Ideal Wilde

Based on some recent viewings of mid-twentieth-century film adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays, I have a theory as to what attracted filmmakers to them.  It’s not so much the chance to display Wildean wit as an opportunity to indulge in late-era Victoriana.  Particularly in women’s costumes:  All those ruffles, pleats, gloves, ribbons, fans, feathers, and puffed sleeves, not to mention those scooped necklines that flare off shoulders like furbelowed flying buttresses.  I was astonished by the lace woven through Diana Wynyard’s negligee in 1947’s An Ideal Husband—that something so lovely (and costly) was created for something so fleeting as a film.  Yet somehow all this textile flummery onscreen doesn’t overwhelm Wilde’s work.  Its very artifice heightens Wilde’s own, as if all this intricately cut-and-stitched fabric was an objective correlative for the dialogue’s constant stream of paradox, irony, and wordplay.  That’s when you understand Wilde as an artist of his time; like the gowns, his plays are rooted not in reality but in artfully crafted illusions, vehicles for their creator’s sublime wit.  Wilde may have reflected his era more profoundly, and in more ways than we think.

The 1947 film version of An Ideal Husband certainly goes all out in the Victoriana department.  Produced and directed by Alexander Korda, it offers us a no-expense-spared set and costume (by Cecil Beaton) design, in Technicolor to boot, that’s almost exhausting to watch.  Its opening scene, set in Hyde Park, and introducing, one by one, all the major characters, is a lengthy panorama of strollers, riders, soldiers, horses, and carriages, all in their best gowns, jackets, bonnets, and toppers; you may feel you’ve seen all you ever need to of parasols after it’s through.  Similarly, an early scene of a house party in a mansion, as guests, and more guests, and still more guests, mount a staircase, is almost TOO lavish and full.  The scene becomes a mash of color, cloth, and faces amid a steady, unending trod upwards—there seems no other point than to make us aware of what the filmmakers spent here.  I wish Korda could have been more discerning in his direction; he doesn’t choose or highlight in what he shows, but just keeps piling on.  (What might Cukor have done with it?)  Even Wilde might feel a bit stifled.

The play follows the plot of other Wildean dramas, concerning the eruption of a past, shameful secret, usually via an enigmatic woman who, in embodying this bygone scandal, penetrates and upsets the complacent existences of the main characters.  In A Woman of No Importance the character is the erring Mrs. Arbuthnot; in Lady Windermere’s Fan it’s Lady Windermere’s (unknown) mother, Mrs. Erlynne; even The Importance of Being Earnest has poor Miss Prism and That Handbag.  In An Ideal Husband, the woman is the mysterious Mrs. Cheveley, who possesses a crucial, deadly knowledge:  That the seemingly upright and honest politician, Sir Robert Chiltern, is guilty of a corrupt action in his youth, when he exchanged a state secret for money and a career.  Mrs. Cheveley now aims to blackmail Chiltern with what she knows, to get him to back a foreign government swindle in which she has heavily invested.  Complicating the issue for Sir Robert is his wife, the rigidly proper Lady Chiltern, whose spousal devotion is founded on her idealization of her husband; her unyielding principles will not allow her to love anyone with the slightest warp in his character.  Thus Sir Robert is balked on public and private fronts; admit the truth, either way, and he loses wife and career both.

Despite such serious issues, Wilde is clearly having fun with the upper classes here, though he obviously had some affection for them.  It was, after all, a life to which he aspired.  Wilde even inserted himself into the play, in the figure of the dandified Lord Goring (you know he’s Wilde because he gets the best lines), the one person whose integrity, unlike the Chilterns, is not waved like a banner.  I think Wilde did mean for audiences to admire the Chilterns, but Korda directs his actors in these roles as if they were abstractions, representing Virtue and Fortitude Triumphant, complete with appropriate pose.  Like Wilde, Korda adored the U; but, unlike Wilde, he doesn’t get beyond their surfaces.  It’s the chilly Chilterns who are the least sympathetic characters, she with her unreal high-mindedness, he with his dignity and pomp.  Wynyard as Lady Chiltern plays her role for stately melodrama but not warmth, while Hugh Williams as her lord is pretty much a stiff, though Williams was that kind of actor anyway.  Did it occur to him, or to Korda, to undercut Chiltern a bit?  To skewer that stuffy nobility of his?  Still, Williams does get across the husband’s iron lust for power; you sense, alarmingly, that, given the chance, he’d do the same thing all over again.

