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t’s been a little over a century since Oscar Wilde celebrated the opening season The Importance of Being Earnest in court, on trial for homosexual behavior.The scandal of Wilde’s “indecent acts” forced the smash play to close early in its run; the Irishman’s career was irreparably damaged.Yet The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the funniest and most often performed comedies in the English language.
Redgrave’s Jack lights up the Technicolor screen in this rare comic performance. Joan Greenwood’s plummy-voiced Gwendolyn is one of the great comic treasures of the cinema.
So is the Cecily of the beauteous, and tragically underused, Dorothy Tutin, in her screen debut. But all their brilliance pales in the presence of the woman who was the century’s definitive Lady Bracknell: Dame Edith Evans.
Wilde wonderfully complicates matters by having Algernon’s cousin Gwendolyn fall in love with Ernest (not knowing he is Jack) and setting off to the country for a surprise visit.
This, of course, all occurs on the day Jack, determined to end the now-dangerous charade, arrives at his country home dressed in black to mourn Ernest’s passing.
Wilde gives examples again and again of the aristocrat's concern for propriety, that everything is done properly no matter what those good manners might be camouflaging.
The Absence of Compassion Two areas in which the Victorians showed little sympathy or compassion were illness and death.Earnestness — a determined and serious desire to do the correct thing — was at the top of the code of conduct.Appearance was everything, and style was much more important than substance.When Gwendolen requests no sugar, Cecily adds four lumps to her cup.Although she asks for bread and butter, Gwendolen is given a large slice of cake.“Do you expect me, a Dame of the Most Noble Order of the British Empire, to change…to alter our good English word ‘perambulator’ to ‘baby carriage’? “I positively decline to do it.” (But she did.) Fifty years later, Evans’ reading of “perambulator”—and the film’s full Technicolor beauty—is restored to all its glory.Duty and Respectability The aristocratic Victorians valued duty and respectability above all else.In 1939, he directed the screen adaptation of Sir Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears, the start of a screen association with the playwright that lasted thirty years and included such classics as The Way to the Stars (1945) and The Browning Version (1951).The following year, he and Asquith reunited for this frothy change of pace.Her true feelings come out only in an aside that Cecily supposedly cannot hear: "Detestable girl!" Gwendolen is also appalled to find that Cecily is living in Jack's country home, and she inquires about a chaperone.