The Importance of Being Earnest

Jun 25, 2002

It’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. In 2001, a film version of Earnest starring the openly gay Rupert Everett went into production—further proof that Wilde’s art has outlasted the mores of his era.

A brief refresher on Earnest’s plot: Jack Worthing regularly flees his country home for London with the excuse of tending to his scandalous—and nonexistent—younger brother Ernest. When his best friend, Algernon, learns of this deception—and that Jack has a beautiful young ward named Cecily whom he keeps stashed away in the country—he sets off to meet her pretending that he is Ernest.

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. And let us not forget the tyrannical Lady Bracknell, the impediment to all the lovers’ happiness.

The play has been brought to the screen lovingly and meticulously by one of the great eccentrics of the British cinema, Anthony “Puffin” Asquith (1902-1968).

How many film directors can give as their earliest address 10 Downing Street, London? Puffin Asquith was the youngest son of Herbert Asquith (Britain’s prime minister from 1909–1916), and his socialite wife Margot (of whom Dorothy Parker said, “The love affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith is a joy to behold”). A child of privilege, Puffin—dubbed thus in infancy because of his hooked nose—grew up in a rarefied atmosphere. At seventeen, he went to Hollywood and lived with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, who gave him free run of their studio. He was also taken under the wing of their next-door neighbor, Charlie Chaplin, with whom Puffin had many precocious arguments about directorial style.

Returning to England in 1926, he plunged into the silent film industry and was already a seasoned veteran when, in 1938, he received international acclaim for his successful adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Despite his aristocratic background, Puffin chose to dress like an electrician. For almost thirty years, his costume on the set was a boiler suit (actually his WWII British Home Guard uniform) with a leather belt around the waist, and a handkerchief that Mary Pickford gave him in 1919 sticking out of his pocket (he eventually stopped washing it for fear it would disintegrate).

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).

In The Browning Version, Sir Michael Redgrave had given the best performance of his career to date, as the tormented cuckold Crocker-Harris. The following year, he and Asquith reunited for this frothy change of pace. Redgrave’s Jack lights up the Technicolor screen in this rare comic performance.

And what a supporting cast! 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. And what can one say about Margaret Rutherford—a frequent Asquith player, who would win an Oscar under his direction a decade later for The V.I.P.s—and her shameless scene stealing Miss Prism?

But all their brilliance pales in the presence of the woman who was the century’s definitive Lady Bracknell: Dame Edith Evans. Heralded by theater critics a few years earlier when she played the role on stage opposite Gielgud’s Jack, Asquith has preserved her performance here in its full theatricality. Only Dame Edith could take the simple phrase “a handbag” and trumpet it into one of the most hilarious comic riffs of all time.

Where did the actress and her role go separate ways? Clearly they didn’t. Asquith had considerable difficulties getting Dame Edith to hit her marks on the set. In her loftiest tones, she replied, “I don’t know what it is, but I always feel the camera should come to me instead of me go to the camera.”

And when the U.S. distributors said American audiences wouldn’t know what a perambulator was, Puffin was forced to ask Dame Edith to loop “baby carriage” as a substitute. “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’?” she thundered with classic Bracknellian hauteur. “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.

Charles Dennis is an actor, playwright, and author of two books on Hollywood, Talent and The Dealmakers. His new play, A High Class Sort of Heel, is based on the life of George Sanders.