Oscar Wilde meets Ernst Lubitsch in this witty society comedy. Lubitsch’s decision to jettison Wilde’s dialogue may raise some eyebrows but the Wilde spirit is intact and smart performances from Irene Rich and Ronald Colman are the icing on the cake.
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Ernst Lubitsch arrived in Hollywood with great fanfare and the unfortunate moniker of a “European Griffith.” In Germany, he had swung between saucy comedies and large scale epics, which is doubtlessly where the nickname came from but he quickly proved that his greatest talent was in bringing a touch of sophistication to expensive comedies.
Lubitsch is in a funny position. His films are sometimes dismissed as “mere” comedies and at other times, Lubitsch fans are accused of snootiness. Bah! Some people just don’t know how to have fun because Lubitsch films are dainty delights and if you think what he was doing was easy, I would like to direct your attention to Griffith’s own attempts at marital humor. Lubitsch may have been stuck with being called the European Griffith but nobody would ever say that Griffith was an American Lubitsch.
Before we begin, I have a confession to make: I absolutely detest most film adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays. It has nothing to do with the material, you understand, and everything to do with the delivery. There is nothing more insufferable than a performer who has a witty part and knows they have a witty part and so their eyelids drop, their face gets smug and they deliver “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance” in a manner that makes me want to both sock them and take away their library card.
(There are exceptions, of course, and for the sake of convenience, we shall just say that your favorite Wilde films are the exceptions.)
Very, very, very few actors are able to overcome the temptation to engage in such antics. They can’t help it. They’re like alcoholics locked in a room with a bottle of vodka. And since the directors seem to be encouraging this nonsense, it will doubtlessly continue forever and ever. But once, just once, I would like to see an Oscar Wilde adaptation that isn’t a constant study in pretentiousness masquerading a light entertainment.
Enter Ernst Lubitsch.
During a recent presentation of her father’s work, Nicola Lubitsch said that “He expected you to be intelligent and he expected you to get it, and that to me is the Lubitsch touch.” Lubitsch loved his big cities, drawing rooms and fancy boudoirs but he also loved to allow his audience in on his jokes and references. His work is sophisticated but it never talks down.
In short, I believe we may have the perfect antidote to Wilde Overacting Syndrome.
The story centers around the mysterious, scandalous, glamorous Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich, veteran actress and maker of a geographically-confused salad) and her relationship with Lord Windermere (Bert Lytell), a connection that has the whole town talking. In fact, Mrs. Erlynne is the mother of Lady Windermere (May McAvoy only eight years younger than her mom), who left her husband and child decades before. Lord Windermere supports Mrs. Erlynne and her return to society because she engages in a little light blackmail. Lady Windermere thinks her mother is dead, you see, and is an awful prude. Knowing that her mother is alive and slinking would be a humiliation.
Lady Windermere has been engaging in some flirtation with Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman) and our resident cad is more than ready to use the Erlynne question to press his suit. In fact, Mrs. Erlynne has set her cap at Lord Augustus Lorton (Edward Martindel), an aristocrat with more money than brains, but she needs to be more accepted in capital “S” Society before she can secure him. To do that, she must be seen at the best houses, like, say, the Windermere home…
First, I must take a moment to praise the casting of the picture. May McAvoy and Bert Lytell are the very model of respectability, a perfect contrast to Lord Darlington and Mrs. Erlynne. Clive Brook had been the original choice for Darlington but, per Irene Rich, Lubitsch demanded that he act in the manner of a German rake (heel clicking and such), which Brook objected to. Historian Scott Eyman speculates that Lubitsch was trying to get rid of Brook with intentionally ludicrous demands. Certainly, Brook was miscast as Darlington and would have made a better Lord Windermere. (I enjoy Clive Brook as an actor and director but, as On Approval shows, his particular area of comedy expertise was playing a bit of a brat.)
Ronald Colman, on the other hand, oozes around in the role and I am fairly certain he would melt if sprinkled with salt. I’m not a huge fan of silent Colman—he isn’t bad, you understand, just not as good as he could be—but this casting is more than all right. Colman seems to relish his turn as the embodiment of temptation and Darlington is indeed tempting, one truly understands Lady Windermere’s moment of weakness.
Colman was cast through the courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn and Goldwyn demanded a credit stating same wherever Colman’s name appeared. Lubitsch sarcastically incorporated this into his direction, asking Colman to cross the room “through the courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn.”
