The Importance of Being Earnest
Director: Anthony Asquith / Screenplay: Asquith (From Oscar Wilde’s play) / Editing: John D. Guthridge / DP: Desmond Dickinson / Music: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Michael Redgrave / Richard Wattis / Michael Denison / Edith Evans / Joan Greenwood / Dorothy Tutin / Margaret Rutherford / Miles Malleson
The Importance of Being Oscar…
think of the collected works of Oscar Wilde, as being like someone I’ve often encountered at parties, but whom I never had cause to actually meet and talk with. Which is a shame as, despite the scandalous things one might’ve heard about them, they often turn-out to be the friend you never knew you had…
So it is, that I’ve managed to stagger through life, little more than aware of Wilde and his literary (and personal) reputations. There’s always been something else to read, or watch: until today, with this sparkling remaster of Anthony Asquith’s definitive adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest; sparkling, albeit with a disappointingly muddy soundtrack.
To begin with, I’ll confess that I knew little about its director, Asquith and his filmography. A little digging reveals him to have been the son of a British Prime Minister (and a Liberal, no less). Asquith made his way in the nascent British film industry, growing into a capable, director, respected by peers such as David Lean, with a string of morale-boosting pictures during the war; notable highlights include We Dive at Dawn (1943) and The Way To The Stars (1945). Yet professional acclaim for Asquith was chiefly reserved, for the skill and awareness he brought to adaptations of stage-plays; a line of business begun with his acclaimed 1938 production of Shaw’s Pygmalion (later adapted into My Fair Lady (1964)). Asquith’s version even earned star Trevor Howard a nod from ‘Oscar’ (no, that other one), which did both the careers of both men little harm, though Asquith was to remain a UK-based director for the bulk of his career.
Earnest’s route to the screen appears almost plain-sailing for all concerned, as if it were fated to become a classic. Rights to Wilde’s original play were about to be made available and it seems the only person to have noticed, was Michael Denison. Keen to play Algernon in any future adaptation, Denison urged his production company to step-in ahead of the competition. Having done so, they then declined to make the picture themselves, so sold the project on to rival Rank Studios, with Denison conditionally pre-cast as Algy.
With Asquith on-board as Director, the rest of the cast came together organically: and what a cast! Earnest is blessed with the cream of British acting talent from the early fifties and having now seen the film, I don’t see a weak link anywhere in the chain. It has perfect casting.
Asquith’s first consideration would have been how best to transition the stage-play to film, which, after all, is its own, unique medium. A stage play (such as Earnest) is about interiors, or the recreation of exteriors on a confined stage. If this alone was Asquith’s focus, the resulting film would have been stilted & claustrophobic. Instead, he chooses perhaps the only solution: we begin with a couple settling into a theatre box, to watch a traditional production of the play and as the curtain rises, Asquith fills the stage beyond with his opening scene, in Ernest Worthing’s London flat. From that point on, the contrivance is ignored, but Asquith’s done enough to trick the audience into going along with his vision; the film’s original audience were likely fans of the piece, so might’ve been going in wanting it to fail. To them, nothing could match the ‘magic of theatre’.
And for everyone else? Asquith is taking us by the hand and allowing his meticulous clockwork to unwind in its own, precise fashion. I understand that Wilde’s original text survived largely unscathed, albeit losing a few trims here and there, so it’s to Asquith’s credit that it gels so effortlessly, as much as to Wilde, for having concocted something so special in the first place, that it can transition so smoothly.
So. Ernest’s flat, where the man himself (played by the expressive and very earnest Michael Redgrave) is dressing for the day, assisted by the proto-Jeeves Seton (the ever-hangdog Richard Wattis). Snaffling from his rich breakfast, is friend Algy (Denison, at his most fluent and affable). It seems as though Ernest hopes to marry Algy’s cousin, Gwendolen. But there’s a complication: the devious Algy has ‘acquired’ one of Ernest’s cigarette cases, in which is an inscription dedicated to ‘Dear Jack’: how so?
Wilde’s gambit now unfolds in this emergent comedy of manners. Algy is quick to guess that ‘Ernest’ uses ‘Jack’ as a secret-persona when at-home in the country, just as he uses ‘Mr Bunbury’: a fictitious friend he invented, to provide convenient excuses to get him out-of-town. It’s Ernest’s admission of how he came to own the case, that fuel’s Algy’s fevered imagination. The very idea that Ernest/Jack might have an ‘impossibly beautiful’ eighteen-year old ward back home, seems too-good-to-be-true.
Still with me?
Later, Ernest calls on Algy at his apartment; Asquith using Ernest’s journey (and other transitions throughout the film) to break-up the film’s ‘staginess’ as much as an opportunity to explore intriguing jump-cuts & dissolves.
Ernest’s there, as his would-be fiancée, Gwendolen, is due to call, along with her mother, the dowager Lady Bracknell and Ernest/Jack hopes to catch a moment with her, in order to – finally, it seems – propose marriage. There’s a little reversal of business, as Ernest proceeds to eat food laid-out by Algy’s own butler before the main event: Ernest eking-out his proposal to Gwendolen in a stiff, mealy-mouthed fashion. So stilted is this sequence, that I wonder if Wilde was using it to comment on the repressed society in which he found himself? Remember, that the London of 1895 was a place in which its denizens struggled to even express issues of love & sexuality, against the social mores of the day.
