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The Importance Of Being Earnest

The Importance Of Being Earnest(1952)


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The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952)


It's a question that's haunted men for ages. How can you have fun without paying the price? Jack Worthing thinks he has the perfect answer by being a proper landed gentleman in the country and passing himself off as his imaginary, less respectable brother Ernest in the city, where he has been courting the beautiful Gwendolen Fairfax. But when his friend Algernon discovers the ruse -- and the existence of Jack's very pretty, very rich ward Cecily -- the stage is set for a comedy of mistaken identities.

Director-Screenplay: Anthony Asquith
Producer: Teddy Baird
Based on the play by Oscar Wilde
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Editing: John D. Guthridge
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon
Music: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Michael Redgrave (Jack Worthing), Michael Denison (Algernon Moncrieff), Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolen Fairfax), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily Cardew), Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism), Miles Malleson (Canon Chasuble), Aubrey Mather (Merriman)


The Importance of Being Earnest was the first English-language film version of Oscar Wilde's classic tale of social pretension and mistaken identity.

The film recorded for posterity two of the most acclaimed stage performances of the 20th century, Michael Redgrave's interpretation of Jack Worthing and Dame Edith Evans' legendary Lady Bracknell.

The Importance of Being Earnest was the third and final collaboration for Redgrave and director Anthony Asquith. They also had worked together on The Winslow Boy (1948), often hailed as Redgrave's finest film performance.

It was also Asquith's third collaboration with Margaret Rutherford. In The V.I.P.s (1963), their fourth and last film together, he directed her to an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actress.

The Importance of Being Earnest was a pioneering work in the development of Technicolor. In place of the garish color palettes that had dominated most earlier films using the process, this one used a subtle array of pastels to capture the light, witty tone of Wilde's original play.

by Frank Miller

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The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952)

Edith Evans was associated with the role of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest for the rest of her life. It was frequently hailed as her greatest performance and some interviewers even would imitate her performance. Eventually, she came to loathe the role. She once said, "I've played her everywhere except on ice and under water, and I daresay Binkie [producer Hugh Beaumont] will suggest one of those next. I did play other parts, you know!

The Importance of Being Earnest has been remade twice. A 1992 version featured an all-black cast with Brock Peters as the Reverend Chasuble and CCH Pounder as Miss Prism.

The all-star 2002 film version featured Rupert Everett as Algernon, Colin Firth as Jack, Reese Witherspoon as Cecily, Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell, Tom Wilkinson as Reverend Chasuble and Anna Massey as Miss Prism. It was mostly panned, primarily for adding extra scenes, including slapstick chases and romantic dreams. It also included scenes cut from Wilde's original manuscript.

The play has had nine other television adaptations, including Portugal's 1959 Quanto Importa Ser Leal, the 1961 Swedish Mr. Ernest, a 1968 Spanish version, the German Bunbury in 1976 and an Australian production in 1992. The other four were British. In 1964, Patrick MacNee of The Avengers (1998) played Algernon, with Pamela Brown as Lady Bracknell and Susannah York as Cecily. Coral Browne played Lady Bracknell in 1974. In 1985, Wendy Hiller played Lady Bracknell. A 1986 version featured Paul McGann, Rupert Frazer, Alec McCowen, Joan Plowright and Gemma Jones, who had played Gwendolen in the 1974 edition, now cast as Miss Prism.

Criterion released a special DVD edition of the 1952 The Importance of Being Earnest in 2002. Extras included rare production stills and production notes by film historian Bruce Eder.

by Frank Miller

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The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952)

Critic C.A. Lejeune once called The Importance of Being Earnest the most quoted play in the English language next to Hamlet.

Director Anthony Asquith was the son of former Home Secretary Herbert Asquith, who filed the gross indecency charges under which Oscar Wilde was put on trial.

Michael Redgrave's mother played Lady Bracknell in the first London production of the play after Wilde's trial and incarceration.

Historians have suggested a number of in-jokes Wilde may have inserted in the play. "Ernest" may have been a code word for "homosexual" in 1890s London, while at least one biographer has pointed out the similarity between the name of Algernon's imaginary invalid friend, "Bunbury" and the towns of Banbury and Sunbury, where Wilde met and later engaged in a flirtation with a schoolboy.

The name of Margaret Rutherford's character, Miss Prism, is believed to be a pun on the word "misprision," which means "concealment of an error."

Cecily's fortune, 130,000 pounds, would be about $18 million today.

The Brighton Line, in whose cloakroom Jack Worthing says he was found, was the classier of the two railroad lines running through Victoria Station at the time.

The Importance of Being Earnest was only Edith Evans' sixth film. Despite its success, she would be off the screen for seven years.

