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Friday Film Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
Genre: Comedy of manners
Grade: A

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.”

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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 è 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.

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

18 Comments

  1. library addict
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 05:33:06

    I’ve never seen the 1952 version.

    I enjoyed the remake for Colin Firth and Rupert Everett, plus the always wonderful Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson. Reese Witherspoon had a terrible accent, but was otherwise okay. Frances O’Connor was miscast IMO.

  2. Jayne
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 06:01:53

    @library addict: Despite its great cast, when I tried the remake I only made it through about 15 minutes. To me, there is just no comparison.

  3. Merrian
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 06:03:57

    @library addict: The 1952 version is far superior to the re-make. Judi Dench is not a patch on Edith Evans when it comes to Lady Bracknell and the aesthetic (japanese influence) design of the bachelor apartment is spot on for the period

  4. Miranda Neville
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 07:32:23

    Yes! Thank you quoting some of Oscar Wilde’s best lines and for pointing out the miracle of Joan Greenwood’s tone. (There are many English actors who get voice love — Alan Rickman! — but not enough actresses.) I thought the Rupert Everett version an abomination that makes me shudder when I think of it. And I paid theater admission for that one.

  5. Jayne
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 08:02:06

    @Miranda Neville: I could listen to Rickman or Greenwood all day long. Love their voices!

    And oh, poor pitiful you to have paid to watch the remake. At least I only forked out the Netflix rental price for it.

  6. Isobel Carr
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 09:30:22

    It’s hard to go wrong with Wilde. The man was brilliant and very, very funny. But I agree with Jayne that the 1952 version is superior to the Firth remake. There was just something “off” about the newer one. The cast sounded fantastic, but they didn't pull it off.

  7. Jayne
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 10:35:55

    @Isobel Carr: I’ve read some reviews in which people say the new cast was trying too hard, or the director was. And there’s something about a tattoo?

  8. Darlynne
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 10:35:56

    Fortunately I saw the remake first, which made the 1952 version even better. Still, I loved the cast in the new one, even if it didn’t work as well.

  9. Christine Rimmer
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 13:14:32

    I do love this play. So many of my favorite lines are in it, a few of which you quoted here. And Jayne, I so agree that the 1952 movie is the best recorded version–so far!

    I think my favorite all-time quote is Gwendolyn’s: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

  10. Evangeline Holland
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 19:18:21

    Thanks for reviewing this! There’s so much being added to Netflix’s streaming, it’s difficult to keep track of it all. I am currently on a mission to watch all of the film adaptations of Wilde’s plays (I’m currently on the 1949 Fox adaptation, of Lady Windermere’s Fan, known as The Fan, starring Jeanne Crain and George Sanders), and this is going to the top of my streaming queue.

  11. Jayne
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 21:10:59

    @Evangeline Holland: I think streaming will be the way to go. Especially after the USPS stops Saturday delivery. My queue has gone from barely a handful of possible streaming movies to 3/4 of them available as that option. I’ve also heard that a lot of rental DVDs are now going to be just the movie without any extras.

  12. Lynne Connolly
    Mar 25, 2011 @ 23:39:25

    Thank you for reviewing the real version! The remake was simply awful, despite Dame Judi’s admirable effort at Lady Bracknell. But nobody absolutely nobody does it like Dame Edith Evans. An amazing actress. There is a small budget film called “The Whisperers” which is one of the most brilliantly acted things I’ve ever seen. Just Dame Edith, for the most part.
    And of course the rest of the cast are simply brilliant. Joan Greenwood excelled in “Kind Hearts and Coronets” as the aspirational love of the hero, played by the blatantly (for the time) gay Denis Price. That will always be one of my favourite films. Alec Guiness having fun playing all the members of the D’Ascoigne family, too. “I shot an arrow in the air, she came to earth in Berkeley Square.”

  13. Jayne
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 05:41:36

    @Lynne Connolly: When I read the quotes I included here, I “hear” them in Evans’ voice. She is just superb. And now I must rewatch “Kind Hearts” as it’s been too long since I’ve seen it.

  14. CupK8
    Mar 26, 2011 @ 12:47:33

    I liked the remake, but I didn’t love it. It was definitely more of a film adaptation with emphasis on the second word – Wilde’s clever text all but disappeared under the gimmicks, fun as they were. It was disjointing because the comedy wasn’t coming from the language, which is Wilde’s strength.

    I am so so so happy this is on Netflix! I’ve never seen the 1952 version, and I am definitely going to. :)

  15. Susan/DC
    Mar 27, 2011 @ 19:58:20

    Is it in this play that someone (Lady Bracknell?) describes a recent widow thus: “her hair has gone quite gold with grief”?

    I’ve wanted Joan Greenwood’s voice ever since I saw her in “Tom Jones”. Her voice had both plummy vowels and sex — an incendiary combination in my book.

  16. Jayne
    Mar 28, 2011 @ 05:54:11

    @Susan/DC:I just ordered a copy of an early Joan Greenwood movie called “Whisky Galore” just so I can hear more of her voice.

    Actually it’s Algernon who says that wonderful line but Lady Bracknell has a good one on the subject too.

    Lady Bracknell. I'm sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury. I hadn't been there since her poor husband's death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger. And now I'll have a cup of tea, and one of those nice cucumber sandwiches you promised me.

    Algernon. Certainly, Aunt Augusta. [Goes over to tea-table.]

    Lady Bracknell. Won't you come and sit here, Gwendolen?

    Gwendolen. Thanks, mamma, I'm quite comfortable where I am.

    Algernon. [Picking up empty plate in horror.] Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially.

    Lane. [Gravely.] There were no cucumbers in the market this morning, sir. I went down twice.

    Algernon. No cucumbers!

    Lane. No, sir. Not even for ready money.

    Algernon. That will do, Lane, thank you.

    Lane. Thank you, sir. [Goes out.]

    Algernon. I am greatly distressed, Aunt Augusta, about there being no cucumbers, not even for ready money.

    Lady Bracknell. It really makes no matter, Algernon. I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to me to be living entirely for pleasure now.

    Algernon. I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.

    Lady Bracknell. It certainly has changed its colour. From what cause I, of course, cannot say.

  17. Little Red
    Mar 28, 2011 @ 16:18:17

    Ooh, this 1952 version is so going into my queue right now.

  18. Connie
    Mar 29, 2011 @ 19:00:30

    Ahhh I watched this in my Lit class years ago after we had to read the play over spring break (of which I had mistook that I was suppose to read The Picture of Dorian Gray because that was the main story in the book with IOBE in the back and I had found out the day before the class that I was suppose to read the play). I’ll admit that I watched the re-make because Colin Firth was in it….
    In retrospect, I’ve read some of the best books in highschool because of English classes but now I’m only reading a specific genre. It’s a little sad.

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