But the real star, scene-stealer and revelation is Irene Rich as Mrs. Erlynne. She brings all the style, flirtatiousness, sadness, regret and fire that the role requires and adds in a heaping dose of charisma. The final scene of the film is a great example of what I mean.
(Spoiler) Mrs. Erlynne fell on her sword to save her daughter and lost her chance at Lord Augustus, or so it seems. She passes him as she is leaving the Windermeres’ and marches straight up to him. “Your conduct last night was outrageous! I have decided not to marry you,” she coldly declares before spinning around and walking to her car. Lord Augustus, of course, was probably going to say the very same thing to her and he cannot resist her brash turning of the tables. He follows her into her car, she closes the door and the film ends. Rich plays the scene with the utter shamelessness required and Lord Augustus never stands a chance. Not that he wanted one.
The scene between Darlington and Erlynne is equally good. Mrs. Erlynne is given a chance to savor her bitter victory and to tell Darlington that she is sure she will not be required to interfere again.
Lubitsch decided early on to jettison Wilde’s dialogue, which is often the factoid that is brought up when this film is discussed. He explained that “Playing with words is fascinating to the writer and afterward the reader, but on the screen it is impossible. Would much charm remain to long excerpts from Wilde’s play if the audience had to ponder laboriously over the scintillating sentences on the screen?”
As someone who has had to slog through endless verbatim quotes in book and play adaptations, I give these sentiments a hearty amen. The snap of Wilde’s one-liners would have wilted in title card form but Lubitsch knew how to capture the spirit of Wilde in small movements.
For example, the film opens with Lady Windermere using name cards to decide on seating for a dinner. She places Lord Darlington next to herself and then thinks better and removes his name card. Before we ever lay eyes on Ronald Colman, we know that that Darlington fellow has claimed more than his fair share of attention from the stiff Lady Windermere.
And, of course, the racetrack scene is another example of Wilde Visually. Instead of breathless gossip, Lubitsch uses binoculars from every angle examining every inch of Mrs. Erlynne. The race is second place to the whiff of scandal that follows the unfortunate lady wherever she goes. And then when Augustus follows Mrs. Erlynne out of the racetrack, the linear wipe slowly follows him before discretely turning the page on the scene.
The adaptation by Julien Josephson does an excellent job of “opening up” Wilde’s play and letting it breathe. When adapting stage works for the screen, it is important to remember that in live theater, every change of scenery generally requires a certain amount of work from the stagehands and a pause in the action. Films, of course, can cut all that out with some scissors and glue but stage-to-screen adaptations must make the choice of either keeping the action as-is (which can be claustrophobic and therefore ideal for building suspense) or adding new settings that may prove to be distracting.
The original Wilde play took place primarily in various rooms in the home of the Windermeres with one important scene in Lord Darlington’s digs. The 1925 film not only adds scenes in Mrs. Erlynne’s home, it also includes a rather amusing scene at the racetrack. It also makes use of the sprawling Windermere home with various rooms and the garden showcased. These extra sets do not change the general direction of story much but they do give the plot some space.
(By the way, if you want a more traditional approach to Wilde, I recommend the full cast recording released by Naxos.)
Speaking of space, the original play takes place over the course of about 24 hours but the film shows the actions of several months. Mrs. Erlynne’s identity is known from the very start and the film focuses on her as the protagonist and not Lady Windermere. This was a wise decision as Erlynne is ten time more interesting than her daughter, who tends to spend most of the play moaning. By taking the focus off her, ironically, Lady Windermere becomes a more interesting figure, a wife who assumes herself scorned and is ready to turn a flirtation into an affair and an affair into a scandal and all with 95% less moaning.
As with the set design, I would describe the screenplay for Lady Windermere’s Fan as clean. There is not clutter, everything is sharp and smart and to the point. Lubitsch has fun playing with the idea of voyeurism and scandal and he successfully transmits that sense of fun to the audience in a clear and efficient manner. This is a well-oiled machine.
The film made money but not enough compared to its budget and it marked the end of Lubitsch at Warner Bros. but he continued in his quest to make Hollywood films just a bit more fun and just the tiniest bit more spicy.
Lady Windermere’s fan is a smart, witty and clean adaptation of Wilde’s play and while it may not be true to his words, it is true to their spirit. Lubitsch and Wilde prove to be a winning combination and the result is a film that is not only enjoyable to silent movie fans, it is a treat for people who do not yet know they are silent film fans.
Where can I see it?
The best edition was released on DVD as part of the More Treasures from American Film Archives box set but it is out of print. I have not viewed the standalone DVD releases yet.
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