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Savant Review:


The Importance of Being Earnest
Criterion 158
1952 / Color / 1:37 / 95 min. / Street Date June 25, 2002 / $29.95
Starring Michael Redgrave, Richard Wattis, Michael Denison, Walter Hudd, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Dorothy Tutin, Margaret Rutherford, Miles Malleson
Cinematography Desmond Dickinson
Art Direction Carmen Dillon
Film Editor John D. Guthridge
Original Music Benjamin Frankel
Written by Anthony Asquith from the play by Oscar Wilde
Produced by Teddy Baird, Earl St. John
Directed by Anthony Asquith

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Played in stuffy high style and pickled in the mannerisms and wit of Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest builds a relentless wave of comedy invention and farcical brilliance. Even if it weren't such a deft social satire, it could coast on humor alone - there's more cleverness here than in a decade of television sitcoms. The best thing about this examination of impossibly stuffy social climbers is its complete unstuffy-ness. It's entirely possible to walk away a confirmed fan of elderly actresses Dame Edith Evans and Margaret Rutherford.


A comedy of manners among the wealthy elite of England. Young Bachelor Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) has invented a ne'er-do-well brother Ernest as an identity to take with him when he visits London. He wants to wed the deliciously vain Gwendolyn Fairfax (Joan Greenwood) and plans to tell her his real identity, but when proposing finds out that the name Ernest is his main attraction for her. Hanging on like a pest to Jack's hospitality is young Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison), Gwendolyn's cousin who admires Jack's deceptions, and needs to marry into money, fast. Algy tricks Jack into revealing his home address and skips out to court Jack's beautiful ward Cecily Cardew (Dorothy Tutin), also using the name Earnest, and finding out that his new bride-to be also has a fixation on the name Earnest as her only possible mate. Jack comes home bewailing the loss of his non-existent brother, as a precursor to changing his own name to Earnest through a re-christening by Canon Chasuble (Miles Malleson), only to find Algy already installed. In quick succession, Gwendolyn and her battleship-like mother Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans) show up to size up Earnest/Jack's country estate. Gwendolyn and Cecily square off like polite beasts when they think they're engaged to the same man; Algy and Jack find their deceptions impossible to maintain; and while pursuing matrimony with the Canon, Cecily's companion the elderly Miss Leticia Prism (Margaret Rutherford) has a surprise of her own to reveal.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a perfect farce because it takes a nigh-impossible premise, builds on it with one unlikely event after another, yet never loses sight of logic. Character-based humor blossoms in every situation. Even better, it all means something - a witty dissection of the hypocrisy and obsessions of Victorian England. The comedy is simultaneously broad and razor-sharp: even the character names are grossly descriptive.

Mr. Wilde's veddy proper Britain is populated by impossible buffalos like the imposing Lady Bracknell, who polices the social order like a bloodhound. The doddering couple, Canon Chausable and Letitia Prism are able to pursue a natural courtship, but only because they're both pushing 70. To achieve a manly independence, the male leads of the story must resort to becoming habitual liars and poseurs, constantly risking exposure and humiliation.

Michael Redgrave's Jack has plenty to hide; his deceptions stem from the mystery of his own birth, as he was found in a lady's handbag in Victoria Station. This social indiscretion makes him terminally unsuitable for marriage into what Lady Bracknell would deem any decent family, no matter how wealthy he is. For his part, Michael Denison's Algernon is a borderline cad, a penniless loafer who can't tell love from a soft marriage to the luscious Cecily. Yet he's just another youthful con artist hoping his deceptions aren't uncovered.

The women are hilarious beyond description. Cecily and Gwendolyn are both obsessed with their diaries, and dedicated to intricate fantasies that their boyfriends are expected to indulge. Both fall in love for ridiculously superficial reasons (the name Earnest). The velvet-voiced Gwendolyn feigns simple innocence, while guiding Jack like a pro; the fresh-faced Cecily accepts Algy only because he's willing to play along with the elaborate, fictional romantic scenario she's invented in her diary. When the two females square off over what seem to be crossed engagements, verbal sparks fly, while proper decorum is of course observed. The exchange of veiled insults and invectives tumbles from their mouths as ladylike niceties.

Wilde has no great class issues to pursue. His noble upperclass twits are too ridiculous to stand up to that kind of pressure. The servants we see are dependable and silent, and don't comment on the tomfoolery like a rogue's chorus. Being a farce, characters are sized up in a moment. One look at Jack's butler's face (played by the unruffle-able Richard Wattis of The Prince and the Showgirl, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Abominable Snowman) and we know he exists on the other side of an invisible wall from Jack. Thus, a farce like The Importance of Being Earnest achieves in a couple of seconds what it takes the naturalistic Gosford Park a half hour to establish.

The other types in the show can't be called supporting players. Their parts are not only almost as large, they have half the good lines. Edith Evans bellows and belittles, using her voice like a club. The Honeymooners' Jackie Gleason has nothing on her, as she reacts violently and audibly ("A HAND - BAGGGG!") to every step of Jack's improbable origin story. Margaret Rutherford has the least screen time but is completely adorable in a wonderful role, that of an ancient spinster drawing a bead on the man of her dreams, the portly, bald Miles Malleson. When she brings up the subject of marriage, her baggy eyes darting about in sheer glee, she's the cutest thing in the show.

The Importance of Being Earnest is a fancy Technicolor production where everyone is appropriately trussed up in impossibly stiff costumes. We're used to seeing latter-day recreations of the period styles done either without comment or with a facile cuteness. Here the uncomfortable creations are inseparable from the characters, from Bracknell's funereal ton of fabric, to Cecily and Gwendolyn's ornate creations, that look as if vines of multi-colored lace grew up their arms and neck. Jack and Algy are trussed into a selection of stiff-looking day coats, including one white, "Tennis, anyone?" number that must be hideous on purpose. When Jack proposes, he has to calculate before going down on one knee.

Criterion's DVD of The Importance of Being Earnest is a very good transfer of this vintage Technicolor production. Getting a good picture was essential for a show where surface looks are everything, and the disc looks great. I've only tried to see it once before, in a poor 16mm print, and couldn't stay the course, so to speak. Here it is delightful. The main extras are a trailer that emphasizes the prestigious nature of the film, and an excellent discussion of all the players and creatives, folded into a choice selection of stills. When told straight by Brude Eder, the stories of these personalities are very interesting, as some of them started working practically in the era depicted. Eder does a nice job of characterizing careers, managing to present cameraman Desmond Dickinson's purposeful plummet from the highest Brit productions to the exploitation depths of Trog and Incense for the Damned without getting snippy.

I don't think you'll get fourteen year-olds away from their video games to watch it, but anybody reasonably coherent and open-minded will find The Importance of Being Earnest a rich treat.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Importance of Being Earnest rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Stills, production notes by Bruce Eder, Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 22, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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