The bulk of the story takes place in the lavish home of Edward Barrett (Charles Laughton) and his adult children. Upstairs, Elizabeth (Norma Shearer), called "Ba", the oldest girl, consults with her doctor. She is recovering from an undisclosed illness and is extremely weak – standing and walking are painful – but the doctor advises that a full recovery is possible.
She has a vivacious and brilliant mind, her poetry is frequently published, she has a cute Cocker spaniel named Flush, and she loves fooling around with her siblings, especially her youngest sister, Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan). Her father Edward, however, is displeased by the rambunctiousness in Elizabeth's room. He wastes no opportunity to remind Elizabeth that she is very ill and possibly in danger of death. He seems perversely determined to keep her confined, as though he does not want to allow her to make a full recovery; he even goes so far as to defy the doctor's orders. When she complains that the porter which she has been advised by the doctor to take is making her feel worse, the doctor takes her off it and puts her on hot milk instead, but Edward forces her to continue drinking porter. His tyranny over the boys is more sketchily shown, but clearly, they are just as terrified of him as the girls.
Meanwhile, Henrietta is interested in marrying her brothers' friend Surtees (Ralph Forbes), who has a promising career in the military. But she discourages him. She cannot see any way around her insanely possessive father, who has forbidden any of his children – including his six boys – to marry.
Robert Browning (Fredric March) arrives in a snowstorm, and immediately sweeps Ba off her feet. Her poetry has caused him to fall madly in love with her. When she expresses her fear that death may be at hand, he laughs it off and encourages her to seize the day. When he leaves her room, she rises from her settee for the first time and drags herself to the window so she can see him as he departs.
Months pass. Ba is able to walk slowly and to go downstairs to see Robert. Edward warns her not to overdo it and tells her it's just a temporary recovery. The doctors prescribe a trip to Italy for the winter. Edward is considering it, when chatty Cousin Bella (Marion Clayton) spills the beans that Ba's relationship with Robert isn't just a meeting of minds. Edward immediately vetoes the trip and leaves the house, saying he's got another idea that may help her get the fresh air and sunshine she needs without having to leave the country. While he's out, Robert and Ba meet in Kensington Gardens. He assures her that he will take her himself to Italy and that she should be ready by the end of the month. She says she'll think about it.
Edward's plan turns out to be a scheme to get Ba out of London, away from friends and activity (all for the good of her health, of course). He writes, bidding her tell her siblings that he's about to sell the house and move them all out to Surrey, six miles from the nearest railway station. Ba relays the message but doesn't tell Henrietta, who is now firmly committed to Surtees.
Unexpectedly, Edward returns early, catching Henrietta and Surtees modeling his dress uniform for Ba in her room. Brutally grasping her wrists, he forces Henrietta to confess her secret affair. Denouncing her as a whore, he makes her swear on the Bible never to see Surtees again and to lock herself in her room. Ba witnesses all of this. When Edward starts to blame her for aiding and abetting Henrietta's illicit relationship, she reveals her true feelings. Smashing the facade that has allowed her father to keep a dictatorial control over every minute of her waking life – she says that, far from obeying him out of love, she hates him, and denounces him as a tyrant. Unrepentant, her father walks out of the room, saying she can send for him when she has repented of her sins.
Ba conspires with her maid Wilson to let Robert know she will elope with him and Wilson is coming along. Henrietta, when set free, runs to Ba and exclaims that she will break her Bible oath, lie to her father if necessary, and run away with Surtees if she must.
Edward enters and dismisses Henrietta to speak to Ba alone. He opens up to her and confesses his real feelings and the motivation for his "dragon" behavior. Edward apparently thinks of himself as having a sex addiction, and although the language in this scene is extremely euphemistic, we can gather that he tyrannized his wife as well, and that some of the children may actually have been conceived through marital rape. Edward now suppresses all his desires, equating all sex with sin, and he wants his children never to fall prey to carnal passion. As he goes into detail about how he wants Ba all to himself, to have her confide in him all her thoughts and feelings, he embraces her and actually comes close to making a sexual pass. Horrified by his inhuman behavior, Ba repulses him, and cries out that he must leave her. He apologizes and leaves, saying he'll pray for her.
