Ernst Lubitsch never discussed what let to his audacious decision to adapt Oscar Wilde’s famously talky stage play Lady Windermere’s Fan as a silent film in 1925. Personally, I would like to think it was a gift to Irene Rich, the actress whose sublime performance as the tolerant queen to a philandering king in Lubitsch’s first American film, Rosita, effectively stole the film from its ostensible star, Mary Pickford. Rich’s queen already possesses the qualities of Wilde’s heroic Mrs. Erlynne: discernment, discretion, an acceptance of human imperfection, and the wit and patience to deal with it.
Whatever its origins, Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere stands as one of the great achievements of silent film, an alignment of form and feeling that grows more impressive with each viewing. By eliminating the play’s most famous element—the endless succession of epigrams, delivered by diverse characters who all seem to have exactly the same sense of humor—Lubitsch shifts his emphasis to the thoughts behind the mask of language, as revealed through gestures, looks, postures, the way his characters navigate spaces both domestic and public.
In the brilliant opening sequence, Lubitsch establishes the complicated relationship between Lady Windermere (May McAvoy) and her ardent admirer, the notorious flirt Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman), moving from a balanced two-shot into an isolated close-up of their handshake, as Darlington’s grip registers a bit too warmly for Lady Windermere’s comfort. They separate, interrupted by Lord Windermere (Bert Lytell), who has just received an enigmatic note from Mrs. Erlynne (Rich). Darlington notices that Windermere is trying to hide the note from his wife, and another close-up of hands shows Darlington helpfully pushing the envelope back into Windermere’s grasp—one man of the world helping another to cover up a billet douce. When Windermere retreats in embarrassment, Darlington feels empowered to make a declaration to Lady W—“I love you!”—at which point Lubitsch cuts to an extreme long shot of the couple, for the first time revealing the extraordinary height of Harold Grieve’s stylized sets. Lubitsch fades out on this sudden expansion of space, which looms like an unresolved chord over the scenes that follow.
This is a stunning display of technique, beyond all but a few directors of the period, yet Lubitsch is careful to follow it with a sequence of perfect simplicity: Mrs. Erlynne at her desk, holding her head for a moment then turning to look at a portrait of Lady Windermere in a society paper. From a close shot of the photo Lubitsch moves into a slightly tighter shot of Mrs. Erlynne, as a little smile of pride plays on her lips. As she looks away, the character goes inward—signaled by a microscopic shift in Irene Rich’s regard as she looks away from the paper, eyes briefly closing. A slowly exhaled breath covers the cut to a slightly wider angle, as Mrs. Erlynne pulls herself out of the past and prepares to deal with the present. What technique there is here is purely in the service of the actor, as Lubitsch steps back and allows Rich to fill out her character, finding pride, regret, determination, and a hint of irony in one crystalline moment.
As his prize pupil Alfred Hitchcock did decades later in Vertigo, Lubitsch quickly exposes the big, last act reveal that is central to the source material. Mrs. Erlynne is Lady Windermere’s mother, erased from family memory because of an affair that even Mrs. Erlynne no longer seems to remember. Again, a simple gesture completely recasts the action; only the viewer is aware of Mrs. Erlynne’s essential nobility, as she moves toward the moment of sacrifice, ready to throw away her painfully regained reputation in order to prevent her daughter from committing a mistake exactly like her own.
Rich herself had a background almost as colorful as Mrs. Erlynne’s. Born to upper middle-class comfort in Buffalo, New York, in 1891, little Irene found her life turned upside down when the collapse of her father’s business drove the family into exile in California. By the time she was twenty-five, she had been married twice and had two children; to support herself and her family, she moved to Hollywood to sell real estate but soon drifted into extra work, where her poise and aplomb caught the attention of Will Rogers, who cast her opposite him in eight pictures, from the lost Water, Water Everywhere in 1920 to So This Is London in 1930. Rich’s aristocratic turns in Rosita and Lady Windermere led to a long series of wronged society wives and exiled duchesses, mostly in films that are now lost (one particularly regrets the 1928 Craig’s Wife, directed by William C. deMille).
Rich had no difficulty adjusting to sound and soon found regular work in radio (including as the host of her own program, Dear John, which ran from 1933 to 1944). Film work slowly faded away, although Rich was outstanding in later supporting roles in films such as Frank Borzage’s Mortal Storm (1940), James Edward Grant’s Angel and the Badman (1947), and, supremely, as one of John Ford’s great matriarchs, the wife of Ward Bond’s Sgt. Major in Fort Apache (1948).
Announced in June 1925, Lady Windermere’s Fan went into production in August, with Clive Brook cast as Lord Darlington. Brook was soon replaced by Ronald Colman, borrowed at great expense from Samuel Goldwyn, and principal photography began at the end of September. Filming was completed by the end of October, following a location jaunt to Toronto for several days of filming at the Woodbine Racetrack. Lubitsch himself handled the editing, and the film premiered in New York City on December 26.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times deplored Lubitsch’s revision of Wilde: “… he has nevertheless fashioned an entertaining picture which will probably be more popular in provincial communities—where Lubitsch is better known than Wilde—than a production that retained Wilde’s nimble wit.” Even Iris Barry, who later purchased the nitrate print for MoMA’s collection that became the basis for this restoration, called it “heavy and flat as a cold pancake.” But most of the critics saw a classic in the making. A typical response was William A. Johnson’s in Motion Picture News: “Never before, to me at least, has the screen fairly talked—and with such a brilliancy, forcefulness and finish. Lubitsch tells in a flash, and with lasting effect, what novels must explain in chapters. This, it seems to me, is the inherent power of the screen. Lubitsch has brought it forth in all its fullness.”
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra