For any director, attempting to remake a stage play as a film must be daunting. When the writer of that play is Oscar Wilde, the task is even harder, the question of whether Wilde’s trademark style and wit has been translated from page to celluloid hanging over the endeavour for both viewers and critics.
For Otto Preminger, director of 1949’s The Fan, it appears that his involvement in the project was not a happy one as, according to the booklet enclosed within this new DVD release, he once stated: “It was a mistake of mine to have remade the play.”
Can it really be as bad as all that?
Based on Wilde’s 1892 play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, this adaptation sees Mrs Erlynne (Madeleine Carroll) arrive in London just after World War II to attend an auction, only to find that one of the items being sold, a beautiful lace fan, once belonged to her.
Told that she must provide evidence the item is hers, Mrs Erlynne seeks the help of an old acquaintance, Lord Darlington (George Sanders) to confirm that she is who she says she is.
As the pair reflect on their past, so unfolds a tale of passion, greed and determination which will have ramifications down the years.
One of the first decisions Preminger and his writers – Walter Reisch, Dorothy Parker and Ross Evans – took was to alter the play’s structure, deciding to tell much of the story in flashback.
While on the one hand this has the effect of distancing the viewer from events, it’s also a useful method of adding some gravitas to the tale: it must be important if someone is remembering events from 50 years ago.
The other decision that perhaps seems odd was the excision of much of Wilde’s dialogue, or at least the rewording of key lines. By removing throwaway or pithy exchanges, we are left with a more serious story that dwells more on Lady Erlynne’s ambitions and Lord Windermere’s concerns at how he might be perceived by London society.
Thankfully Preminger gathered an impressive cast to bring life to his much worried-over script, with Madeleine Carroll a fiery lead who leaves little doubt in the mind that she’ll get what she wants, and then some.
A few years before his performance in TV’s Adventures of Robin Hood, and with a number of films already on his CV, Richard Greene impresses as Lord Windermere, his performance equaling that of Carroll’s in its understatement.
As Darlington, George Sanders is every bit the English cad, without ever nudging into caricature. Jeanne Craine may be overshadowed by Carroll for much of the picture, but she’s still a strong presence, looking every bit the rich socialite.
Preminger and his Director of Photography Joseph La Shelle, who had already worked together on the memorable Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), give the film a stylish sheen which this DVD does well to show off. The film looks sharp throughout, the decadence of the characters well represented. There are also some clever stylistic touches, mainly seen when the story moves from the “present” to the past.
Also present on this release is Fred Paul’s 1916 silent version of the play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, running only 11 minutes shorter than the 1949 film. As a curio, and as a production far more true to the original structure of the play, this is a lovely little addition to the package.
For Preminger fans this is a necessary addition to the library, a chance to see for themselves just what irked the director so much. For the avid film buff this is also a chance to reassess a much maligned film, perhaps proving that the textbooks aren’t always right.
- Release date: 26 January
- RRP: £12.72
- Catalogue no. BFIVD674
- Certificate: PG
- Original aspect: 1.33.1
- Run time: 76mins + 65mins
- Visit the BFI website for full details