Ernest Worthing (Michael Redgrave) has a country house but likes to retreat to his town house every so often to both break the monotony and visit the woman he is in love with, Gwendolen Fairfax (Joan Greenwood), the daughter of the imperious Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans). However, today as he plans to propose marriage to Gwendolen, his good friend Algernon Moncrieff (Michael Denison) is over for the morning to help himself to his breakfast, and he has a bombshell to drop: it may not seem like much, but he has found Ernest's cigarette case. Ernest demands its return, but Algy had a few questions: who is this Cecily that according to the engraving gifted Ernest the case in the first place?
The Importance of Being Earnest was the final play of Oscar Wilde, one of the finest wits to ever set pen to paper for the stage, not that he was much respected when this was produced since he was plunged into scandal. The public were alarmed to learn that despite having a wife and children he apparently loved, he had been carrying on affairs with other men, and homosexuality was illegal in the Britain of the day. With Wilde prison-bound, few were interested in seeing this play, and it flopped as the experience broke his spirit, a sorry set of circumstances all round. Yet as if to make up for this miscarriage of justice ever since, this particular work has become possibly his most revived comedy.
There was a film version in the early twenty-first century that made most Wilde fans disgruntled, but go back to the 1952 version and you would be happy to appreciate some of the most impeccable readings of the text imaginable, with not one performer putting a foot wrong, that in spite of the most revered Ernest, Sir John Gielgud, declining the invitation to recreate his role for director Anthony Asquith's cameras. Redgrave stepped into his shoes, and maybe he was a little overage, but his confidence with the dialogue was not in question in a version that made no secret this was a straightforward, unadorned filming of the stage play as you might well have seen should you have attended a performance in a theatre.
For this reason some have carped that it was if anything far too staid in its design, a criticism that met many of Asquith's works for the screen, but on this occasion his instincts may have been absolutely correct: there was no need to dress this up too elaborately when the dialogue was so perfect and it would be unwise to attempt to improve upon it. What they did splash out on was the Technicolor, every frame rendered in a variety of shades that positively popped from the screen, making it markedly distinct from the black and white world of much of British cinema of the fifties, and doubtless contributing to its success with contemporary audiences. But that was the dressing up, as were those period costumes the cast were decked out in, what mattered was the delivery of those exquisitely crafted lines.
Michael Dennison, at the time famous for his stage work and an understanding of how to put across light comedy that was second to none, was instrumental in bringing The Importance of Being Earnest to film, well aware that he could be seen at his best advantage when he was so adept at conveying both the smart observations and jokes, but also that the character he played would never be aware of the essential mockery of both himself and the others who populated the story. This was carried over to the rest of the players, each and every one nailing down precisely what it took to achieve what the material needed, from Dorothy Tutin as Cecily's innocence to Edith Evans at her most formidable - it's impossible to mention this production without hearing her exclaim in incredulity "A handbag?!" Maybe it never really came alive as a motion picture, yet as a record of how to perform Oscar Wilde just right it was invaluable, and if nothing else enjoying it offered belated endorsement to the unfortunate author that he should have received towards the tragic end of his life. Music by Benjamin Frankel.
[Network's Blu-ray in The British Film collection has a restored print, and as extras a featurette, lots of galleries and subtitles.]