Aug. 17, 2009
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
Grade: 75/100

Director: Anthony Asquith
Stars: Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Edith Evans

What it's about. A faithful adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy, written in 1895 and set in the same late Victorian era. Jack (Michael Redgrave) is a serious Englishman who leads an advantageous double life.

At his country estate, he is a pious man who resides with gorgeous teenaged ward Cecily (Dorothy Tutin) and her elderly German tutor Miss Prism (Margaret Rutherford). But he often travels to London, citing the need to rescue his troubled, profligate brother Ernest. Ernest doesn't exist, but once in the city, Jack assumes the identity of Ernest so that his wild oats do not impugn Jack's character.

While acting as Ernest, he becomes engaged to Gwendolen (Joan Greenwood), an exquisite young woman who returns his love principally because she is fascinated with his first name. Another difficulty for Jack is that Gwendolen's outrageously snobbish mother Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans) refuses to sanction the marriage unless Jack can prove his lineage, a problem since Jack was adopted.

Jack has an obnoxious friend, Algernon (Michael Denison). Algernon develops an obsession for Jack's ward Cecily, based solely upon an inscription of hers within a gift to Jack (this is weakest point in the entire plot). When Jack returns to his country estate to get his name legally changed to Ernest, Algernon follows him there, and poses as Jack's wayward brother Ernest. Algernon successfully courts the comely Cecily, who, like Gwendolen, also is curiously fixated with the idea of marriage to a man named Ernest.

Since this is a work of fiction, Gwendolen also shows up at Jack's manor, presumably to elope, and Lady Bracknell arrives soon after, presumably to stop the marriage. But like all true comedies, it all ends happily, after a preposterous series of events reveals Jack's honorable family tree.

How others will see it. The Importance of Being Earnest is of greatest interest to knowledgeable fans of British theater and cinema. After all, they will be familiar with director Asquith, the son of a British Prime Minister. They will also know who Wilde is (apart from being a scandalous homosexual), and will actually recognize both Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans. The latter would garner three Oscar nominations during the 1960s. They might also be surprised that Dorothy Tutin, making her film debut here, was ever so young and adorable. Tutin was never a household name in the States, but in England her stage work led Queen Elizabeth II to make Tutin a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Since all the actors have perfect upper class diction, the dialogue is readily followed by American viewers. Algernon's smarmy, scheming character will also be appreciated. The two hot young women are stereotypes, but Wilde gives them excellent lines, and Edith Evans' ceaseless imitation of Edna May Oliver is a hoot.

How I felt about it. Admittedly, the story has more holes than Swiss cheese. Why is Algernon obsessed with meeting Cecily? After all, Jack does not describe her as a delicacy, and he doesn't mention her inheritance to him. Since Cecily is beautiful, Jack would stay at home instead of finding any every excuse to visit London.

Then there is both ladies' obsession with marrying only someone with the name Ernest, and the improbable event of Lady Bracknell encountering Miss Prism and recognizing her as the scandalous servant from 35 years ago. Miss Prism readily admits her guilt, which is unlikely since she values her station. Most curious of all, Miss Prism has worked in the Worthing household for years, but is astonished to recognize her old handbag, the same handbag that has been under glass in Jack's room all this time. Even if he had not mentioned it and its significance, surely she would have come across it during that span of time.

The ladies are quick to forgive their rascally fiancés, despite lying to them under assumed identities, and despite the fact that their name Ernest is their major attraction.

These objections are with the source play, and in any event, are made unimportant by the remarkably witty dialogue. It is especially enjoyable when the veneer of sociability is stretched to the breaking point over a wave of underlying sarcasm, contempt, and/or hostility.

In upper class British behavior, it is bad form to actually yell at someone, no matter the provocation. Lady Bracknell nearly violates this rule by exclaiming "A handbag!," the single most famous line from the play. However, there is no rule against impugning the character of one's adversary in blunt terms, as long as the sound of one's voice can be liberally interpreted as polite. Taking this rule to its limit provides the droll humor.