Sir Robert Chiltern, a model of political integrity, has a problem. An old acquaintance, Mrs Cheveley, is blackmailing him about a dishonest, but rather profitable, act in his past. With his marriage as well as his position at stake, how should a ‘man of honour’ behave? A stylish production by Alexander Korda of Oscar Wilde’s witty exposé of Sleaze, 1890s style.
UK 1947, 96 minutes
Sir Robert Chiltern, a model of political integrity and a prospective Cabinet Minister, is approached by a former acquaintance, one Mrs Cheveley. She wishes him to support a government scheme from which she will profit but which he regards as fraudulent and immoral. He’ll refuse, of course. But she knows of a disreputable incident in his past that laid the foundations of a fortune on which his position and his marriage to the rigidly moral Lady Chiltern are based. And she won’t hesitate to blackmail him.
This is the second of our films based on Oscar Wilde’s plays, marking the centenary of his death, and very different in style from Lady Windermere’s Fan – partly, of course, because of advances in technology in the intervening years. What might Lubitsch have done had colour and particularly sound been available to him? Alexander Korda intended this to be his last film, and chose his subject carefully. The play offered him three things: a comic exposé of the British upper classes, a setting that demanded ornate sets and lavish costumes and just cried out for Technicolor, which Korda had done much to promote, and Wilde’s epigrammatic dialogue. He assembled a cast of experienced actors, and he engaged his brother Vincent and Cecil Beaton to design the sets and Lajos Biró to adapt the play, keeping as much of Wilde’s dialogue as was compatible with condensing it to less than half its length and adding some picturesque outdoor scenes.
Not everyone liked it and it did not recoup its enormous costs, of which the sets were a major item. Some critics felt that the spectacle overwhelmed the plot; some, but by no means all, that Paulette Goddard was out of place among her fellow actors, most of whom had stage experience – and it is a rather stagey film. Everyone, however, agreed that it looked beautiful – except Halliwell, who complained of the ‘garish colour’, and even he had to concede that there were ‘moments of enjoyment along the way’. We now have the chance to make up our own minds.
Mrs Cheveley: Paulette Goddard
Viscount Goring: Michael Wilding
Lady Chiltern: Diana Wynyard
Mabel Chiltern: Glynis Johns
Sir Robert Chiltern: Hugh Williams
Producer, director: Alexander Korda
Screenplay: Lajos Biro
Photography: Georges Périnal
Sets: Vincent Korda, Cecil Beaton
Costumes: Cecil Beaton
“Stilted; too much colour and décor.”
“Halliwell was probably right.”
“Sumptuous settings were surprising so soon after the war. Most entertaining.”
“A charming cameo.”
“An excellent evening’s entertainment.”