Ba summons Wilson, puts on her cloak and hat, takes her little dog Flush and departs. As the two sneak down the stairs, we hear Edward saying grace over dinner. A few moments later, we hear the hysterical laughter of Ba's sister Arabel (Katharine Alexander). The boys rush upstairs, followed by Henrietta, to find that Ba has left one letter for each of the siblings and Edward. Edward reads his letter and staggers to the window. As if drunk, he insanely mutters "I'll have her dog", and bids his son Octavius take Flush to the vet and have her killed. Octavius cries out that it is unjust, and Henrietta triumphantly drives the final blow; "In her letter to me Ba writes that she has taken Flush with her..." The film closes with a brief scene of Elizabeth's and Robert's marriage, with Wilson as a witness and Flush waiting patiently by the church door.Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett
Fredric March as Robert Browning
Charles Laughton as Edward Moulton-Barrett
Maureen O'Sullivan as Henrietta Barrett
Katharine Alexander as Arabel Barrett
Vernon Downing as Octavius Barrett
Ralph Forbes as Captain Surtees Cook
Marion Clayton as Bella Hedley
Ian Wolfe as Harry Bevan
Ferdinand Munier as Dr Chambers
Una O'Connor as Wilson
Leo G. Carroll as Dr Waterlow
Although the names of the individuals involved are correct in the play and films, by definition motivations of individuals cannot be known. The numerous love letters that Robert and Elizabeth exchanged before their marriage, however, can give readers a great deal of information about this famous courtship in their own words. The correspondence was well underway before they ever met in person, he having admired the collection Poems that she published in 1844. He opens his first letter to her, 'I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,' and a little later in that first letter he says 'I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too' (January 10, 1845).
Several editions of these letters have been published, starting with one by their son in 1898. Flush: A Biography, the version by Virginia Woolf, from the perspective of Elizabeth's dog, is also an imaginative reconstruction, though more closely based on reading the letters. Both the play and film reflect popular concerns at the time, particularly Freudian analysis. Although Edward Barrett's behavior in disinheriting any of the children who married seems bizarre, there is no evidence of his being sexually aggressive toward any of the family members. While all overt suggestions of incest were removed from the script, Charles Laughton, who played Edward, said "They can censor it all they like, but they can't censor the gleam out of my eye".
Andre Sennwald of The New York Times called the film "a drama of beauty, dignity and nobility", praising Shearer's performance as "a brave and touching piece of acting" and Laughton as "superb." Variety called it "truly an actor's picture" with a "final stretch that grips and holds", but that overall it was "slow" and "talky" and suggested its running time could have been shortened. Film Daily lauded it as "Unquestionably one of the greatest love stories ever filmed", with "a superb performance" by Shearer and one of Laughton's "most dominating performances." "I found myself pleasantly surprised by the performances of Miss Shearer and Mr. March", wrote St. Clair McKelway for The New Yorker. Although McKelway found it "hard to accept Miss Shearer in her role", he called it "sensibly handled from beginning to end, and every now and then Mr. Laughton creates moments as effective, I think, as any you have seen on the screen." The Barretts of Wimpole Street topped the Film Daily year-end poll of 424 critics as the best film of 1934.
The film was also a big hit at the box office. According to MGM records the film earned $1,258,000 in the US and Canada and $1,085,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $668,000.
In 1957, Sidney Franklin filmed a word-for-word, and nearly shot-for-shot Metrocolor remake, of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, in CinemaScope. This version starred Jennifer Jones as Elizabeth, John Gielgud as her father, Bill Travers as Robert Browning, and Keith Baxter in his film debut.
Both of the films were released by MGM.