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Importance of Being Earnest (1952), The

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // June 25, 2002
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 24, 2002 | E-mail the Author
The Importance of Being Earnest was the final production from famed playwright Oscar Wilde and was first performed just over a century ago. 2002 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Anthony Asquith's film adaptation, a milestone that perhaps somewhat coincidentally coincided with a glossy Hollywood take starring Rupert Everett and Reese Witherspoon. Either of those events alone would have provided more than enough of an excuse for this 1952 'trivial comedy for serious people' to be unearthed from the vaults. This very entertaining film was long overdue for a release on DVD, and thankfully it is in the capable hands of the folks at Criterion.

The Importance of Being Earnest is about two friends, each of whom uses an imaginary friend or relative as an excuse to duck out of thoroughly unpleasant situations. Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison) relies on the perpetually ill Mr. Bunbury to provide his escapes, and the esteemed Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) claims to have a wicked brother named Ernest who he must frequently visit in the city. 'Ernest' also happens to be the name Jack adopts while in London to provide an air of respectability. Algy's cousin Gwendolyn appears to be more in love with the name of Ernest than the man who claims to bear it. Regardless of her intentions, she and Jack are to be wed, much to the chagrin of her stodgy, overbearing mother. Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans) wants her daughter to marry into a respectable family, and though Jack is quite successful financially, his parentage remains somewhat of a mystery.

Algy, meanwhile, seizes an opportunity to visit both Jack's country home and his eighteen-year-old ward that resides there. Young Cecily (Dorothy Tutin) is well-acquainted with Jack's tales of his less than upstanding brother Ernest, and she's both surprised and delighted when a man bearing that name awaits her in the morning room. Cecily had created a fictional romance, complete with a broken engagement, with Jack's younger brother in her diary. Algernon is more than eager to bring Cecily's fantasies to fruition, though she too is so smitten with the name of Ernest that she's unwilling to accept Algernon under any other name. Things become increasingly complicated when Jack unexpectedly arrives, quickly followed by his fiancée and Lady Bracknell. Two women are in love with and expect to marry Ernest Worthing, and Jack and Algernon's ruses are soon to crumble.

Some may be reluctant to give The Importance of Being Earnest a fair shot due to its age. I'm of the opinion that truly exceptional material doesn't date. Yes, I may put on a Hitchcock film and wince at the shoddy rear projection, the presence of which is made all the more obvious by the level of clarity DVD provides. Still, a brilliantly crafted work will remain as thrilling, as touching, or as funny (feel free to insert your own adjectives, if you're so inclined) as its creators intended for countless decades to come. Wit isn't quite as susceptible to the ravages of time as, say, the Budweiser commercial parody in Scary Movie or the innumerable catch phrases of the thrice-damned Austin Powers series.

The Importance of Being Earnest is the rare sort of film I didn't want to end, finding myself disappointed when the credits made their inevitable appearance. The cast is as perfectly suited to the characters they portray as could be hoped for. I could lavish praise upon each and every actor and actress, from Michael Denison, whose sly grin alone was enough to make me laugh, to the insufferably cute Dorothy Tutin. The real show stealer is Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, a hysterically pompous character who is given a hefty portion of the best lines despite her limited time on-screen. Wilde's dialogue and deft wordplay is what makes the film so memorable. I toyed with idea of including a quote at the beginning, but I found myself wholly unable to just select one.

Panning such recent successful franchises as Scary Movie and Austin Powers may have lead to some readers dismissing my opinions as the semi-coherent rantings of a film snob. I'm afraid that's not the case, or at least in regards to the snobbery bit in that statement. I'm not quite as well-versed in classic cinema as the far more informed DVD Savant, who has, incidentally, also written a review of this particular DVD. If anything, I'm often embarrassed about the self-imposed limitations I so frequently apply to my film collection, which consists of precious few films produced before 1970. Works such as this inspire me to greatly broaden my horizons. The style of humor in The Importance of Being Earnest admittedly may not be for everyone. I personally found the film to be very entertaining, and it may prove to be an accessible starting point for those interested in the Criterion Collection. I get the distinct feeling that The Importance of Being Earnest will hold up remarkably well to repeat viewings, and I'm very much looking forward to watching it again in the very near future.

Video: The theatrical aspect ratio of The Importance of Being Earnest is handsomely preserved on this full-frame DVD release from Criterion. The source material appears to be in respectable shape, free of any noteworthy print damage or even moderate speckling. Whatever clean-up may have taken place in digital domain hasn't had a negative effect on crispness or clarity, lacking the processed appearance that often accompanies that sort of fiddling. The distinctively Technicolor hues fluctuate slightly on occasion, and the opening credits look considerably less attractive than the remainder of the feature. Still, whatever concerns one might have about the presentation of this fifty year old film teeter on inconsequential.

Audio: The monaural soundtrack of The Importance of Being Earnest sounds much as expected. No hiss or harsh crackling caught my attention, though the audio's range is greatly limited. This is rarely much of an issue as the film is so heavily driven by dialogue, and every utterance remains discernable throughout. The score contributed by Benjamin Frankel (nominated for a Golden Globe in 1966 for Warner Bros.' Battle of the Bulge) suffers the most, sounding anemic and tinny as it creaked from my center speaker. That's a minor issue at best, however. I found myself turning up the volume a fair amount higher than I generally do, but I wasn't particularly disappointed with the quality of the audio by any means.

English subtitles are listed on the packaging and accessible through a remote or software option, though there is no available menu option to enable them.

Supplements: "Images In Context" is a combination of two typical DVD supplements, the still gallery and production notes. Images of the cast, crew, and director Anthony Asquith are interspersed with pages of text penned by film historian and Criterion mainstay Bruce Eder. The full-frame theatrical trailer (2:43) has been windowboxed, presumably to protect the on-screen text from overscanning. Actor / playwright / author Charles Dennis contributes a set of liner notes as well.

The film has been divided into 21 chapters. The twenty-second stop on the Scene Selection screen features the obligatory Criterion color bars.

Conclusion: The Importance of Being Earnest is easily among the wittiest, most skillfully crafted comedies I've had the pleasure of experiencing in the past few years. The amount of supplemental material may not be up to the standards so typically associated with Criterion, but what's provided, as is the case with the quality of the audio and video, is far more than acceptable. The Importance of Being Earnest at least deserves a rental, and I'd very highly recommend it as an addition to most any DVD collection.
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