes that Elizabeth and Robert are in love and he will lose his daughter.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a bizarre film that is, to be perfectly honest, quite difficult to watch. This is primarily because of the Edward Moulton-Barrett character. There is misdirected and repressed sexuality that approaches incest, all under the guise of over zealous chastity. Although Robert and Elizabeth’s love is real, it’s difficult for the viewer to become swept away in their romance because it’s primarily a vehicle for her escape from her father. Although it’s a difficult film, it was incredibly popular and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Norma Shearer was also nominated for her performance for Best Actress. This is one of her best performances, despite the uncomfortable scenes with Laughton.
As for Fredric March, he’s a honey glazed ham in Barretts. Even March himself thought his performance was outlandish. He knew he had a tendency to overact and needed good direction. When Robert Browning first enters Elizabeth Barrett’s room, March bounces around like he’s drank five pots of coffee…or snorted a boatload of cocaine. He’s also wearing his pants without any underwear and it’s very noticeable. According to March biographer Deborah C. Peterson, this was very much intentional… to “entice females.” (When you can’t nail the part, go commando!)
For years, Smilin’ Through and Barretts of Wimpole Street have been unavailable on home video. Thanks to our good friends at Warner Archive, both films have finally been released via manufacture on demand (MOD) DVD. For fans of Queen Norma and (ahem) King Fredric, these are a must-have additions to the home library.