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Monday, November 5, 2007

A Walk on the Wilde Side (originally published 7/99)

Notwithstanding the fact that writers are routinely treated like chattel in Hollywood, the one thing that every producer will tell you is that a good script is worth its weight in gold. Mediocre scripts are a dime a dozen, and lousy ones are a penny a carload, but the really good screenplays are vanishingly rare. That's why studios that are drowning in unsolicited screenplay submissions are nevertheless starving for something to produce.

There is, however, another way. Rather than plowing through the mountains of original screenplays looking for the one nugget that will be worth an investment of millions of dollars, it's always possible to adapt a work that has already proven itself. Libraries are, after all, filled with classic stories that have stood the test of time.

That was the strategem employed by the producers of "An Ideal Husband," which is currently playing at your local mutliplex. These filmmakers have had the good sense to borrow from the best -- the sublime Oscar Wilde. Naturally, they aren't the first filmmakers to hit upon this outstanding source of first rate dramatic material. If you've seen and enjoyed "An Ideal Husband," you will certainly want to look for these earlier Wilde adaptations on home video.

"Lady Windermere's Fan" (1925). The earliest surviving movie version of a Wilde play is in some ways the most interesting. Since it was a silent film, it was necessarily stripped of the cadences of Wilde's deliciously witty dialogue. Fortunately, this film was directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch. No filmmaker has ever had a more finely tuned grasp of how to use the medium of film to render dramatic subtleties. This ability left an unmistakable imprint on every film Lubitsch directed, prompting his awe-struck peers to refer to "the Lubitsch touch." Rather than attempt to render Wilde's lines through dialogue titles, Lubitsch took on the challenge of retelling Wilde's story using clever images in place of clever lines. In his masterly hands, the familiar tale of Lady Windermere and the woman who sacrifices both reputation and social standing on her behalf emerges largely intact despite the lack of the original dialogue.

"The Canterville Ghost" (1944). Charles Laughton, one of England's most distinguished stage and screen actors, brings his delightfully mannered style to the portrayal of the title role in Wilde's story of an English manor ghost who is more frightened than frightening. Some three centuries ago, his father had had him walled up in the dungeon for cowardice. Now his spirit must linger in the castle until a descendent of his removes the blot on the family name through an act of bravery.

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945). Decades before Rod Serling invented "The Twilight Zone" Oscar Wilde wrote the narrative that might well have served as Serling's prototype. In his only novel, Wilde tells the unsettling story of a man who barters his soul in exchange for eternal youth. From that moment on, the blemishes left behind by age, excess, and debauchery are etched into the face of Dorian Gray's portrait rather than his own flesh, which remains youthful and pristine. This story has been adapted for film a number of times, but the 1945 MGM production, with Hurd Hatfield as Dorian and George Sanders as the jaded rogue who leads him astray, remains my favorite.

"An Ideal Husband" (1948). The producers of the current version of "An Ideal Husband" are not the first to adapt it for the screen. In fact, they have a very tough act to follow. This British production was produced and directed by Alexander Korda, one of England's most consistently excellent filmmakers. The key role of Mrs. Cheveley, played in the new version by Julianne Moore, is brilliantly executed by Paulette Goddard. No one, then or now, was better than Goddard at playing a crafty, manipulative woman. She was, in fact, a front-runner for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind."

If these films don't satisfy your appetite for Wilde, consider seeing "The Trials of Oscar Wilde" (1960) and "Oscar Wilde" (1960), two concurrently released films dramatizing Wilde's arrest and imprisonment. They tell a story that may be more poignant than any to be found in his plays: how England denied itself and the world the services of its wittiest playwright because they didn't care for his social habits.

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