Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) - #158

The very essence of romance is uncertainty.

If one is looking for family-friendly amusement sure to please a wide spectrum of movie-watching tastes, I can't think of any safer bet in the whole of the Criterion Collection than The Importance of Being Earnest. At least, that's how it works in my family. My wife and daughter, who frequently subject me to gentle taunts about the prevalence of "depressing" story lines in Criterion's library of important classic and contemporary films, both love this movie and were more than delighted to join me in watching The Importance of Being Earnest again as it came up for its turn in my multi-year project through all 500+ films. Even my 22-year old son, who like many of his generation has a taste for big budget action and escapist films, found the film quite entertaining. We had a great time the other night all bunched up on the sofa watching this cast of aristocratic British dandies and bedazzling ladies glide their way through comic and endlessly quotable dialogs, ingenious plot machinations and sumptuously decorated parlors, all filmed in the delectable vintage hues of three-strip Technicolor.

For anyone unfamiliar with this staple of popular theatrical fare from the high school level on up, now among the most widely staged English plays outside of Shakespeare, I offer a brief recap. Jack Worthing is a wealthy man of leisure in 1880s England who's gotten himself into a troubling predicament by presenting himself in London social circles as a man named Ernest. His alternate identity as Ernest, which happens to be the name of an imaginary brother he needs to frequently assist in conveniently timed moments of crisis, serves as an excuse for him to travel from his countryside home, where he watches over a sweet young ward named Cecily as part of the conditions of his inheritance, up to London whenever unwelcome social obligations impinge on his freedom. Under that name of Ernest, he's made acquaintance with a young heiress, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax, watched over like a prized jewel by her aged but utterly domineering mother Augusta, more prominently known as Lady Bracknell. Having won her affection, he seeks a means to escape the ruse of his altar ego Ernest and re-introduce himself as Jack, but she, living as she does in an age of ideals, has latched onto the ideal of loving a man named Ernest - for there's just something about that name... Thus Jack risks the ruin of his newfound romance if the truth about his name be prematurely revealed.

On top of this layer of confusion, the objections of Lady Bracknell also present a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the happy union of "Ernest" and Gwendolen. Augusta epitomizes the prudish extremes of Victorian moralism, but only in the most comedic fashion, convinced that when an engagement occurs, the young bride-to-be should be the last to know, after the respective families have concluded negotiations in the best interests of all parties with a financial interest in the outcome. With impeccably intrusive timing, Lady Bracknell steps into the room just as "Ernest's" marriage proposal to Gwendolen is about to be sealed with their first kiss. Before the intimacies can be consummated, the young maiden, of course, is swiftly ushered outside to her waiting carriage, leaving Augusta and Jack alone in the drawing room so that she can interrogate her would-be son-in-law. In a script filled from start to finish with marvelously witty wordplay and quotable snippets, this sequence stands out as one of the film's pinnacles. For better or for worse, I couldn't find a clip on YouTube that offers much more than this memorable utterance by the wonderfully imperious Dame Edith Evans:

Which is funny enough in its own right, if you know the context!

Thus we have the basic set-up. Jack and his gadfly sidekick, Algernon, are a pair of self-satisfied idlers who slip through the clutches of Victorian mores by their reliance on highly cultivated facades aimed at creating just the right perceptions of propriety without the burdensome obligations of actually living within its limits. To complete the couplings, Algernon inevitably falls for charming young Cecily after he connives his way out to Jack's country estate, posing as Ernest and with a touch of gleeful sadism, throws everything into confusion. While there, we're treated to hilarious bit parts from a pair of perfectly cast old character actors, Margaret Rutherford as Jack's fastidious housemaid and Miles Malleson as a delightfully dithering parson, whose golden years flirtations with each other strain mightily to contain themselves within the bounds of proper decorum.

As a film, The Importance of Being Earnest might not have warranted a Criterion entry were it not for the part that director Anthony Asquith and leading man Michael Redgrave played in its production. Asquith and Redgrave previously teamed up in The Browning Version and this comedy makes a nice companion piece to Kind Hearts and Coronets (which also featured Joan Greenwood) as superlative examples of high British satire - the kind of ingenious humor that can be appreciated on multiple levels, with a surface reading that simply chuckles at the absurd pomposity of its central characters, and secondary layers of barbed insight that tweak, and in some cases thoroughly shred, conventional middlebrow presumptions about morality and the social order. It's a remarkable feature of the dialog that it is capable amusing prudes and libertines simultaneously!

And of course the play's prestigious lineage back to Oscar Wilde puts it on the same lofty literary plane as George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (also directed by Asquith.) Wilde was, of course, a remarkable, notorious and tragic figure of the Victorian Age. An early example of the kind of celebrity status that's so central to contemporary culture, Wilde managed to find a route to success within the rigid moral confines of his era before falling to ruin when a personal dispute threw his private life under the harsh glare of legal scrutiny. Rather poignantly, Asquith was himself the closeted gay son of a British Prime Minister who was instrumental in the prosecution, shortly after this play debuted, for the "crime" of having a homosexual relationship. and subsequent imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, a hardship that the Irish playwright never recovered from before his death at age 46. Perhaps this circumstance, such an incredible twist of fate, provides the film an extraordinary enough back story to consider it a remarkable work of art.

Technically speaking, however, The Importance of Being Earnest is not a particularly innovative accomplishment. It's a job handsomely executed, by just about any measure, but played as a safe bet, lacking in cinematic imagination and relying on outstanding performances, eye-pleasing costumes and set designs and the obvious strengths of the witty source material - basically a film recording of a stage play, though of course the cameras move, the sets are more fully realized than any theater could hold and a light musical soundtrack adds subtle cues to accent the humorous passages. This version of The Importance of Being Earnest provides a valuable document of performances (and performers) whose accomplishments would be hard to duplicate in this era, the impulses to contemporize and paint with an ironic revisionist brush being so hard to resist nowadays. (Though I admit I've never seen the 2002 remake with Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Judi Dench - but I'll probably bring that version home sometime since my wife and daughter would probably enjoy it.) As a DVD, it's on the light side, and priced accordingly - no commentary, just a collection production stills and the trailer for special features. I'm glad to know that this delectable piece of fluff has found its way into the Criterion canon, but just as pleased to have it serve as more the exception than the rule.

This longer clip, from the end of the film, could be regarded as a spoiler of sorts, but a new viewer has little to lose by watching it. These scenes only get funnier the more we get to know the characters, so even if this is your first acquaintance with the play, give it a look and see if it invites you back for more:

From the looks of it, a splendid time was had by all involved with this production, and there's plenty of room for the rest of us to get in on the gag however we see fit - whether facetiously, or in earnest.

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