Lady Windermere’s Fan

19/10/2000 01:00.

Director Ernest Lubitsch takes on the apparently impossible task of transposing Wilde’s sophisticated comedy to the silent screen, substituting visual for verbal wit. Considered Lubitsch’s best silent film.

With live piano accompaniment by Andrew Youdell

USA 1925, 72 minutes

Programme Notes

Young Lady Windermere suspects that her husband is having an affair with Mrs Erlynne, a woman of doubtful reputation. Well, what’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose; she’ll run off with Lord Darlington, you see if she doesn’t. But Mrs Erlynne seems inexplicably reluctant to let her go through with her plan. Why should she care?

Oscar Wilde’s comedies depend on his risqué, all’s-well-that-ends-well plots and smart pace, but above all on his witty dialogue. Impossible, you would think, to bring such a work to the silent screen, where dialogue slows the action and must be kept to a minimum. Ernest Lubitsch was the ideal person to attempt it. He was already famous for his sophisticated comedies and didn’t believe in reproducing a play on the screen exactly as it was done on the stage: ‘any one can make a carbon copy. Carbons are always dull.’ In Lady Windermere’s Fan he commits the ultimate heresy by abandoning all Wilde’s epigrams, insisting that they had no part in a silent film. He substitutes visual wit and innuendo – a carefully observed detail, a fleeting expression or gesture that betrays a character – and succeeds in capturing the spirit of Wilde and of silent cinema.

Like last week’s film, Pygmalion, this is a radical interpretation of what was, in its day, a radical play. As with Pygmalion a master playwright was well served by a master filmmaker (you only have to think what Channel 5 could do with the elements of either plot). And like Pygmalion it was an enormous success, launching Ronald Colman’s career and being voted one of the ten best films of 1925. It is still regarded by many as Lubitsch’s greatest silent film, and one of the major works of its era.

Lord Darlington: Ronald Colman
Lady Windermere: May McAvoy
Mrs Erlynne: Irene Rich
Lord Windermere: Bert Lytell
Producer, Director: Ernest Lubitsch
Writer: Julien Josephson
Photography: Charles Van Enger


“Great costumes. Shame about the print”

“Wonderful playing”

“A++ for the music!”

” [B] because it was so interesting to see how the original was shown – with piano. I wish I could lip read.”

“Didn’t they have huge doors in those drawing rooms?”

“Where was Oscar Wilde?”

“Piano playing was excellent”

“Lost for words!”

“Wilde without the wit. Rather wooden. 3 good harpies, though”

“Very impressed with the piano-playing – quite a marathon”

“Wilde without the wit”