in Criterion Month

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

Did you ever wish that Catfish was an episode of Frasier? That’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a dry, eminently quotable little play (or in this case, film). Before even seeing it, I joked that I would rate the movie “very droll” out of five and that’s about right. It’s a sort of frivolous type of entertainment, obviously out-dated compared to the bombast of comedies today (or even a generation ago) that I was fortunate enough to at least enjoy on a leisurely Sunday afternoon, instead of desperately cramming it in today before writing this review. Now I just wish that we had a post format that would allow me to only list Oscar Wilde quotes.

It all begins with two friends, Ernest Worthy (Michael Redgrave) and Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison), who both have been running long, seemingly pointless cons. To Algy’s surprise, Ernest’s real name is Jack and he only goes by Ernest in the city: back home (as Jack) he tells everyone that he has a brother named Ernest who he must look after. Similarly, Algy uses his made up friend, Bunbury, who is unwell and lives in the country, as an excuse to escape social obligations. When Jack proposes to Algy’s cousin, Gwendolen (Joan Greenwood), she accepts but emphasizes how much of their relationship hinges on the fact that his name is Ernest (which I must remind you, it is not).

Having discovered Jack’s double-life, Algy heads to Jack’s country estate, where he introduces himself as Jack’s brother, Ernest. There, he meets Cecily (Dorothy Tutin), Jack’s young ward, who Algy immediately falls in love with and proposes to. Soon, Jack arrives in the country, having planned on killing off his imaginary brother and being re-Christened as Ernest but obviously now unable to do that since Algy is pretending to be Ernest. Matters grow even more confusing as Gwendolen and her mother, Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans), also arrive to assess Jack’s viability as a suitor. If you’re getting confused, I’ll put it this way: both Gwendolen and Cecily expect to marry Ernest Worthy, a man who is either two people or doesn’t exist!

Also, at one point Jack explains that he was an orphan to Lady Bracknell, who is none too impressed with him. She asks him where he was found, and he tells her a story about being found in a handbag, to which she replies…

It’s such a simple premise: it’s funny if every lie – no matter how outlandish – is believed. But it’s so fun to watch. As an audience member, it was instantly hard to tell when the lies stopped and the truth began, which made the story, to some extent, engaging. But mostly, it just never gets old to see someone mumble out a bizarre excuse and everyone to take it seriously. Even more delightful is how all these lies stack upon each other, snowballing into the chaos that is the third act which, I will say, has far more than just all the fiances finding out their real names. Also, bickering. Bickering is funny too.

Anthony Asquith’s 1952 adaptation of the play was the first released in theaters (there was a made-for-TV version earlier). The cast is delightful, though I probably showed my cards a bit when I posted that handbag clip earlier; Lady Bracknell is awesome. Think Maggie Smith from Downton Abbey, but somehow even more, since this character predates that show by more than 100 years. Those were silly times, but oppressive times too. To Oscar Wilde, who eventually was found out as a homosexual and imprisoned for it, it really was important to lie to maintain social standing. That these two men who have everything have the same problem, is, well, hilarious.