#70) Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)

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#70) Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)

OR “Wilde Abandon”

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Written by Julien Josephson. Based on the play by Oscar Wilde.

Class of 2002

The Plot: Stay with me folks. Lord Windermere (Bert Lytell) is married to Lady Windermere (May McAvoy), who is being secretly wooed by Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman). Meanwhile Lady W. thinks Lord W. is having an affair with Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich). In reality, Erlynne is Lady Windermere’s mother, presumed dead after abandoning her family. Lord Windermere is being blackmailed by Erlynne to keep her secret from her daughter. At the same time Erlynne is being pursued by Lord Augustus Lorton (Edward Marindel) who knows nothing about what’s going on. Everything comes to a head at Lady Windermere’s birthday party, where a certain fan plays a key role.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Ernst Lubitsch’s ability “to translate Wilde’s witty play into a successful silent film”. There’s also an essay by silent film expert and UC Davis professor Scott Simmon. Go Aggies!

But Does It Really?: As much as I enjoyed this film, its NFR inclusion gets a “meh” from me. The film is very impressive as an exercise in translating a very wordy play into a much more visual film, but a classic worth preserving? I don’t know. We’ll see more of Lubitsch throughout this list. In the meantime I’m staying on the fence about all this.

Everybody Gets One: Screenwriter Julien Josephson made a career out of adapting plays and novels into films, earning an Oscar nomination in 1930 for his film translation of the play “Disraeli”. He also wrote the screenplay for the Shirley Temple version of “Heidi”. With the exception of Ronald Colman, most of this cast did not survive the end of the silent era.

Wow, That’s Dated: I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand English high society of the 1890s, er…1920s. Make up your mind, movie!

Other notes

  • Not only does the film eliminate all of Wilde’s dialogue, it reveals that Mrs. Erlynne is the mother almost immediately. You had to wait until the end of the second act to find that out in the play. On top of this, the first half hour of the film isn’t even in the play!
  • Pretty gutsy to call your film a “Classic of the Screen”. I’ll be the judge of that, thank you.
  • Hey, no means no, Darlington!
  • You can’t sign a letter “Yours Very Truly” when you’re blackmailing someone.
  • Mom kinda looks like Diana Rigg.
  • The version of this film that I saw openly samples “Ascot Gavotte” from “My Fair Lady” during the horse race scene. Lerner & Lowe expect a royalty check.
  • Speaking of, when did horseracing go from the sport of the upper class to a place where deadbeats go to have their dreams crushed?
  • No fair Lubitsch, you can’t fade to another shot while in binocular mode! What kind of “Lubitsch Touch” is that?
  • I appreciate how much of this film I understand without having to rely on title cards. Everything I need to know is being told visually.
  • May McAvoy does wide-eyed stare very well. It’s like she’s a deer in the headlights, and she’s pissed about it.
  • Erlynne strikes me as the mom who would try to pass her and her daughter off as sisters. It probably helps that in real life, these two actresses are only eight years apart.
  • This film perfectly showcases how farce on film is all about perspective. We need to see what each character sees and how that specific point of view misconstrues the situation. We have to understand the misunderstandings.
  • Are all the doors in Darlington’s house huge or is everyone just really small?

Legacy

  • “Lady Windermere’s Fan” has been adapted for film on several occasions, most notably 1949’s “The Fan” and 2004’s “A Good Woman”.
  • That other great British wit Noel Coward turned this play into the 1954 musical “After the Ball”.
  • This mathematical nonsense.
  • Had Oscar Wilde lived to see this adaptation throw away all of his dialogue, he probably would have said “I have nothing to declare except, ‘This blows!’”

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