The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)


(director/writer: Anthony Asquith; screenwriter: from an Oscar Wilde play; cinematographer: Desmond Dickinson; editor: John D. Guthridge; music: Benjamin Frankel; cast: Michael Redgrave (Jack (Ernest) Worthing), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolen Fairfax), Edith Evans (Lady Augusta Bracknell), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily Cardew), Michael Denison (Algernon Moncrieff), Margaret Rutherford (Miss Letitia Prism), Miles Malleson (Reverend Chasuble), Aubrey Mather (Merriman); Runtime: 92; Javelin/Twin Cities; 1952-UK)

“A very competent and enjoyable rendition of Oscar Wilde’s most witty play from 1895.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A very competent and enjoyable rendition of Oscar Wilde’s most witty play from 1895, but not one that is anything special. When the popular play opened in 1895, it was interrupted by the arrest and conviction of its author Oscar Wilde on a charge of immorality (homosexuality). This film’s director and screenwriter is Anthony Asquith son of the British Home Secretary (later Prime Minister) Herbert Asquith, who ordered Wilde’s arrest in the first place. Anthony Asquith (“Pygmalion“) is good at getting the job done in filming English classics, but he never attempts to do more with this film than what’s expected. “Earnest” can be faulted only for not being cinema friendly, as it’s too stagy and lacks camera movements and some scenic splash to the ongoing verbal assault of Wilde’s. But the superb cast couldn’t be better in articulating Wilde’s comedy of manners. All the great epigrams are intact, such as my favorite “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.

Filmed in a sumptuous Technicolor and making no pretenses to hide its nature as a three-act play, there’s a red curtain that opens to a stage set when the film begins and closes on the stage set when it ends.

The plot centers around two bachelor fops, the sardonic and dashing younger Londonite Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison) and the more wealthy and frothy country-estate residing gentleman Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave). They are seen bickering over Jack’s double usage of the invented name Ernest. In London he uses that fictitious name to court Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen (Joan Greenwood), but while at home he says he is seeing his wayward brother Ernest in the city. They also disagree over how to resolve the cigarette case that Jack lost that’s found by Algy with the inscription ‘fondest love, from Cecily,’ as Jack denies that he’s the Ernest who lost the case–yet he maintains the case is his. Upon Algy’s badgering of who Cecily (Tutin) is, it turns out that she’s an 18-year-old who is his beautiful but tedious ward. It was her grandfather Thomas Cardew who raised him after he was abandoned in a handbag in Victoria Station, on the Brighton line, as he was handed the wrong package when he went to retrieve his.

Jack informs Algy that he’s in town to see Gwendolen and ask for her hand in marriage, as he courts her under the assumed name of Ernest — as his fiction continues by saying he has an older brother named Jack. Ernest’s a name that simply inspires her to love him, and one he therefore uses to win over the attractive but jejune ingénue.

In the film’s most delicious scene, the play’s ultimate snob and carrier of nonsensical badinage to the extreme, is the perfectly cast Edith Evans (she did the role onstage for 30 years) as Lady Augusta Bracknell. She struts in to her luncheon date with her cousin Algy adorned in a garish purple outfit and a bird figure stuck in her hat, with her not too bashful daughter Gwendolen half-obediently following her, all the while expecting her favorite cucumber sandwiches. Instead the servant Lane has to inform her that cucumbers weren’t available in the market today for any price, and the further bad news is that she sees the bachelor she never considered for her daughter, Ernest, in the room. When Ernest and Gwendolen are left alone as arranged in advance by Algy as they trade favors, he proposes and she accepts because she had already written in her diary that she can only love someone with the name of Ernest. But this proposal is squashed by Lady Bracknell when she hears of his origins in a handbag.

The next scene is almost as hilarious, as Algy overhears where Jack lives in the country and visits by masquerading as his younger brother Ernest. Here he instantly falls in love with Cecily. She mentions that Jack talked about his wicked brother, but this talk of how bad he is doesn’t daunt her. It only makes him more interesting of a personality. She grandly states, when Algy tries to say he isn’t so bad, “that it’s hypocritical to pretend to be wicked but instead to be leading a good life.” When he proposes, she tells him that she wrote in her diary three months ago that they were engaged, even though they never met. So when he asks her now, she naturally accepts, though she’s surprised he doesn’t know how to propose.

Jack surprisingly returns early from the city dressed in mourning clothes. He tells the Reverend Chasuble (Malleson) and Cecilia’s governess/tutor Miss Letitia Prism (Margaret Rutherford) that his brother Ernest died unexpectedly in Paris from a draft. The reverend has just been openly fawning over the tutor, as he tries to lure her to his vestry while she’s talking nonstop about something or other. He now gracefully retreats to let Jack go into mourning, alone. But Cecilia comes out of the parlor and gladly informs her guardian that his brother Ernest is alive and that they are engaged. You see, Cecily is also irrationally fixated on the name Ernest. She sees her job as to now make sure the brothers reconcile their differences. There will be two other visitors who unexpectedly arrive, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell, as the lover boys see the minister and arrange to be baptized with the Christian name Ernest.

“Earnest” is built upon a delightful play of words, misunderstanding and confusion that intertwine and it incredibly delivers a reasonable and well-constructed conclusion, all with a stately wit. Everything is illustriously cleared up upon the recognition of a handbag that belonged to Miss Prim, which Jack kept in storage in the hopes he could eventually find out who his real parents were by them identifying the bag.

This lighter-than-helium comical social satire incorporates in a faithful manner all the charm, bon mots and absurd humor Wilde invests in the play. Maybe, that’s good enough. Though some might take Wilde’s peerless words as a given, like manna from heaven, and would expect more from the director. I found myself sated, but avariciously expecting more.