Almost from the get-go silent films tackled their theatrical cousins, retelling plays as if words really didn’t matter. Risky at the best of times such missions were surely impossible when it came to the sophisticated wordplay of Oscar Wilde.
Nazimova did it with interpretive dance and audacious mise en scène for Salomy but here Enrst Lubitsch takes on Oscar using the wit and sophistication of his direction. Sure there are some excellent performances but Ernst’s inch-perfect positioning, cross-cutting and way with purely visual messaging ensures that this take on a wordy, comedy of manners works.
He hardly needs to use title cards as the mood is established, explained and maintained throughout in what is one of the neatest films of the Twenties: so balanced and perfectly timed, shot and performed… I’m finally getting to feel that “touch” the grown-ups talk about – the delicate use of key signifiers to lift the tale above predictability and to convey small explosions of meaning in unexpected ways.
Take, for example, that fan… it’s everywhere: a symbol of marital love, a potential assault weapon, distraction under duress and incriminating evidence. It’s just a fan but Lubitsch uses it so very well.
Put that fan in the hands of an actress as undeniably fine as Irene Rich and you have a symbol of motherly sacrifice, unbreakable choices that have to be made and confirmation that true love does indeed conquer all.
I was expecting a witty disappointment but what I got was a riveting 86 minutes that might just be one of the greatest cinematic adaptations o f a play: Lubitsch using massive, high and wide sets through which his characters drift in their torments in one sequence a wife and her would be lover changing places over a room that must be 80 feet long – there is no way they can meet in the middle: they are doomed by circumstance to orbit and never embrace in cosmic collision. Unless, that is, a new stellar object appears to play havoc with the order of this mannered and moneyed universe…
All begins with Lady Windermere (May McAvoy) facing the troublesome decisions of where to seat her dinner guests at her impending birthday party: where to put the dashing and entertaining Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman), right next to her ladyship… at the head of the table perhaps? Talk of the Devil… the Lord arrives to bring handsome substance to her reverie… She presumes he’s come to see her husband… but not this time.
Meanwhile Lord Windermere (Bert Lytell) is discovering something even more disturbing… A Mrs. Edith Erlynne has written to him claiming to be his wife’s mother who was lost to disgrace a long time ago with her daughter having grown up believing her dead and a great moral example…
Mrs. Erlynne (superbly played by Miss Rich) duly arrives and uses this unfortunate connection to extract some financial support from Windermere – her elegant blackmail expressed through sight of a cheque and the Lord having to add a one to the five hundred he’s started writing following one smiling glance… His wife must never know of her mother’s disgrace. Rich was just 34 at the time and whilst that initially seems too young… when you do the maths it’s close enough.
Mrs. Erlynne begins to lead an “extravagant” life with Windermere’s support, “…not accepted by society but the subject of its gossip…” There’s a terrific scene at the races when “society” spies in fascination at the intriguing interloper: spy glasses from both men and women including The Duchess of Berwick (Carrie Daumery) leader of the pack. We see multiple points of view until Mrs E. sits down just in front of a group including Lady Windermere her husband, admirer and the gossips.
|A day at the races|
Examining the back of her head with her binoculars the Duchess is delighted to see that Mrs E is going slightly grey and then, seeing her jewels, ponders where her money comes from. All wonderfully bitchy in Oscar Wilde’s immortal way.
Sat with them is one of London’s most eligible Lord Augustus Lorton (Edward Martindel) who spies this fine filly and is intrigued. As the lady leaves he follows with the director showing their pursuit in longshot, small figures against a backdrop of advertisement-plastered walls: the camera gradually masqued to narrow the screen as Lord closes in on Lady…
|The Lord in pursuit|
Lorton goes to visit and Lubitsch uses the manner of his entrances to illustrate the developing relationship: at first formal, waiting to be shown through by the maid and then advancing from front door to drawing room with barely a pause: his familiarity only halted by Edith’s last minute swerve: he’s keen.
Meanwhile Darlington can’t help himself and casts aspersions about Lord Windermere’s relationship with Edith. Lady W can scare believe it but sure enough she discovers chequebook evidence of multiple payments to this strange woman… Rumbled, Windermere refuses to reveal all and asks his wife to take his word.
Things are coming to a head though as Windermere asks to re-introduce Edith to society at his wife’s birthday party but she threatens to use the lovely fan he has bought her to assault the interloper… Having invited Edith, Windermere’s un-invitation isn’t seen in time before she arrives to potential humiliation. Cue Lord Lorton who arrives to sweep her into the room – her daughter, the two men chasing her affections and so many idle tongues gathered all in one room…
I won’t give any more away save to say that the fan becomes a significant character almost in its own right.
The film presents almost as Lubitsch in the raw; it’s very pared down with the focus on character and movement. The sets are elegant and but, as with the racecourse, recede far behind the foregrounded players all of whom are sophisticated and in the cases of the main leads, sensitive.
The cinematography of Charles Van Enger matches his director’s vision and allows for a story so reliant on words to transition so well to the silent screen.
|Ronald Coleman and May McAvoy|
Wilde and Lubitsch is a marriage made in Hollywood though: two men of subtle wit and piercing insights into polite society constrained by manners and rules almost designed to prevent happiness. Any triumph of love is almost accidental and always against the odds: perhaps these folk aren’t much different from those who watch them in the dark?
I watched the version on the More Treasures from American Film Archives 1894-1931 box set which comes with a sparkly new piano score – it’s available direct or from Amazon but is now collectable – time for a re-release!