Movie Review – The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
by NIR SHALEV
Oscar Wilde will always be remembered as one of the wittiest playwrights in the history of the English language and we are reminded of that fact whenever we watch one of his immortal plays. For over a hundred years his plays have been performed on various stages all around the world, but they have only been turned into films a handful of times.
Director Anthony Asquith’s interpretation of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnestis the most accurate of the Wilde adaptations and still one of the most popular. Asquith was a famous name in England, having directed Pygmalion (1938) with Leslie Howard and The Browning Version (1951) with Michael Redgrave, and he was one of the only three British directors of the 1960s, the others being David Lean and Carol Reed, who were making major international motion picture productions at that time.
Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax (Joan Greenwood) and is intimidated by her aunt Augusta (Dame Edith Evans) because she makes all of Gwendolen’s decisions. He’s also been claiming to be named Ernest because “in the country I am Jack, in the city I am Ernest.” As Ernest, he goes to the city from his country home and visits Gwendolen, while in the country he is Jack and looks after his young ward Cecily Cardew (Dorothy Tutin). His best friend and moocher is Aunt Augusta’s nephew Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison). When Algy hears about Ernest’s 18 year old ward Cecily he decides to go to Jack’s country home and pretend to be his brother Ernest.
Yes, it’s confusing at first so hear me out and try to keep up: Algy pretends to be Ernest in the country and falls in love with Cecily and Ernest shows up in the country, except now he’s actually Jack. Jack informs Cecily of Ernest’s (Algy’s) outrageous behavior in the city and tries to keep Algy away from her. That is until Gwendolen shows up looking for Ernest, who is Jack. She and Cecily hit it off right away and eventually confide in one another about each other’s fiancee. Gwendolen is engaged to and loves Jack, who she knows as Ernest while Cecily claims that Ernest, believing Algy to be Ernest, is engaged to marry her. They eventually figure out that Ernest is Jack and Algy is Algy, and neither one really is Ernest nor does either one have a brother. Soon after, both men are prepared to re-christen themselves to be named Ernest because both women prefer that name, and it only gets more confusing from there.
There is also a Miss Prism (Margaret Rutherford) who looks after and educates Cecily and a Canon Chasuble (Miles Malleson) who is interested in Miss Prism; they have a lot to do in the third act. Aunt Augusta has a big part to play too. Yet after all the craziness Wilde sums the story up perfectly. No loose ends are left and all your questions are answered.
What is striking about this version of the play are the performances and the colors of the cinematography. Each actor plays their part with the pomp that comes with the territory of being an aristocrat during the Victorian era but they somehow seem legit. The performances are not constrained or held back, as one might imagine, and the actors walk about as comfortable with their dialogue as they are with their costumes.
The achievements in Technicolor are stellar: as we watch production values go through the roof we are able to see spectacular greens, blues, reds, and purples on persons and on wallpapers. Much like in Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz the use of color here is soft and it makes the overall effect richer; the pink hues on faces, the greens and blues on dresses and the greenery in the outdoors stand out like in Renoir’s painting.
Wilde criticized the Victorians in every way that he could and showcased their faults through comedy. He was a notorious homosexual and master aesthetician who put his take on society and on romance into his writings. And the fact that he coated his writings with humor made the pill easier to swallow.
The title The Importance of Being Earnest is one of many plays on words, using the words “earnest” and the name “Ernest” in their proper contexts. Underneath all the wordplay is a biting social satire that conveys its true meaning with ease. This film version has stood the test of time because Wilde’s insights are still topical toward what we, in our contemporary society can be like and because it’s just darned funny. You will find something new every time you watch this film and that’s a really neat trick to pull.