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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

The Importance of Being Earnest

Director: Anthony Asquith
Country: United Kingdom
Year: 1952

Background

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854. His mother was a successful poet and an Irish Nationalist, and his father was Ireland’s leading ear-and-eye surgeon. Oscar was educated first at Trinity College, Dublin, and later at Magdalen College, Oxford. While at Oxford, he began “wearing his hair long… openly scorning so-called ‘manly’ sports, and… decorating his rooms with peacock feathers” – all the tell-tale signs of a poofter.

According to legend, fellow students trashed Oscar’s rooms, dunked him in the River Cherwell, and – the ultimate indignity – tossed his china in the hallway. Critics charged that Wilde’s poetry “eclipses masculine ideals… under such influence men would become effeminate dandies.” Despite this antipathy, Wilde’s outrageous attire, ambiguous sexuality, witty banter, poetry and erudite writings on the Aesthetic and Decadent movements won him a growing legion of fans.

In 1882, Wilde embarked on a lecture tour of the United States. Upon arrival, he (reportedly) announced to the customs officer that he had “nothing to declare except my genius.” Incredibly, though Wilde was satirized mercilessly by some U.S. publications, he found a warm response in working-class communities like Leadville, Colorado. During this same trip, Wilde met one of his heroes: “I still have the kiss of Walt Whitman on my lips,” he boasted in a letter to a friend.

Back in Great Britain, Wilde married the semi-wealthy Constance Lloyd in 1884. In 1885, biographers now believe, Wilde became fully aware of his own sexual orientation during an affair with painter Bob Ross. Though the dates are a little off, I’m assuming this is the same guy who had the show on public television. How many Bob Rosses can there be? Soon after, Wilde began having regular sexual encounters with young male servants, newsboys, hustlers and other rough trade that he met in underground gay bars – an experience he likened to “feasting with panthers.”

In 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, who he nicknamed “Bosie.” Over the following six months, their friendship grew into love, and they lived more or less openly as a couple for several years. Bosie’s father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, was not at all happy about this relationship, and angrily confronted Wilde and Bosie on several occasions, to little effect.

Which brings us to The Importance of Being Earnest, which premiered in February 1895. The fuming homophobe Marquess planned to attend opening night and to humiliate Wilde by tossing a bouquet of turnips at him. Apparently, back in 1895, tossing a bouquet of turnips was quite a cutting insult; very similar to drunkenly screaming “queerbait!” today. Wilde was tipped off, the Marquess was denied admittance, and Earnest went on to become Wilde’s greatest success. Sadly, the growing controversy forced the play to close after 83 performances. Foiled in his turnip-throwing plot, the Marquess brought legal charges against the playwright which eventually led to Wilde’s downfall and imprisonment. He never wrote another play, and died, destitute, in November 1900.

Wilde’s tombstone featured a neat art-deco angel with prominent genitalia. Unsurprisingly, the concrete genitalia were quickly broken off and used as a paperweight by the cemetery-keeper. In 2000, the artist Leon Johnson performed a ceremony titled Re-Membering Wilde (clever!), in which replacement genitals – this time cast in silver – were affixed to the tombstone.

One final note about the play: Many have suggested that “Earnest” is code for “gay” as in “Is he… Earnest?” Likewise, many have speculated that “Bunbury-ing” (a term used by Algernon in the play) is code for “anal sex.” Sir John Gielgud, encyclopedic repository of theatrical lore, one of the first actors to have played Jack/Ernest Worthing, and a poofter himself, said otherwise: “…absolute nonsense; I would have known.”

The director of this week’s film, Anthony “Puffin” Asquith, was the son of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who had signed the order for Wilde’s arrest, and Herbert’s socialite wife Margot. “The love affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith is a joy to behold,” commented Dorothy Parker, queen of the acidic bon mot. At the age of seventeen, Puffin (so dubbed because of his hooked nose) traveled to the United States, where he lived with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and was mentored by neighbor Charles Chaplin.

Synopsis

The film begins with a couple taking their seats at a performance. They open and look at a program, which, luckily for us, contains the opening credits.

Act 1, Scene 1: Ernest Worthing’s room in the Albany…

Ernest is taking a bath when his friend Algernon Moncrieff arrives; much witty bantering ensues.

Ernest announces his intention to propose to Miss Gwendolyn Fairfax, but is disappointed to hear that she will be joined by her mother, Lady Bracknell (who also happens to be Algernon’s Aunt Augusta). “There’s nothing romantic about a definite proposal,” smirks Algernon. “Why, it may be accepted! It usually is, I believe. Then the whole excitement is over.”

In any event, Algernon tells his friend, a marriage with Gwendolyn is impossible. “She is my first cousin. And before I give my consent, you must clear up the matter of Cecily…” It seems that “Algy” (a decidedly unpleasant diminutive) has come into possession of Ernest’s cigarette lighter, which bears an inscription from “little Cecily” to her beloved “uncle Jack.”

Ernest clumsily tries to explain away the inscription, but he botches the job badly, and Algy is not convinced. Under duress, Ernest admits that he has been leading a double life: Respectable Jack (or John) Worthing, morally upright guardian of little Cecily, while at his country estate, and hedonistic social gadabout Ernest Worthing (ostensibly Jack’s troubled younger brother) while in London.

Later, Ernest repays his friend’s impudence by arriving unannounced at Algernon’s home, just prior to the arrival of Gwendolyn and her mother, the terrifying Lady Bracknell (or Aunt Augusta, or Augusta Fairfax – it’s all quite confusing).

earnest_bracknell

Algernon creates a diversion, giving Ernest an opportunity to propose, which he eagerly exploits. Gwendolyn accepts, adding that it has always been her heart’s desire to marry a man named Ernest. In fact, she says, no other name will do. Which might be a problem, since we now know that Ernest’s name is actually John. Gulp.

Lady Bracknell, upon hearing of the engagement, sends Gwendolyn out of the room, so that she may question Ernest and determine his suitability as a son-in-law. He answers her questions satisfactorily until they get to the part about his lineage. Ernest admits that he doesn’t know his family; he was found in a handbag at a railway station. Lady Bracknell is horrified: “To be born – or at any rate bred – in a handbag… seems to me to display contempt for the ordinary decency of family life. It reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution! And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to.”

If the marriage is to proceed, Lady Bracknell decrees, Ernest must produce “at least one parent, of either sex, before the end of the season!”

Meanwhile, “little” Cecily studies German with her tutor, the addle-brained Miss Prism. The conversation turns to their benefactor, Uncle Jack, and the sad story of his troublesome brother, Ernest. “I wish Uncle Jack would allow that unfortunate young man, his brother Ernest, to come down here and visit some time…” Cecily muses, already half in love with the phantom sibling.

To the surprise of no-one familiar with the rules of Victorian farce, Algernon arrives moments later, to fulfill that very wish. Pretending to be the “wicked” Ernest, Algernon puts the moves on Cecily, who is rather excited to be wooed by a villain. Of course, the “real” Ernest (known to Cecily and his country staff as Jack [or John]) arrives shortly thereafter, dressed in black and grieving the untimely death of his no-good brother Ernest. Hilarity, as they say in the trade papers, ensues.

Uncle Jack/Ernest orders Algernon/Ernest to leave the house at once. Algernon/Ernest proposes to Cecily, and she accepts, adding: “it has always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone by the name of Ernest.” Which might be a problem, since this Ernest’s name is actually Algernon. Gulp.

Both Jack and Algernon approach the befuddled local priest (carrying on his own halting romance with Miss Prism), asking to be hastily re-christened as “Ernest.”

Right on schedule, Gwendolyn shows up and is surprised to find the young and beautiful Cecily living in the home of her fiancé Ernest. “But Ernest proposed to ME, not fifteen minutes ago!” protests Cecily. Meow! Catfight!

Ernest/Jack and Ernest/Algernon return, aliases are exposed, engagements are canceled and then un-canceled, friendships are dissolved and then un-dissolved… and then Lady Bracknell shows up, beginning the final scene in which all mysteries are resolved in the most improbable ways, and love, needless to say, triumphs.

What I Liked

The pace is brisk, some of the bantering is quite funny, and the two male leads in particular deliver their lines with gusto and precisely calibrated comic timing.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

This is a stellar example of this type of Victorian farce, rife with mistaken or false identities; romance threatened by misunderstandings; improbable coincidences; and absurdly pat resolutions in the final act. Very similar to Shakespeare’s comedies, come to think of it. Also similar to Shakespeare’s comedies, this movie made me grind my teeth in irritated frustration. The theatrical mugging, the strained double-entendres, the frantic pace, the obvious pauses in expectation of audience reactions, and the logic-defying plot mechanics all induce a kind of fatigue and anxiety in me, as if I’m trapped with a desperate street mime who is standing too close, drenched in flop-sweat, and performing frantically for my applause and/or bus fare.

Oddly, back in high school, I acted in similar plays (Charley’s Aunt, to name one), and enjoyed the experience immensely – at first. As time went on, however, I began to detect in myself a sort of unhealthy desperation for the approval of the audience, and began to realize how easy it was to manipulate the audience’s reactions via shameless scenery-chewing, and it all began to ring a bit hollow. All of which is to say that my personal experience acting in this kind of farce is probably a big reason I found watching it so tedious, and Your Mileage May Vary.

Should You See It?

Earnest is an archetypal mistaken-identity/true love threatened theatrical Victorian farce. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you’ll probably love this week’s film. If, on the other hand, you are allergic to logic-defying plot twists and painfully elaborated Victorian double-entendres, Earnest is likely to send you into anaphylactic shock.

Next: Ivan the Terrible, Part II

4 Comments

  1. Oh, believe me – I like mindless entertainment as much (or more) than the next guy! It wasn’t the lack of a meaningful subtext in Earnest that left me irritated… come to think of it, in other films, I’ve been willing to overlook outrageous plot twists/coincidences, shallow caricatures, and shameless mugging. I think my dislike of this film boils down to a couple of main things; I didn’t like any of the characters, and I felt like I was being assaulted by over-eager stage acting. Having said that, I would never deny that there was some very funny dialogue, and, yeah, Dame Edith played her part to perfection. Glad you liked it more than I did! Good thing we’ve got some differing opinions on this project!

  2. “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”

    This was a fun chick flick that also pulled my two guys (boyfriend Rick and his 16-year-old son Phillip) right in. They love sparring with language, and I think they both spoke less during this movie than any other movie we have ever watched together, as we had to pay close attention to catch all the great lines that were being lobbed.

    Rick and I especially got a kick out of Cecily’s relationship with Algernon-Ernest before they even met: They fell in love, he wrote her love letters, they broke up, they made up, he proposed with a ring, and she accepted (and she did his part, in all of it, unbeknownst to him). She was far more earnest than either Ernest!

    I want to watch the 2002 version, to see how splendidly Dame Judi Dench plays Lady Bracknell. (“A HANDbag?”) And I’ve found the play online, so that I can better savor the dialog (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/844/844-h/844-h.htm). All in all, this is a lightheartedly complicated little romp of a movie.

    [After reading posts by Jason and Matt:]

    Yes, Matt, people really did talk like that in the ’60s. I know from first-hand experience. And they talked like that in the ’50s, too. I know because my oldest brother and his friends still talked like that in the ’60s. (They were squares, man, but they sure knew how to make their shorts blown and channeled.)

    (on the one hand~)
    Okay, you two. Lighten up already. Not every movie has to make us ponder “The Deep Meaning of Life” in order to be good. All the impossible twists and turns in this story are meant to entertain and humor us with surprise, not create any tedious accuracies. And this film was purposefully meant to retain it’s “stage” flavor. Just sit back, ride the wave of Lady Bracknell’s logic (and Dame Edith’s incredible delivery–shame on you, Jason, for not even mentioning her), and enjoy!

    (on the other~)
    I must admit that
    after watching this one,
    I thought,
    why on earth
    is this film
    in this collection?

    Can YOU answer that question?

    PS: Every time I have ever gone to the theater and watched a stage play, I start out with this weird dread, like I’m right back in high school, and I’m just waiting for the painfulness of the performance to begin. Happily, the plays I’ve seen since high school have been professional and enjoyable, but I still have that feeling of dread when the curtain starts going up on Act 1, Scene 1….

  3. Well said, my friend. I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it but you’re absolutely right – this film was so stagebound that it felt claustrophobic.