Every day on the set (and on every film he made), Asquith wore a handkerchief given him by Mary Pickford in 1919 while he was studying the U.S. film industry in Hollywood.

For the U.S. release of The Importance of Being Earnest, the distributor insisted the word "perambulator" be re-dubbed with "baby carriage." Evans objected to this at first, trumpeting in her best Lady Bracknell voice, "I positively decline to do it," but she finally gave in.

The first film version of The Importance of Being Earnest was made in Germany in 1932 under the title Liebe, Scherz und Ernst. It was released in some countries as Bunbury, the name of Algernon's imaginary friend. More recently it had been filmed in Argentina as Al Comps de tu Mentira (1950).

The Importance of Being Earnest was one of the first plays broadcast over British television, with productions in 1937 and 1938. It also aired in 1946, with Margaret Rutherford as Lady Bracknell.

Edith Evans had to miss the film premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest because she was appearing on stage that night. Instead, she sent her secretary.

The film was advertised in the U.S. with the line, "They don't come any wilder than Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners, morals and morality!"


"I really don't see anything romantic in proposing. It's very romantic to be in love but there's nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one might be accepted. One usually is I believe. Then the whole excitement is over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty." --Michael Denison, as Algernon Moncrieff

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!"--Denison, as Algernon Moncrieff

"The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing ones clean linen in public." -- Denison, as Algernon

"You are quite perfect, Miss Fairfax."
"Oh, I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions." -- Michael Redgrave, as Jack Worthing, and Joan Greenwood, as Gwendolen Fairfax

"We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you." -- Greenwood, as Gwendolen Fairfax

"Rise, sir from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous." Edith Evans, as Lady Bracknell, discovering Redgrave, as Jack Worthing, proposing to her daughter, Greenwood, as Gwendolyn.

"An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself." -- Evans, as Lady Bracknell

"Do you smoke?"
"Well, yes, I must admit I smoke."
"I'm glad to hear it. A man should have an occupation of some kind." -- Evans, as Bracknell, and Redgrave, as Jack Worthing

"Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone. The whole idea of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever." -- Evans

"To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Evans

"Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion -- has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now -- but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognized position in good society." -- Evans

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his." Denison

"I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can't go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we still had a few fools left."
"We have."
"I should extremely like to meet them. What do they talk about?"
"The fools? Oh, about the clever people, of course."
"What fools!" -- Redgrave and Denison

"The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty and to some one else if she is plain." -- Denison"The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means." -- Margaret Rutherford, as Miss Prism, describing her lost novel

"You are too much alone, dear Dr. Chasuble. You should get married. A misanthrope I can understand - a womanthrope, never!" -- Rutherford, as Miss Prism, flirting with Miles Malleson, as the Reverend Chasuble

"I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train." -- Greenwood

"Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade."
"I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different." -- Dorothy Tutin, as Cecily Cardew, facing off with Greenwood

"Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that." -- Evans

"To speak frankly, I am not in favor of long engagements. They give people an opportunity of finding out each other's characters before marriage, which I think is never advisable." -- Evans

"Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton is an instance in point. To my own knowledge she has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was a good many years ago now." -- Evans

"The plain facts of the case are these. On the morning of the day you mention, a day that is forever branded on my memory, I prepared as usual to take the baby out in its perambulator. I had also with me a somewhat old but capacious handbag in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the bassinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag." -- Rutherford, as Prism

"Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?" -- Redgrave, on discovering that his name really is Ernest

"My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality."
"On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest." -- Evans and Redgrave, ending the film

Compiled by Frank Miller

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The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952)

Oscar Wilde wrote his most famous play as a satire of marriage, Victorian morality, class-consciousness and the conventions of romantic comedy. Some critics have interpreted the leading male characters' double lives as a subtle reflection of Wilde's secret homosexual life while also a married man with two children. Algernon's address on Half Moon Street is the same as Wilde's, and, like Wilde, he wears a green carnation in his lapel.

Wilde originally wrote the play in four acts, with the third act dealing with the arrival of a lawyer out to collect bad debts Jack had run up as Ernest in London. When the producer asked him to shorten the play, Wilde cut the lawyer and combined acts three and four.

The play was a tremendous hit when it opened in London in 1895. It closed after only 83 performances, however, because of Wilde's prosecution for gross indecency when his libel suit against the Marques of Queensberry led to revelations of his homosexual relations. The play was not revived until 1900, after Wilde's death, when it became one of his most popular works.

