The Importance of Being Earnest
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Some critics attacked Oliver Parker's recent version of The Importance of Being Earnest for its attempt to make a movie out of this most hermetic of drawing room comedies. His strategy? Introduce improbable dream sequences and foolish flashbacks of made-up histories for some of the characters. Parker's desire to "cinematize" the movie is understandable given modern audiences' impatience with filmed plays, but it can also be read as a specific response to the faithful, almost idolatrous approach to author Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest seen in Anthony Asquith's celebrated 1952 version. And while Parker's film fails in just about every respect, there's something to be said for the idea of opening up the play. Asquith's version, recently released on DVD from Criterion, goes to the opposite extreme. Essentially a photographed record, albeit in enameled Technicolor, of The Importance of Being Earnest starring some of the top British stage and screen talent of the period, the film has little cinematic interest. And, equally problematic, by surrendering the movie entirely to the play's gratingly superficial characters and their exhausting parade of bon mots, it actually throws into high relief The Importance of Being Earnest's flaws.

Asquith shows his hand immediately in the film's opening sequence in which a high-society couple, dressed in period costumes, enter a theatre box to watch, with us, the film we are about to see. The credits appear on handbills, and the play's three acts are separated by the dropping of a blazingly red theatrical curtain. (It's not surprising that Asquith wrote an article in 1953 for Theatre Arts magazine about the importance of fidelity in filming a play.)

The first characters we glimpse are Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) and his friend Algernon "Algie" Moncrieff (Michael Denison). They share a secret that soon comes out: each has created a phony alter ego to give play to a different side of their personality. Worthing is responsible Jack in the country and daring "Earnest" in town, where he can be close to his beloved, Gwendolen Fairfax (Joan Greenwood). Womanizing Algie has invented an ailing friend, "Bunbury," to visit when he wants to retreat from his wild city life to the country for rest. Standing in the way of Jack's marriage to Gwendolen is the formidable Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans), a snob who refuses to let Gwendolen marry him because he lacks parents. (He's an orphan with a mysterious past.) Meanwhile, the existence of Jack's beautiful 18-year-old ward, Cecily Cardew (Dorothy Tutin), who lives with him at the country house, has been discovered by Algie, who immediately pretends to be Jack's brother "Earnest" and heads to the country house to woo her.

A numbing series of complications ensue. We meet Cecily and her garrulous tutor, Miss Prism (Margaret Rutherford), and the vicar in love with the latter. Algie arrives pretending to be Earnest, to discover that Cecily already "loves" him, having heard about him from Jack as his "wicked" brother. Meanwhile, Gwendolen comes to be with Jack, whom she knows only as Earnest, and the two women are confounded by, and then bond over, the idea they've both been proposed to by the same man: Earnest. The arrival of Lady Bracknell opens a floodgate of problems, all tidily resolved when Miss Prism helps identify exactly who the orphan Jack/Earnest is.

The Importance of Being Earnest, play and film, is admired for its absurd characters and situations carried to preposterous extremes, and Asquith's gifted cast undoubtedly acquits itself well. Despite being too old for the part (the character is 28), 44-year-old Michael Redgrave effectively sketches the conventional but occasionally wayward Jack Worthing. Michael Denison adroitly manages Wilde's nonstop stream of witticisms. Joan Greenwood and Dorothy Tutin, in her debut, amusingly embody society women who are as superficial as they men who love them. Margaret Rutherford brings her usual confused sweetness to the Miss Prism role. And Evans' Lady Bracknell is considered definitive. (A comparison with Judi Dench's one-note version in the recent remake will confirm this.)

Above all, The Importance of Being Earnest is treasured for its epigrammatic dialogue, which Asquith gruelingly catalogs. The famous "All women become like their mother. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is theirs." comes from Algie. Lady Bracknell has a litany of lines: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness!" or, of a friend whose husband died, "I never saw a woman so altered. She looks twenty years younger." To which Algie adds, "I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief." Even the character who most approaches the human, Miss Prism, becomes a spokesperson for Wilde's cynicisms. Told of the "death of Earnest," she says, "What a lesson for him. I trust he will profit from it."

Asquith allows his actors to milk these lines to maximum effect. Evans, particularly, uses all manner of verbal trickery to heighten the absurdity of her character. Most often she stretches one-syllable words into many. It's not a handbag, it's a "hannnnnnnd-baaaaag." And it wasn't found, it was "fou-u-u-u-nd!" Such carrying on is amusing for awhile, but like the play, it overstays its welcome. With all the characters and all their concerns blatant mouthpieces for the author's wit, never emerging into their own personalities, the film becomes tiresome and irritating, drained of life by the hammering of bravura dialogue and the flatness of its characters. This Importance of Being Earnest works as a letter-perfect historical record of the play, and so rises and falls on the strength of that play rather than on its (nonexistent) cinematic impulses.

This was the last of Wilde's plays, written in 1894 and premiered in 1895. It was mostly well received by the critics, with a few notable exceptions, such as George Bernard Shaw. The public was equally responsive, at least until producer George Alexander, stung by the author's well-publicized sex scandal, first removed Wilde's name and then stopped the advertising. After a less than three-month run of 81 performances, The Importance of Being Earnest disappeared, to be revived as one of the author's most popular works starting soon after his death in 1900.

Wilde himself thought the play "really very funny," but Shaw's contrary reaction deserves to be quoted: "It amuses me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening. I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter, not to be tickled or bustled into it; and that is why, though I laugh as much as anybody at a farcical comedy, I am out of spirits before the end of the second act, and out of temper before the end of the third, my miserable mechanical laughter intensifying these symptoms at every outburst. If the public ever becomes intelligent enough to know when it is really enjoying itself and when it is not, there will be an end to farcical comedy." An assessment that applies equally well to Asquith's diamond-bright but ultimately suffocatingly faithful rendering of a play capsized by the very superficiality it criticizes.

The Criterion DVD shows off the Technicolor to good effect, with only an occasional bit of jumpiness or color shifting. Extras include a photo gallery and an informative essay by historian Bruce Eder that includes, among other things, the fact that Asquith's father, Herbert, was one of the officials responsible for Wilde's prosecution. We could thus read his version of The Importance of Being Earnest as the revenge of Asquith, a gay man whose sympathies were clearly with Wilde, on his father and the forces he represented.

The Importance of Being Earnest is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer. The disc includes a selection of rare production stills and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.