Oddly—or maybe not, considering who’s the author—the most enjoyable character is the rascally blackmailer, Mrs. Cheveley.  The lady may be a scoundrel but she’s lively and witty and, in contrast to the priggish Chilterns, knows who and what she is.  In the film she’s played by Paulette Goddard in what I assume was casting for the American market (per Wikipedia, the film was a hit in England but not in the U.S.).  Goddard lacks the incision, the sheer brilliance of Cheveley, the part requiring that exact quality—a display of cool, cutting wit and delicate cruelty, her lines demanding a quick delivery and a light, heartless touch.  Goddard’s not bad, though; if not Wildean, she’s at least spirited, and she plays the blackmail scene with charming devilry and an underlying sense of don’t-misunderstand-me-one-bit.  Her line readings may sound earthbound and middle-class, but middle-classness works for Cheveley, whose origins are never explained.

As her opponent, Lord Goring, Michael Wilding is almost too perfect.  He gets the rhythm, the lilt to the lines, the dandy’s languor, yet he seems too much of a lightweight in the role.  That matters because, though portrayed as a fop and idler, Goring is the play’s moral compass; it is he, after all, who saves the Chilterns’ marriage.  Yet he does so by his own bit of blackmail—Goring knows Cheveley once stole a valuable piece of jewelry—which, you realize, makes him akin to her.  Surely that taints even the play’s moral cynosure?  But then, that may be Wilde’s point.  We are all fallen creatures, banished from Eden; who of us, save a saint, hasn’t had some dealings with the devil in our hearts?

A stand-out in the film is that Ideal Englishman, C. Aubrey Smith, as Lord Caversham, Goring’s father.  It was one of Smith’s last films (he died the following year), and he plays his role in rip-roaring Aubrey-Smithish style—snorts, growls, glares, blusters, oh so huffing-puffing-British.  Great stuff.  Smith was born in 1863; he would have been a young man in 1895, the year the play premiered; perhaps he even saw it (and would surely have heard of it).  That makes him a solid link to the 1890s past of this play, to the past of Wilde and the Victorian Age.  Good lord, with that craggy profile (it should probably be scaled with ropes and pitons), and the disposition of an ill-tempered lion or dyspeptic eagle, Smith could be a link to England’s fabled past itself—I wouldn’t be surprised if he were seen bullyragging King Arthur’s Knights or harrumphing disapproval in the Court of the Faerie Queen.  Could he even have served as a consultant to this film? (NO, I can hear the old boy roaring, this is the way a Lady should step out of a carriage!)

And then there’s Glynis Johns, young and fresh as Mabel Chiltern, and still alive today (in her 90s at this writing)—who’s also a link, real and true, to the era of the film’s making, the late 1940s, and to Korda and a whole different, now-gone, once-familiar performance style.  Johns is simply adorable here; round-eyed and round-faced with innocence, but with a soupçon of mischief in her make-up, and as pert as a school-girl well can be (to quote another Victorian, W.S. Gilbert).  But she’s refreshingly up to date in her acting.  Indeed, she may be the only cast member, along with Smith, who understands the play’s stylized, as it were, style.  She plays her proposal scene with Goring beautifully, in a close-up as her eyes fill with tears, heartbreaking yet funny (she’s made everyone aware for the past six months that she adores Lord Goring, except the bridegroom-to-be himself).  Williams, Wynyard, and Goddard look stale in contrast.  Don’t be too modern, Constance Collier warns Johns’s character, or else you’ll find you’ve suddenly become old-fashioned.  No one could ever say that of Johns herself.

Bonus Clips:  You can watch Alexander Korda’s 1947 film version of An Ideal Husband here.  For another take, a link to a 1969 BBC “Play of the Month” production, starring Margaret Leighton and the inimitable Jeremy Brett, can be found here.

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