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
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
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
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
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
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:
Supplements: Stills, production notes by Bruce Eder, Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 22, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson