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An Ideal Husband (1947) was based on Oscar Wilde's play about the seemingly faultless British Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Sir Robert Chiltern (Hugh Williams), who is being blackmailed by Mrs. Cheveley (Paulette Goddard) when she discovers that he once sold a state secret early in his career. His wife (Diana Wynyard) has no tolerance for anything but "an ideal husband." Despite having a top notch cast, with Michael Wilding, C. Aubrey Smith, Glynis Johns, and Constance Collier, it was the wrong film at the wrong time and its failure was one of several box office disappointments produced by Alexander Korda in the post-war years.
Korda, a Hungarian who had immigrated to England years before, loved all things British, including Oscar Wilde. As his nephew Michael Korda wrote in Charmed Lives, "An Ideal Husband represents Alex's love of irony and paradox - Wilde's dialogue reads like the quintessence of what Alex and [screenwriter Lajos] Bir had been aiming toward for thirty years - and combines a biting portrait of aristocratic life and morals with the possibilities of a lavish and expensive fin-de-sicle treatment. The cost of Cecil Beaton's costumes alone would have been enough to finance a small movie and the sets were planned with reckless extravagance. "
The sets weren't the only extravagance. Paulette Goddard, who had become a star in the United States, was the only American in the cast. She had divorced Charlie Chaplin and was now married to Burgess Meredith, although there were rumors that she had an affair with Korda, which may have led to her being cast as Mrs. Cheveley. Goddard brought over her own hairdresser, a Swedish woman named Hedvig Mijordu, claiming she was the only one who could help her to create the character. Korda even stopped production of An Ideal Husband when he discovered that Goddard was wearing fake emeralds onscreen. Despite England still under rationing while recovering from World War II, Korda had a necklace worth $460,000 brought to the set. When asked to defend this decision, he shrugged and said, "Because it will make her feel better." Korda's power in the British film industry was such that he was able to get the Household Cavalry to appear in the film in full dress uniform, which was said to have impressed the Labor Government enough to allow them to escort the future Queen Elizabeth to her wedding while wearing the costly uniforms.
Released in November of 1947 in the UK and in January 1948 in the United States, An Ideal Husband was not the hit that Korda needed. Although Life Magazine called it a "tasteful and refreshing movie" with "the most eye-catching screen furnishings ever recorded in Technicolor, [...] [it] becomes too overstuffed even for a period picture." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times agreed. "Somehow, the whipped-cream witticisms of the Wilde characters sound banal today, and the chief fun to be had from his stuffed shirts is in a sly spoof of their Victorian ways. Yet, for some unaccountable reason, Sir Alexander Korda has chosen to film the ancient Wilde play, An Ideal Husband, as though its people were the most consequential of folks and its ridiculously old-fashioned problem as vital as atomic power. [...]Handled with elegant derision in both the acting and the camera's attitude, there might be some charming entertainment of a sardonic order in this old wheeze. But with Hugh Williams playing the blackmail victim in an insufferably stiff and artless way, with Diana Wynyard playing his good wife like the lady in Cavalcade and with Paulette Goddard playing the siren among a lot of stuffy English swells as though she were the gal who lived next to the firehouse, it fizzles with a dull, distressing plop."
It was not surprising that An Ideal Husband was, to quote Michael Korda, "a flop". Part of the reason lay in the change in the British public's taste. By the late 40s, they had grown accustomed to seeing small films, like those produced by Ealing Studios or large Hollywood epics. On the other side of the Atlantic, the majority of the public, then as now, didn't like intellectual films, and so An Ideal Husband couldn't help but fail.
Producer: Alexander Korda
Director: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Lajos Biro; Oscar Wilde (play, uncredited)
Cinematography: Georges Perinal
Music: Arthur Benjamin
Film Editing: Oswald Hafenrichter
Cast: Paulette Goddard (Mrs. Laura Cheveley), Michael Wilding (Viscount Arthur Goring), Diana Wynyard (Lady Gertrude Chiltern), Hugh Williams (Sir Robert Chiltern), Sir C. Aubrey Smith (Earl of Caversham, Goring's Father), Glynis Johns (Miss Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert's sister), Constance Collier (Lady Markby), Christine Norden (Mrs. Margaret Marchmont), Harriette Johns (Olivia, Countess of Basildon), Michael Medwin (Duke of Nonesuch).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Crowther, Bosley, "The Screen- An Ideal Husband: Wilde Characters" The New York Times 15 Jan 48
Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith Opposite Attraction: The Lives of Erich Maria Remarque and Paulette Goddard
The Internet Movie Database
Korda, Michael Charmed Lives
Life 16 Feb 1948
Newsweek Vol. 94
Trumpbour, Michael, Selling Hollywood to the World: US and European Struggles for Mastery of the Global Film Industry 1920-1950