A society woman believes her husband is having an affair, a misconception which may have dire personal consequences for all involved.A society woman believes her husband is having an affair, a misconception which may have dire personal consequences for all involved.A society woman believes her husband is having an affair, a misconception which may have dire personal consequences for all involved.
Before seeing Ernst Lubitsch's silent version of Lady Windermere's Fan at the Museum of Modern Art this summer I re-read Oscar Wilde's play, which I enjoyed, but I didn't have high hopes for the movie, despite the involvement of a director I count among my favorites. I imagined the movie would consist of actors standing around in tuxes and evening gowns pretending to mouth witty sayings, which would then be presented to us in numerous title cards; but because I admire Lubitsch's sound films a great deal I thought I'd give it a try. Plus, I thought it'd be interesting to see Ronald Colman in a silent film, deprived of that wonderful voice. What a pleasant surprise to find that this is one of the best sophisticated comedies of the silent screen. The flavor of Wilde's play is distilled to its essence, and clearly conveyed without relying on a single one of his famous epigrams. (Interestingly, a recent biography of Lubitsch says that the film quotes only two or three lines from the play, but if so I didn't catch them.) How is this possible?
Lubitsch conveys Wilde's notions about high society swells and their prejudices cinematically, not verbally. When the notorious Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich) appears at the Ascot race track, the reaction of "society" is quickly made clear to us by the scandalized facial expressions of the ladies present; who, nonetheless, can't stop looking at her or talking about her. The tone of their remarks is obvious from their sour expressions. Naturally, the men are interested in Mrs. Erlynne, too. She is shown, montage fashion, from many different angles, through lorgnettes and binoculars, long-shot, extreme long-shot and close-up, and while the horse race is reduced to mere background. It's a funny and informative sequence, yet it isn't in Wilde's play at all. In another scene that more closely follows the text, Lord Darlington (Colman) calls on Lord and Lady Windermere at their home. He is formally announced, and pretends briefly that he actually came to see Lord Windermere on some minor matter. But when Windermere conveniently leaves on business, Darlington, shown in a stately long-shot, strides away from Lady Windermere (May McAvoy), sits, shoots her a sly look, and announces that he is in love with her. Shocked, she crosses and drops into a chair next to him. He rises, crosses away from her, and drops into a different chair. They both look miserable. Fade-out. It's a beautifully staged scene, and no additional dialog is necessary.
Another sequence that occurs late in the film perfectly epitomizes the famous Lubitsch Touch while deftly conveying the spirit of Wilde's play: a title card announces that "The relations between a man and a woman can be told by the way he presses her doorbell." Various ways in which this is so are then demonstrated. You wouldn't think that a close-up shot of a doorbell and a gentleman's gloved hand could be so suggestive, but Lubitsch manages to suggest a great deal.
The black & white cinematography of Lady Windermere's Fan positively shimmers; happily, this is one silent film that has been well preserved. The acting is quite restrained by the standards of the day, and even without his voice Ronald Colman has the presence of a star, while Irene Rich gives the performance of her career. It's a wonderful adaptation of a great play that can stand on its own as cinema; and it may come as a surprise to those who believe silent film comedy begins and ends with Ben Turpin and the Keystone Cops.
- Dec 29, 2001