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The Importance of Being Earnest: The Criterion Collection (1952)

Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin, where he spent his boyhood, and where he eventually attended the famous Trinity College from 1871-74. One would think that these facts would more or less qualify him as an Irish writer, but unlike many of his Irish contemporaries who wrote for the stage — including William Butler Yeats, John Synge, and George Bernard Shaw — Wilde didn't give much of his attention to the plight of Ireland or the political issues of the day. In fact, most people tend to think of Wilde as an English writer because of his lack of literary attention to his own country. It was during Wilde's academic career at Oxford that he first began to show signs of great promise, initially with a series of poems and critical essays on the nature of art and aesthetics. By the 1880s Wilde had also become a celebrity, not only because of his poetry but also because of his very flamboyant personality. He was a "dandy," a young man with money, a good education, loose morals, and what was, for the time, very outrageous, colorful clothing that stood in stark relief to the traditional gray suits of England's upper-crust society. He was also very, very gay — and when this fact was revealed in an infamous 1895 court case, he was sentenced to two years in an English prison. After serving his time, he moved to France. He died a few years later at the age of 46. It's amazing that Oscar Wilde is considered a major figure in the canons English literature, considering that his total artistic output consists of a few collections of essays and poems, one novel, two epic poems, and four plays. But his genius has surmounted that limited body of work.

It was during the peak of Wilde's career that The Importance of Being Earnest was first produced on the London stage, and while the play is widely regarded as a masterpiece, only one major film from the script was made in the 20th century — Anthony Asquith's brilliant 1952 British production. Wilde's plot is so outrageously complicated that a mere summary only does it injustice, but suffice it to say that London dandies Algernon (Michael Denison) and Jack (Michael Redgrave) live dual lives — Algy always pretending to look after his sick friend "Bunbury" in order to leave the city for a spree of anonymous fun and avoid his overbearing aunt, Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans), while Jack has identities both in the city, as a licentious bachelor, and at his country estate, where he is a responsible family figure who looks after his sheltered niece Cecily (Dorothy Tutin). But when the two friends let their dual identities slip to each other, Algy decides to "Bunbury" at Jack's country house for a weekend, pretending to be Jack's long-lost brother, and before long he woos young Cecily, which sends Jack into a tizzy. In the meantime, Jack falls in love with Algy's cousin Gwendolyn (Joan Greenwood), but he has to deal with both Algy and Lady Bracknell if the pair are to reach the altar. Algy, for one, doesn't approve of the union — he insists that Jack is irresponsibly duplicitous.

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The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the supreme triumphs of the English language, and the 1952 film is more than up to the task of conveying Wilde's sentiment-skewering wit. The actors tackle the script with flair, delivering every line with delicious timing, and Asquith judiciously downplays the more farcical elements of the plot (frequently overdone in many stage productions), letting Wilde's dialogue do all the work. "Mystery is the essence of romance," Algy declares. "Should I ever get married, I shall do my best to forget about it." Cecily, writing her diary, notes it to be "simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication." And Lady Bracknell, who believes that young people can easily wait until their thirties to be married, claims that "London society is full of women of the highest birth who, of their own free will, have remained thirty-five for years." The cast — largely theater-trained, with only Michael Redgrave having a substantial film career — is as good as one could want to interpret Wilde's witty reparteé. As Jack, Redgrave is a portrait of boiling frustration, while Michael Denison as Algy remains perfectly unruffled in all circumstances, no matter how dire. Both Joan Greenwood and Dorothy Tutin (in her first screen role) are charming leading ladies, and perhaps the best treat of all is Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell — she rarely appeared in motion pictures but played this role on the British stage almost exclusively for three decades before Asquith captured it for posterity.

Criterion's DVD release of The Importance of Being Earnest features a good full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a pleasant source print, although the limitations of video occasionally cause a houndstooth jacket here and there to shimmer. Audio is crisp and clear in Dolby Digital 1.0, and English subtitles are on board. Supplements include the original theatrical trailer, as well as a large collection of still photography and textual notes from film historian Bruce Eder. As always, the use of the original theatrical poster for the boxcover art is a nice touch. Keep-case.

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