The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
Genre: Comedy of manners
I first saw the 1952 version of “The Importance of Being Earnest” years ago and fell in love with it instantly. It’s funny, it’s got a topnotch cast, the directing is perfect – in short it’s all that it should be. Whenever I watch it, I’m always delighted and come away smiling. It’s the best pick-me-up I have.
I shall borrow Paul Brenner’s synopsis of the film as trying to describe it is a feat unto itself.
“Anthony Asquith’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s witty play of mistaken identities stars Michael Redgrave as rich bachelor Jack Worthing. Jack’s friend is Algernon Moncrieft (Michael Denison), a poor bloke living on credit. Jack refers mysteriously to Algernon about his country retreat, which drives Algernon to distraction, trying to figure out where Jack goes on the weekends. Jack is also in love with Algernon’s attractive cousin Gwendolen (Joan Greenwood). He also has a ward, Cecily Cardew (Dorothy Tutin), who lives at the country estate and studies with local spinster Miss Prism (Margaret Rutherford). When Algernon learns of Cecily, he arrives at the country home claiming to be Jack’s brother Earnest, knowing Jack had previously regaled Cecily with tales of having to bail the fictitious Earnest out of scrapes so he could sneak out to the city. Having set her eyes on “Earnest” in the flesh after having heard countless tales of his intrigues, Cecily immediately falls in love with Earnest. Meanwhile, Jack comes back to the country dressed in black, determined to announce to the group the demise of the fictional Earnest. As a result, Jack is stupefied when he sees Earnest standing in front of him. Meanwhile, Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans) refuses to grant permission for Jack and Gwendolen’s engagement. However, when Lady Bracknell finds out that Algernon is in love with Cecily, she asks Jack for his blessing on their marriage. Of course, Jack won’t give his blessing until Lady Bracknell gives her blessing to his proposed marriage to Gwendolen. All is at a standstill until Lady Bracknell recognizes Miss Prism as a governess from the past who holds secrets concerning both Jack and Algernon.”
The film is a delicious skewering of upper class Victorian society which starts from the very beginning and never lets up. Jack is pompous, Algernon is ne’er do well, Gwendolen is a snob, Cecily is silly, Prism is a fluttery idiot and Lady Bracknell is a force of nature but I love them all and adore this cast’s portrayal of them.
I have several favorite scenes but tops among them are the scene where Jack proposes to Gwendolen (in a semi-recumbant posture after she’s informed him that she intends to accept him), which is followed by Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack as a marriage candidate for her daughter, as well as when Cecily informs Algernon (who she’s only just met) that they’ve been engaged for 3 months and shows him this in her diary, then when Cecily and Gwendolen turn afternoon tea into a verbal fencing match after which Lady Bracknell quizzes Cecily on her suitability to be Algernon’s bride and then turns her questioning on Prism as to “Where is that baby?!”
But it isn’t just the upper classes who are dead on in the film. The servants are fantastic as well including Jack’s valet Seton who holds off on pouring a bucket over the bathing Jack until Jack’s finished his rendition of “La donna Ã¨ mobile,” Algernon’s servant who covers for Algie’s indulgence in eating all the cucumber sandwiches which were obtained for Lady Bracknell, and Merriman, Jack’s country house butler, who silently cheers on Cecily in her showdown with Gwendolen after he’s finally sent away the dog cart.
However, I think Edith Evans and her portrayal of Lady Bracknell seal the position of this film as the best edition. She has some of the most wonderful lines in the entire production.
Lady Bracknell: Are your parents living?
Jack Worthing: I have lost both my parents.
Lady Bracknell: To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
Lady Bracknell: Do you smoke?
Jack Worthing: Well yes, I must admit I smoke.
Lady Bracknell: I’m glad to hear it. A man should have an occupation of some kind.
Lady Bracknell: Thirty-five is an attractive age. London is full of women of the highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.
Lady Bracknell: To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people an opportunity of finding out each other’s characters before marriage. Which I think is never advisable
Lady Bracknell: Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.
Lady Bracknell: I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.
Jack Worthing: Well, I don’t see how I could possibly manage to do that, Lady Bracknell. I can produce the hand-bag at any moment. It is in my dressing-room at home. I really think that should satisfy you, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell: Me, sir! What has it to do with me? You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter – a girl brought up with the utmost care – to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel? Good morning, Mr. Worthing!
And I want a deep, husky, plumy voice like Joan Greenwood’s. I yearn for such a voice.
Those of you who are members of Netflix can indulge immediately and watch it through online streaming. There is also a bare-bones DVD available, a copy of which has been in my collection for years. Pay attention to all the dialogue as it is witty, fizzy and fun – even while the actors are mainly playing it straight. Indeed, that adds to the film’s delight. This, in my opinion, is the definitive version – even after 50 years and well deserving of an A grade.