Nonetheless, the play was a hit in every country in which it was performed, even when translated into other languages. The title's pun on the name "Ernest" and the quality of "being earnest" only translates into German and Dutch. In other countries it was called everything from Bunbury to Who Is Ernest? and The Importance of Being Named Ernest. In France, the pun was preserved by naming the leading man "Constant," while he was called "Franco" in Italy, "Szilard" (steadfast) in Hungary and "Filip" in Czech, a language in which "having Philip" means being smart.

Although the play was a staple of the British and American stage, this was the first English-language film version. It was made at the urging of actor Michael Denison, who played Algernon, just after the script passed into the public domain.

Denison was under contract to the Associated British Picture Corporation, which first announced plans to make the film. It was J. Arthur Rank, however, who registered the title first. As a condition to settle any dispute with the other studio, he agreed to cast Denison as Algernon.

Asquith wrote the screenplay himself, simply making a few minor changes in Wilde's original. He declined to accept screen credit for it, triggering a battle with the British screenwriters' union.

Two of the film's actors were already noted stage interpreters of their roles, Michael Redgrave, who had performed Ernest to great acclaim in London and on Broadway, and Edith Evans, who played Lady Bracknell.

Asquith originally offered the role of Jack to John Gielgud, another of the most famous stage interpreters of the role. Gielgud declined because he did not like film acting.

Dorothy Tutin made her film debut as Cecily. Redgrave had suggested her for the role after seeing her work on stage, where she had debuted as a leading lady at 18.

by Frank Miller

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The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952)

To maintain the play's theatricality, director Anthony Asquith opened his film version by having a couple enter a theatre box. Their programs were used to display the film's opening credits, and the curtain rose on the rest of the film.

The Importance of Being Earnest was shot in England's Pinewood Studios.

The Importance of Being Earnest was Asquith's first film in Technicolor.

In keeping with the film's theatrical origins, Asquith shot it mostly in sequence and used long takes to let the actors develop the rhythms of Oscar Wilde's dialogue.

Edith Evans had problems adjusting to film acting, particularly when it came to hitting her marks on the floor. She finally told Asquith, "I always feel the camera should come to me instead of me go to the camera."

Insecure in her first film, Dorothy Tutin kept requesting retakes until producer Teddy Baird told her how much each new take cost.

by Frank Miller

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The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952)


Dorothy Tutin was nominated for Most Promising Newcomer in the British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA).

The Importance of Being Earnest was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.


"Anthony Asquith was trying to persuade me this week that his screen version of The Importance of Being a film. I hope to see the day when Mr. Asquith will retract that opinion. As one of the three best film directors in this country he should not be deceiving himself about photographed stage plays. We must look for the time when he will once more believe like any other true screen artist that the business of film technique is to tell a story pictorially." - Jympson Harman, The London Evening News

"The fact that Mr. Asquith has cast Dame Edith Evans in the role of Lady Bracknell, a veritable 'gorgon,' who precisely, arrogantly and to the manner born declares that 'to lose one parent is a misfortune, to lose both is downright carelessness,' has shown true genius." - The New York Times

"Oscar Wilde's deliriously convoluted, perfect comedy -- the most preposterous work of art ever written. Wit cascades through the play in a natural flow....People who have seen this movie have been known to giggle with pleasure years later as they recall the timbre and phrasing that Edith Evans gives to such lines as 'Prism! Where is that baby?'" - Pauline Kael, 5,001 Nights at the Movies

"Disappointingly stagy rendering (when compared, say, with Occupe-toi-d'Amelie, 1949) of Britain's most wondrously witty lighter-than-air comedy of manners. As a record of a theatrical performance, however, it is valuable." - Halliwell's Film & Video Survey.

"A more positive decision on style should have been taken. A film of this kind must be either an adaptation or a piece of filmed theatre. This one, being partially both, is not wholly either." - Gavin Lambert.

"...a decent reading of the play." - David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.

"...[Asquith's] cameras do little more than reverently record a great patriotic theatrical event. But the settings are the epitome of Victorian plushness, the colour is Technicolor at its fruitiest, and most of the playing is disarming, particularly Edith Evans and her handbag." - Geoff Brown, TimeOut Film Guide.

"Despite a few tweaks to Oscar Wilde's frighteningly witty play, director and writer Anthony Asquith serves up a truly delightful screen version of The Importance of Being Earnest...All the performances are a sheer delight to watch with plaudits going to Margaret Rutherford as the wonderfully dotty Miss Prism and Edith Evans as the formidable Lady Bracknell." - Almar Haflidason,

"Asquith allows his actors to milk these lines to maximum effect. Evans, particularly, uses all manner of verbal trickery to heighten the absurdity of her character...Such carrying on is amusing for awhile, but like the play, it overstays its welcome. With all the characters and all their concerns blatant mouthpieces for the author's wit, never emerging into their own personalities, the film becomes tiresome and irritating, drained of life by the hammering of bravura dialogue and the flatness of its characters. This Importance of Being Earnest works as a letter-perfect historical record of the play, and so rises and falls on the strength of that play rather than on its (nonexistent) cinematic impulses." - Gary Morris, Images Journal.

