"A gentleman's relation to a lady is indicated by the manner in which he rings her doorbell." Sitting arrangements in the first scene suggest that Ernst Lubitsch isn't so much adapting Wilde as he is continuing The Marriage Circle, the early revelation points up the devastating mother-in-law joke. London society, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich) is dead to her daughter (May McAvoy) and a secret to the lord she's wed (Bert Lytell), grist to the gossip mill. The horse track is a mass of top-hatted, turned-away figures, the outsider walks away and is picked apart by the scandalmongers in the arena, dissolving POV shots give the fracturing views of binoculars. (She strolls left against a poster-festooned wall to exit the event, the camera tracks along her and a horizontal wipe dims the screen just as a suitor catches up.) The upper-crust bachelor (Edward Martindel) and the roving interloper (Ronald Colman), all that plus "certain unpleasant disclosures" at the ingénue's birthday soirée. The titular fan, wielded fiercely and dropped on cue and viewed through a keyhole—Lubitsch doesn't need Wilde's epigrams, a mere object gathering cinematic meaning is better at illuminating the rules of the game, a lesson not lost on Ophuls. The cigar in the ashtray and obscured vision in the garden, a malentendu, Colman raising his eyebrows before and sinking into desolation afterward supply the ideal analysis. Vulnerable characters posing as sophisticates in cavernous drawing-rooms, just a director's jest (a dour painting dominates the frame while the heads of dowagers bob like groundhogs at the bottom) as reminder of how close to tragedy these farces always are. "The only thing Lubitsch's brilliant conversationalists lacked in Lady Windermere's Fan was speech," says Rivette, "no, not even that, just voices." Hitchcock avails himself of the discoveries for his own visualized theater in Easy Virtue. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce