Though lacking even the occasional cinematic flourishes that dotted his 1938 film version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Anthony Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) is probably the best record possible of Oscar Wilde’s best play. And in all fairness, Asquith makes it clear from the beginning—the events of the film being watched on a stage—that this is first and foremost a theater piece. Quibbling that it’s not terribly cinematic is really just nitpickery—and the last thing that anyone would want to do when addressing this “trivial comedy for serious people.” The point really is that it’s a comedy for and about people who take themselves very seriously indeed. Whether or not audiences in Wilde’s day saw their own ridiculousness is another matter.
Along with preserving the play’s absurd plot—two men, both posing as being named Ernest in order to win the hands of two ladies who insist on marrying men named Ernest—and its highly prized Wildean epigrams, the film captures a perfect cast doing the play full justice. And in the case of Edith Evans, it showcases the quintessential incarnation of Lady Bracknell, while Margaret Rutherford’s Nurse Prism is very nearly in the same league. Civilized comedy has never been more civilized—or as preposterously funny.