"This is straight-on filming of a stage play-only, with the additions film will allow, Asquith adds some lovely close-ups, showing off the cast and the dazzling set pieces and costumes to full advantage. The Importance of Being Earnest begins with a red velvet curtain going up, and it ends with the curtain coming down. It's a fabulous touch, proving that Anthony Asquith knew what he was doing: Preserving for future generations the work of a Master. Obviously, I highly recommend this film; it's beautiful, charming, simply made, and the perfect reminder for our time of the work of one of the best of the Victorian playwrights." - Laurie Edwards,

Compiled by Frank Miller & Jeff Stafford

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teaser The Importance Of Being Earnest (1952)

Several of Oscar Wilde's plays and stories - notably Salome, The Canterville Ghost, and The Picture of Dorian Gray - have been adapted to both TV and feature film many times. The Importance of Being Earnest is certainly among the most produced, if not the record holder: four times on the big screen, including a 1937 German-language version, a little-known all-black 1992 version featuring Brock Peters, and the big-budget 2002 remake starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, and Judi Dench; and countless TV versions in Spain, Germany, Sweden, and two credited to the BBC in 1937 and 1938.

The 1952 version of The Importance of Being Earnest, however, is considered the most faithful and the definitive take on the comic classic. Much of that can be attributed to the fact that director Anthony Asquith decided not to follow the usual approach to stage hits. Instead of opening it up for the screen, he stayed close to the theater version and came up with little more than a filmed play (which Oliver Parker may have been reacting to in his 2002 version, which adds dream sequences, flashbacks and character back stories in an attempt at a more cinematic approach). Asquith, however, emphasizes the stage-bound nature of the production by having it begin with people taking their seats in a Victorian-era theater and opening up their programs (revealing the film's credits). As one audience member peers through glasses at the stage, we are drawn into the story, shot both in locations and on sets.

What follows is the familiar comedy of social mores and mistaken identities as two single London men go about their clandestine activities under the pseudonym "Ernest," wooing two eligible young country ladies and uncovering a labyrinth of secrets about the past. The play on which it is based was the last of Wilde's works for the stage, premiering on Valentine's Day 1895, before his swift and scandalous fall from grace on morals charges. Asquith's faithfulness to the original may have been motivated in part by a curious circumstance concerning the play's aborted run. The man who brought the immorality charges against the homosexual playwright was then British Home Secretary (and later Prime Minister) Herbert Asquith, father of director Anthony. Ironically, the younger Asquith, who died in 1968, was himself gay.

One of Great Britain's most successful directors after World War II (along with Carol Reed and David Lean), Asquith had a penchant for bringing theater works to the big screen, including a long association with playwright Terence Rattigan. Two of Asquith's most famous pictures, The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951), were adapted from Rattigan's work. He also achieved international success (and several Academy Award nominations) with his film version of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1938), starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. Asquith's devotion to the theatrical, however, brought him increasing criticism for what was seen as his failure to achieve truly cinematic art. Nevertheless, he was famed for getting top performances out of his actors, and the ensemble work here is indicative of that skill.

Despite being too old for the role of the 28-year old Jack Worthing, 44-year-old Michael Redgrave gives one of his most memorable performances as the "Bunburying" gentlemen with a secret. Father of actors Vanessa, Lynn and Corin and grandfather of Joely and Natasha Richardson, Redgrave had his most notable roles in Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), Asquith's The Browning Version, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958, in the role taken by Michael Caine in the 2002 remake), and countless classic stage roles.

The Importance of Being Earnest also features the British comic great Margaret Rutherford, best known for her work as Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (1945), a role she originated on stage in 1941, and as Agatha Christie's sleuth Miss Jane Marple in such films as Murder She Said (1961) and Murder at the Gallop (1963).

The performances in The Importance of Being Earnest -- particularly Dame Edith Evans's Lady Bracknell - have come to be considered so definitive that it's hard to find one of the many community theater productions done every year across the globe that stray very far from this approach.

Director: Anthony Asquith
Producers: Earl St. John, Teddy Baird
Screenplay: Anthony Asquith, based on the play by Oscar Wilde
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Editing: John D. Guthridge
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon
Original Music: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Michael Redgrave (Jack Worthing), Michael Denison (Algernon Moncrieff), Edith Evans (Lady Bracknell), Margaret Rutherford (Miss Prism), Joan Greenwood (Gwendolyn), Dorothy Tutin (Cecily).

by Rob Nixon

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