  4. Whenever I watch a film about the 1960’s I often wonder… Did people really talk like that? You know: “Yo, Man, don’t harsh my buzz. Cool. I’m tuning in and dropping out, wow, freaky. You’re so establishment, you’ve got to come down and get real, man. Right on!”

    Or the 1950’s… “Golly, Susie, you want to go to the Sock-Hop with me? That would just be the most extreme! You really get me, Susie. Not like my old man, he’s SUCH a square.”

    I mean, c’mon….REALLY?

    With “The Importance of Being Earnest” – I felt myself falling into the same trap. I mean, COME ON, do aristocratic people of Victorian England, the idle wealthy find themselves sipping tea and saying things like: “Yes, DAAAAAAAAAHLING, you need to realize that your marrying Earnest is of the utmost importance to the society upon which you reside and your stature amongst the elite within the backdrop of our environment.” (Okay, I’ll admit, that’s not a direct quote from the film but, hopefully, you get my drift.)

    Now, I’ve never been rich and I don’t recall being very idle and I haven’t really studied up on Victorian England so right off the bat I have nothing to relate to in this film. I’ve been in love, yes. I’ve had annoying Aunts, yes. I’ve even traveled by train, drank tea, and have witty conversations. But this? POSH!

    First, the film starts out as if you’re going to a play. Thrills… If I wanted to go to a play I would GO TO A PLAY. Of course the hardest part of adapting a play to a film is to find a way to “break out” the play into something a bit more, how shall I say it… “Cinematic?” Sadly the director does nothing with it. I think there are maybe two scenes in the entire film that are shot outside. One long winded tea scene is SET outside but it might as well be a back lot in Eeling Studios for all I know. I also noticed that the bird chirping really wasn’t that consistent. So, right of the bat, the film’s adaptation of a play to screen was the equivalent of setting the camera up in the back of the theatre and filming.

    As for the story…you’ve got two well-to-do gentlemen, scoundrels really, who are in love. Well, one is in love with this one gal who knows him as Earnest. He spends his weekdays on a farm out in the country with his niece (or something) who knows him as “Uncle Jack.” There’s some sort of attraction there but then again, there isn’t. When Earnest/Jack confides to his friend Algernon (who also has a split personality called “Brumbrey” or something) that this gal is in the country, and that he has been lying to her about his split name – his pal, a rakish sort himself, decides to go track her down. Earnest/Jack loves this other gal but her proper aunt won’t have her marrying Earnest/Jack due to the very simple fact that Earnest doesn’t have papers. He doesn’t know who he really is as he was a baby left in a train station.

    When Algernon heads to the country to woo the niece, he shows up as Earnest the scoundrel brother of Jack. When Jack shows up, he says that Earnest is dead but then, of course, he’s not. By this time his niece has fallen head over heels in love with Algernon/Earnest. When the other gal shows up engaged to Jack/Earnest she takes issue with the young gal as to who is marrying whom. To make this all simple, though, the two men decide to get baptized both with the name Earnest as both women have said very VERY clearly that they will not marry anyone without the name Earnest.

    And then the old Aunt shows up. Hi-jinks (if you can call them that) ensue.

    I won’t bore you with any more of this review. Suffice it to say, that sentence near the top that wasn’t a quote from the film but very well could have been? There’s a lot of that crap dialogue that floats about. Some of it is witty and clever. Some of it is stupid.

    Everyone lives happily ever after. Darn. I’ve spoiled the ending.

    What I liked:

    The titles were fine.

    The Aunt’s acting was good, she proved a good villain.

    What I didn’t like:

    Well… Pretty much all the acting was over-the-top stage acting.

    The lack of “breaking out” the story just made it feel that more confining.

    The inability to pull the camera back at certain times also hindered the experience.

    One of the main characters is supposed to be (cough, cough) 28 years of age.

    No subtext, no depth, no real surprises.

    The women were shallow and stupid, the men not much better.

    Dialogue.

    Bottom line:

    If I had seen this movie after watching something like, well, “Freaky Friday” or something, I might have enjoyed it more. Having watched while “Ikiru’s” artistry and beauty and subtext and story continue to wash up on my brain stem like a rolling tide, it just made “The Importance of Being Earnest” even that much more pointless.

    A trifle. Don’t bother.

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