“Untruthful? My nephew Algernon untruthful? Impossible! He was at Oxford!”
It seems surprising that it took 57 years for Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest” to finally appear on the screen in 1952. When the play first was staged at the end of the 19th century, it was forced to close early due to the scandal of Oscar Wilde then being on trial for homosexual behaviour. The closing was certainly not due to any lack of popularity of the play itself. In succeeding years, revivals of the play have continued to be very successful and it remains one of the most often performed comedies in the English language. Once the 1952 film version appeared, it seemed to break the floodgates, for at least six filmed efforts have been made since (four of them for television). The most recent is a 2002 version starring Rupert Everett that has been unnecessarily tricked out in an attempt to appeal more to modern sensibilities. (One of the female characters now has a tattoo? Give me a break!)
Anyway, the good news is that Criterion has just released the 1952 version on DVD. That means you can safely avoid the later ones and revel in what is head and shoulders still the version to watch.
Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are two eligible young bachelors. Jack pursues somewhat of a double life, living in the country with an attractive young ward named Cecily, but passing himself off as his non-existent brother Ernest when in London. In his latter guise, he has fallen for Gwendolyn Fairfax who is Algernon’s cousin. Gwendolyn wheedles a proposal of marriage out of Jack, which she accepts, and then comments that she always wanted to marry a man named Ernest. Meanwhile, Algernon has found out about Cecily and he travels to Jack’s country home posing as Jack’s non-existent brother Ernest. Algernon and Cecily are soon a number with Cecily too professing her pleasure at being engaged to a man named Ernest. The problem is that neither man is really named Ernest.
Or are they? Into the midst of all this strides Lady Bracknell, Algernon’s aunt and Gwendolyn’s mother, who seems little inclined to accept any of the impending nuptials. Complicating matters too is Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. But it turns out that she holds the key to a family skeleton that may provide a resolution satisfactory to everyone.
The play “The Importance of Being Earnest” has a marked staginess that can be difficult to hide in a screen version, but that characteristic never stopped other lesser plays from being filmed and certainly sooner than 57 years after their debuts. Certainly to be successful “Earnest” requires a cast of considerable skill to put across Wilde’s dialogue effectively while making the audience forget the basic absurdity of the situations with which Wilde presents us. Perhaps being able to assemble such a cast for a screen version was the chief stumbling block during the first two decades of the sound era. Whatever the reason, the wait was worthwhile, for the staging of the 1952 version is splendid and the cast is simply outstanding.
We begin with the director, Anthony Asquith (the son of Herbert Asquith, British Prime Minister from 1909 to 1916). Asquith’s career extended from the last days of the silent era in Britain to the mid-1960s. His first really major success was 1938’s Pygmalion which he co-directed with Leslie Howard. Thereafter, he was responsible for a number of well-regarded dramas and upper-class comedies including such films as The Demi-Paradise (1943, with Laurence Olivier); The Way to the Stars (1945, with John Mills and Michael Redgrave); The Browning Version (1950, with Michael Redgrave); and Libel (1959, with Dirk Bogarde). For The Importance of Being Earnest, Asquith makes no attempt to hide the stage origins. He actually begins with a couple being seated in a theatre stage box and after the opening credits, focuses on the rise of a stage curtain. We then see the proceedings through the eyes of the theatre-going couple. Given that, Asquith is at pains to use very realistic sets for both the indoor and the few outdoor scenes, so we soon become completely immersed in the tale and forget the stage origins. The filming is done throughout with no artifice, instead allowing the dialogue and the actors to shine.
And shine they do. There’s not a wrong performance from the top of the cast list to the bottom. You just can’t beat top British actors speaking witty British upper-class dialogue. As the two eligible bachelors, Michael Redgrave and Michael Denison trade barbs with great relish while the two young brides-to-be played by Joan Greenwood and the virtual novice Dorothy Tutin both convey the right sense of seemingly innocent control. Margaret Rutherford and Miles Malleson are a delight to watch as Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble. The real pleasure, though, is to see Dame Edith Evans play Lady Bracknell. This is the plum role in the play from the audience’s point-of-view and she plays it to the hilt, her voice intonations all over the scale as she rolls her tongue around Wilde’s dialogue. Anyone who knows the play will be waiting with anticipation for her reading of the word “handbag” and she doesn’t disappoint.
Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson collaborated often with Anthony Asquith and here, he displays very fine camerawork in Technicolor, a particularly welcome addition that makes the film just sparkle. Criterion’s DVD is a digital transfer created from a new 35mm composite print that preserves the original theatrical ratio of 1.37:1 and it beautifully conveys the rich Technicolor material. There is some evidence of grain and a few scenes are too dark, but on the whole, this is an admirable transfer for a film half a century old.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track mastered from the 35mm optical soundtrack with audio restoration tools used to reduce pops, hiss and crackle. The results are fully satisfactory, allowing the rich dialogue to come through clearly and strongly. English subtitles are provided, but they are only accessible through the player remote, not via the DVD menu.
Supplementary material is modest, consisting of the original theatrical trailer and information on the cast and crew. The latter is not the usual meager effort, but a nicely detailed set of notes by film historian Bruce Eder, interspersed with production stills and publicity material.
Here is an entertainment that should satisfy anyone who appreciates good dialogue and witty interchanges that amuse and reveal the smug silliness of the upper classes at play. The cast is one-of-a-kind for this sort of material. It’s all been beautifully staged with excellent attention to costume and set detail, and takes full advantage of the Technicolor presentation. Criterion does its usual top-notch job. Highly recommended.