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Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Importance of Being Earnest, The (1952)
Directed byAnthony Asquith
Production CompanyBritish Film Makers
 Javelin Films
Produced byTeddy Baird
Original playOscar Wilde
Director of PhotographyDesmond Dickinson

Cast: Michael Redgrave (Ernest Worthing); Edith Evans (Lady Augusta Bracknell); Michael Denison (Algernon Moncrieff); Joan Greenwood (Gwendolen Fairfax); Dorothy Tutin (Cecily Cardew)

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Complications arise for two eligible bachelors in Victorian England when they both adopt 'Ernest' as a pseudonym to conduct their romantic affairs.

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The last and most popular of his social comedies, Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnes opened at London's St James' theatre on Valentine's Day 1895. Its initial run, however, was cut short by Wilde's prosecution for immorality, which ironically was brought by one of his social acquaintances of the time, the then Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister) Herbert Asquith. In a somewhat bizarre turn, Asquith's son Anthony eventually made the first film version.

Anthony Asquith's output as a director was largely derived from material first performed in West End theatres. He made ten films in collaboration with playwright Terence Rattigan, as well as three taken from the plays of George Bernard Shaw, with whom he had co-founded the Oxford Film Society in 1925. In adapting Wilde's play, Asquith boldly decided to emphasise the stage origins of the project.

The film opens with members of a Victorian theatre audience taking to their seats. When they open their programmes, the film's credits are revealed, printed inside. Once the curtain rises, one of the viewers uses her eyeglasses to take us into the action, shortly after which we are shown a mixture of location and studio shots. The curtain falls again at the end of the last act. Although this might have made the film seem too stage-bound, it actually helps in giving the eccentric characters and outrageous plot the grounding in theatrical tradition that any faithful adaptation needs to succeed, though inevitably even Asquith's best efforts result in a charming cross-breed.

Made largely at the urging of Michael Denison (who plays Algy), the film also features the film debut of Dorothy Tutin and one of the very infrequent performances by Edith Evans. Having practically made the part of Lady Bracknell her own on stage (she first performed it in 1939), this was only the sixth film she had appeared in since her film debut in 1915.

Asquith made only five films in colour and The Importance of Being Earnest was his first. Shunning the characteristic boldness and garishness of early Technicolor, Asquith's palette largely consists of pastel shades, reserving the exaggerated qualities of the process for Lady Bracknell's costumes. Edith Evans enters the film wearing a vivid purple coloured dress and a hat that appears to be made from peacock feathers, shortly before uttering Wilde's immortal line, "Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture!".

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Jack or Ernest? (2:41)
2. Lady Bracknell (3:54)
3. Cecily and Gwendolen (4:35)
Original poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)
Dickinson, Desmond (1903-1986)
Evans, Edith (1888-1976)
Greenwood, Joan (1921-1987)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Redgrave, Michael (1908-1985)
Rutherford, Margaret (1892-1972)
Costume Drama