Whilst they’re skirting around the edges of the business-at-hand, Jack also hears a bizarre confession from Gwendolen: namely, that she can only think of herself marrying a man named Ernest, which puts our hero in a predicament, given his ‘real’ name appears to be Jack…
Though that’s the least of his problems as, having caught him down on one knee, Lady Bracknell (the imperious Dame Edith Evans) proceeds to grill the poor man, as ‘gorgons’ are wont to do. She dishes out wisdom – and weightless questions – as if they were tablets of stone, above critical examination. Take this delicious exchange:
LB: ‘Do you smoke?’
J/E: ‘Well, yes.’
LB: ‘I’m glad to hear it. A man should have an occupation of some kind.’
The interrogation continues, with Jack/Ernest appearing to pass all tests, especially where money’s concerned. After all, Lady B only wants her daughter to be financially secure, right? Err, no, because this one-sided interview of her prospective son-in-law falters over the thorny issue of Jack’s mysterious origins and the revelation he was found at Victoria Station in a, wait for it, ‘A handbag!?’
Cue: one of cinema’s great moments, as Dame Edith skewers her response across more octaves and beats than you might think possible.
This Act ends with another piece of business that could only work in-camera: as Jack gives Gwendolen his real country address, Algy’s seen copying it onto his shirt cuff; a move all framed in one artfully-composed shot.
Cut to: that same address. In a bucolic country garden, Jack’s ward Cecily (Dorothy Tutin in her screen debut) is being schooled by her eccentric Governess. That’d be the deliriously-named Miss Prism (the equally scatty, magnetic character actress Margaret Rutherford, in the part she would later cite as being the part ‘she was born to play’). They’re visited first, by the local vicar, Canon Chasuble (a wobbly, genial Miles Malleson), who has designs on Miss Prism; we know that her still-waters apparently run deep, as she’s confessed to Cecily that in her past, she wrote a ‘three-volume novel of more than usual revolting novelty’…
While Chasuble and Miss Prism walk the gardens, who should turn-up at the house, claiming to be Ernest, but Algy! He’s the agitator of the piece, for sure. A protagonist who drives things forward, with his infectious mischief.
Naturally, he duly falls for Cecily, but she’s confused: didn’t her guardian Jack, announce he was packing his wayward younger brother Ernest off to Australia? Quick witted as ever, Algy plays along and wins her confidence: just as well, as Cecily’s imagination has also been running wild, concocting a fantasy life for the two of them; the extent of which, would put Algy off in any other picture, but this is a farce, lest we forget: a comedy of manners and it’s all fair game.
Next to arrive is Gwendolen, who’s equally confused by who’s engaged to whom. Here to clean-up the mess (largely of his own creation, let us not forget) is Jack himself, though it takes a final flourish from Lady B and a somewhat contrived Deus-ex-Machina wrinkle at the death, to right the wrongs and bestow some much-needed social pedigree to Jack; the only REAL impediment to his marriage.
Throughout however, even as things canter towards the conclusion, Wilde’s writing remains a sparkling, fizzing bottle of uncorked champagne; one that’s managing to cover a lot of ground in the process. On one hand, it can be read as a scathing indictment against a late-Victorian Establishment that was increasingly set – at least in some quarters – on bringing-down Wilde; someone whose prodigious talent for bruising prose and a private life that was running to scandal, was perceived as a threat to the Status Quo. On the other hand, Earnest can be enjoyed for what it is: a frothy, bubbling piece of nonsense.
What can’t be denied however, is Wilde’s prodigious, effortless command of English and his capacity for generating material of a once-in-a-generation quality. Written in 1895, in just three weeks (!) whilst Wilde was on a seaside break, Earnest was to be his last major work. Within a few months, his life would be thrown into reverse as the result of a failed libel action against The Marquess of Queensberry, who’d accused him of being a ‘sodomite’ and of pursuing an illicit relationship with his son, Lord Alfred (or ‘Bosie’ as he was to become better known). Instead of being allowed to retreat and lick his wounds, Wilde was instead arrested on charges including ‘gross indecency’, thus beginning the man’s degradation and descent from society that, perhaps, he’d always known would be his end.
It’s even foreshadowed a little, in the text, e.g. when Jack announces that his younger brother had died of fever in Paris (Wilde himself would die there, penniless, in 1902). Then, at another point, Gwendolen says ‘I hope you’ve not been leading a double life. That would be hypocrisy.’ (Wilde was both married and had children). There are other parallels I’m sure, if one cared to look for them. No matter: it’s as if this giant of letters knew his fate from the very beginning, but was unable to escape it: after all, that’s what makes it Fate…
The film’s been remade once or twice since, because, Hollywood... Yet one glance at IMDB reveals Asquith’s original remains the template against which all-comers are found wanting; it remains an enduring classic from the front-rank of British films from the Fifties.
I can see the attraction for younger film-makers. After all, the source material is so strong, so ripe for re-interpretation, but when the original’s so strong, anything else is but an indulgence of vanity or ego. Wilde, more than any of us, knew how dangerous that could be…
When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.