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The Importance of Being Earnest

(United Kingdom, 1952, 95 minutes, color 16 mm)

Directed by Anthony Asquith


Michael Redgrave . . . . . . . . . Jack Worthing
Michael Denison . . . . . . . . . Algernon Moncrieff
Edith Evans . . . . . . . . . Lady Bracknell
Joan Greenwood . . . . . . . . . Gwendolen Fairfax

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

Director Anthony Asquith knew something about English manners. He was the son of Herbert Asquith, first Earl of Oxford and Prime Minister of England from 1908 to 1915. He had the requisite toney British public school education, at Winchester, where he picked up the requisite obnoxious British public school nickname—for the rest of his life, his closest friends called him "Puffin." From there, it was on to Balliol College, Oxford. It looked like he might join his father in political life or venture into the gentlemanly life in the diplomatic service, or perhaps settle down to a life of productive ease as a professional nobleman.

But while he was at Oxford, Asquith stumbled into the world of the movies; in 1925, with George Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley and H.G. Wells, he helped found the legendary Oxford Film Society. He happily surrendered his life of privilege for a role as a gopher and jack-of-all-trades in the then somewhat raffish British film industry. Working on a low-rent BEN-HUR lookalike called BOADICEA, in 1926, Asquith was property master, assistant make-up man, assistant editor, and even a stand-in for the leading lady in the dangerous chariot racing sequences. His passion for the movies was immense, and he proved a quick study. Soon, he was writing scripts, and he began directing in 1928. His first talkie was the remarkable anti-war film TELL ENGLAND in 1931, a film hailed throughout the world as one of England’s best. The film revealed the subtlety of style Asquith would be known for, and its subject, an attack on British decision-making in the Gallipoli campaign, repudiated the upper-class vanity he had seen so often. In his own way, Asquith became as politically active as his father. But the younger Asquith’s politics veered distinctively Left, and he won the deathless gratitude of his fellow cinema workers when he became the first president of the major union in the British film industry.

Many successes followed—PYGMALION, THE DEMI-PARADISE, THE WAY TO THE STARS, THE BROWNING VERSION—and Asquith moved to the front rank of British directors.

Asquith had a veteran’s eye for the brittle deceits and empty social rituals of the upper crust. And as a gay man, the incisive but excruciating niceties at the heart of Oscar Wilde’s great comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest must have had for him a double attraction.

Asquith brought to the film an economy of means and an elegance of style that perfectly complemented Wilde’s paring-knife prose. He ignored the conventional wisdom about ‘opening up’ a play in its translation to the screen. Instead, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST makes of itself a kind of high society locked room mystery. The play’s joust over the identity of the endlessly offstage Ernest takes place almost entirely in "Algernon Moncreif’s" (Michael Denison) flat, and at the country seat of the likeable neo-rascal "Jack Worthing" (Michael Redgrave). As in a Victorian hothouse, the physical limitations of the film increase the temperature of the tale told, even as the teller remains as cool as a cucumber sandwich. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST was Asquith’s first Technicolor film, but he eschewed the brilliant bombast other British directors like Michael Powell often associated with color, choosing instead a disciplined palette which emphasized the lush, overstarched formality of late Victorian interiors.

Asquith recognized that, at its heart, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is an actor’s film. Both Wilde and Asquith were fascinated by the way society constructs its prominent figures as ‘characters’ and demands that they conduct themselves as if in some preposterous game of evening-dress charades. Asquith’s ensemble never disappoints. THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST may be the most perfectly cast of all classic British comedies, and its skilled troupe of stage actors positively revel in the theatricality of Wilde’s prose. Michael Redgrave is justly celebrated for his sleek leading performance, and Joan Greenwood makes a luscious "Gwendolyn Fairfax," but life on the set was as deliciously competitive as Wilde could have wished; Edith Evans’ brilliant "Lady Bracknell" left the rest of the cast "fighting for the lives," in the words of one commentator.

In the end, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST lets us savor the spectacle of a handsome, endearingly silly society that doesn’t know it’s being watched—or does it?

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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