not in our stars, but in ourselves
Isn’t it just a miserable twist of fate that Oscar Wilde wasn’t around when Ernst Lubitsch was making films? It’s right up there with my not being alive at the same time that Vladimir Nabokov and/or Fred Astaire were looking for wives. A gross injustice, I tell you. But in all seriousness, only Lubitsch had the deftness and wittiness necessary to translate Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) from stage to silent screen. And imagine the sparkling ripostes we could have heard from the likes of Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis, had Wilde been writing in the ’20s and ’30s. Not that they did so badly.
We are among the upper echelons of London society here. Lady Windermere (May McAvoy) is a lovely, charming young woman, very happily married and very elegantly dressed. Lord Windermere (Bert Lytell) adores his wife, as well he should. Their friend, Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman), also adores her. Windermere seems not to notice his friend’s ardor for his wife, but Lady Windermere certainly does. One day, Windermere receives a strange letter from a woman named Mrs. Edith Erlynne (Irene Rich). She demands to meet him, and reveals that she is Lady Windermere’s mother – a woman who was disgraced some twenty years before, and of whose existence Lady Windermere knows nothing. Windermere begins to pay Mrs. Erlynne, partly to keep her quiet and partly because he rather admires her frankness and warmth. Besides, she created Lady Windermere. She can’t be all bad. Nevertheless, to the untrained eye, it seems that Windermere has a woman on the side – and Darlington is, perhaps, more excited than a good friend ought to be at the prospect of something breaking up the Windermeres’ marriage.
Like any comedy based on misunderstandings all around, it is an involved little plot. Wilde, of course, had the fantastically complex English language at his disposal. Lubitsch had images. And the translation is a perfect one. Lubitsch’s visual wit is the perfect answer to Wilde’s literary wit – and perhaps even better. Wilde could, at times, be slightly didactic; and while Lubitsch doesn’t ignore the social commentary of the original play, he’s too amused and enchanted by these silly people and their silly sex problems to let moralizing get in the way.
That’s reason enough to see the film. But there’s more. Considering my bitter hatred of the last mess of a film I watched, I opted for this one today because it is a gorgeous look at fabulous 1920s fashions. Lubitsch knew the value of a perfect tuxedo for a gentleman, and a ravishing gown for a lady. Just look at these dresses – the one on Mrs. Erlynne, right, especially:
And while we’re listing superficial reasons to see this: Ronald Colman. I sense a Beautiful People post coming up. I have to say – it may have been bad casting for Colman to play the rejected lover, rather than the husband Lady Windermere stands by. If Ronald Colman were wooing me, if he were gazing at me while I showed him my birthday gifts and saying “yes, beautiful” about me, if he begged me to leave my philandering husband to be with him instead – well, I mean, how could you possibly refuse any of that? I know I couldn’t.
Ahem. Back to somewhat serious reasons to see this delightful comedy.
It is possibly the most beautifully shot film I’ve seen – certainly the most beautifully shot film I’ve seen in a long while. Fortunately, the Museum of Modern Art deemed this a film worthy of saving and preserving; if you watch enough silents, you’ll appreciate the glory of a well-preserved film as compared to the usual lot of silents – bad, dirty, slightly warped prints that diminish the film’s original beauty and power. Here, we can see the voluptuous plumes of smoke that drift from Mrs. Erlynne’s cigarettes. We can see the intricate beading of Lady Windermere’s flowing gowns. We can see the twinkle in Darlington’s eye, even. Lubitsch takes great care with every inch of screen space – it’s not just there to serve the basics of the plot; it’s a work of art in its own right. That sounds obvious. It sounds like something every director does. But he does it better than anyone else.