Sunday, January 4, 2009

Review – Lady Windermere’s Fan

January 4, 2009

Lady Windermere’s Fan – U.S., 1925

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1925 silent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s famous play Lady Windermere’s Fan begins with a problem that is more difficult than it probably should be – just where to seat Lord Darlington (Ronald Coleman) at Lady Windermere’s upcoming birthday party. After assigning a seat to all of her other guests, all that remains is the seat next to Lady Windermere herself, and yet Lady Windermere (Mary McAvoy) hesitates to place his name card in that position. We soon find out why, for a moment later a maid is announcing the arrival of Lord Darlington. Nothing seems out of the ordinary at first, but after initially shaking hands with her, Lord Darlington is reluctant to release her hand, and for a moment, she doesn’t seem to notice. When she finally does, she immediately pulls her hand from his and turns away from him. Undaunted, he bows his head and then quickly plants a kiss of her hand. Shocked for a moment, Lady Windermere regains her composure and asks if he is here to see her husband. In what I’m sure doesn’t come as much of a surprise to her, he is not.

However, Lord Darlington is not your typical playboy. While he doesn’t have a problem with flirtation or trying to convince a married woman to leave her husband, he is not a man simply looking for a one-night stand. When he tells Lady Windermere that he loves her, he does not attempt to embrace her or kiss her; rather, he walks away and sits on the other side of the room far away from here. He seems just as conflicted with his feelings as she does regarding the seating arrangement for her birthday dinner. Perhaps this is because Lady Windermere’s husband (Bert Lytell) is a rather decent man. He’s a loving husband, an obviously successful businessman, and a rather principled individual who will stop at nothing to defend his wife’s honor. He is even good friends with Lord Darlington. Therefore, we must ask why Lord Darlington thinks Lady Windermere would be happier with him than she is with her husband. There does not seem to be an exact answer to this question. He just does.

As Lord Darlington is making haphazard attempts at wooing Lady Windermere, Lord Windermere receives a strange letter from a woman named Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich), a letter which suggests that she has important information for him. When we see Mrs. Erlynne, she is sitting at a desk surrounded by bills, gazing at a picture of Mrs. Windermere. Upon his arrival, Lord Windermere demands an explanation for the letter. She offers him one – she is Lady Windermere’s mother, a claim that she can prove. Lord Windermere’s reaction to this only hints at the negative effect this information would have on his wife, and after a tense, awkward moment passes, it is clear that what we are seeing is an act of extortion. Grudgingly, Lord Windermere pulls out his checkbook, and while Mrs. Erlynne makes half-hearted attempts at declining the “gift,” it is clear that she is getting exactly what she wants. It is likely that Lord Windermere expects that this will be a one-time payment. However, once one shows one’s willingness to go along with extortion, it is almost impossible to keep it from reoccurring, and soon Mrs. Erlynne is back with another request.

However, like Lord Darlington, Mrs. Erlynne is a sympathetic character, for she lives during a time when financial stability and family honor affords someone a certain social status, one that Mrs. Erlynne has previously lost. It’s clear that Mrs. Erlynne uses extortion as a last resort and only as a result of her economic hardship, a situation that even Lord Windermere seems to understand. Later, he even defends her against the gossip of older socialites. However, his willingness to do so only increases Lord Darlington’s doubts about his character.

In a way, Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan is not the one that Oscar Wilde’s intended, for it’s practically impossible to capture Wilde’s wit on intertitles. Because of this, Lubitsch chose to strip the story of much of what makes seeing the play on stage such an amusing experience. In fact, Wilde’s sense of humor can only truly be seen in one scene, when the intertitles explain how you can tell the stage of a relationship through the way a person rings a doorbell. However, Lubitsch’s version of Lady Windermere’s Fan remains fascinating. Lord Darlington and Mrs. Erlynne may be attempting rather immoral things, but their motivations are understandable. Lady Windermere is in the unenviable position of being in the dark about many things, a fact that contributes to her increasingly conflicting emotions. Her perception of events is shaped by partially obscured views, gossip, and conjecture, making her actions at the end of the film completely understandable. They also carry the potential for permanent damage to her reputation.

Lubitsch’s film is very much about human nature, about people’s tendencies to jump to terrible conclusions, to contemplate actions they would be critical of others for considering, and to willingly accept the worst in people. In this world, a woman’s place in society, indeed her very future, is intertwined with how others see her. If they accept her, she is part of a privileged group; if they do not, her days may be spent alone, and she may find herself dangling dangerously close to desperation. In short, she would be where Mrs. Erlynne is when she sends her infamous note to Lord Windermere. Lubitsch’s film makes us sympathetic for a character in this situation, a sentiment that allows us to hold her in even higher regard by the end of the film. (on the third disc of Image-Entertainment’s More Treasures from the American Film Archives)

3 and a half stars

*Lady Windermere’s Fan was made at a time when subtlety was emphasized over the exaggerated physical movements seen in many earlier silent films. This style of acting suits the film and its subject matter extremely well. The performances in Lady Windermere’s Fan are all outstanding.

No comments: