Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sexual Innuendo In Ernst Lubitsch's Lady Windemere's Fan (1925)

This post is part of the 2nd Annual SEX! (Now That I Have Your Attention) Blogathon, hosted by Steve over at MovieMovieBlogBlog (wado/thanks for hosting!).  For other really good reads, please click here.  Wado/thank you for reading!
Spoilers ahead!

The sexual innuendos in this silent treatment of an Oscar Wilde comedic play are thick and over-laided, especially in the first two acts. Directing such a wordy writer as Oscar Wilde during the silent era posed specific challenges that often didn't pan out well in the finished product.  In many feature length films, the witty repartee and playful sexual dialog of Wilde was dealt with many, many inter-title cards, often lacking in any kind of corresponding imagery in the part of film that actually showed actors "acting."  This often made for clumsy films that taxed viewer's eyesight and just plain bored people.  In fact, an earlier film version of the play had been made in 1916 and so heavy with title cards that it was panned by the big critics of the time--and was a complete flop.  German director Lubitsch (who had come to Hollywood in 1922 at the bidding of Mary Pickford); knew of this and was determined to approach the play in film form in whole new way.  The question then became how to get across in active imagery, what actors of the stage would actually say, without the use of an intrusive number of dialogue cards.  Lubitsch masters this well!  He employed whole host of not so subtle devices, along with actual acting--he directed the actors to actually say their lines, while interacting with the stage props (many of which were written into the play's direction in the first place).  This resulted in a light-hearted melodrama, filled with fun "winks winks/nudge nudges."  It is so free of dialogue cards that the viewer almost forgets they are needed to advance the plot.  

Wilde's play is a kind of "comedy of remarriage" in the same ilk as films such as His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth, which rely on frame stories to set up perimeters in which the action can play out.  In this case, it's with a long lost mother "returning" to her native London, after reading that her daughter has married one Lord Windemere in a newspaper abroad.  Mrs. Erlynne as she is known (played deliciously by the very talented Irene Rich) is obviously a woman with a shady past; and she wastes no time summoning Lord Windemere to her lavish rooms that she's let in London, with the purpose of blackmailing him.  She's determined that her past, in this case, will no longer plague her--she sees the perfect opportunity to capitalize on it.  Almost immediately the sexual jesters start.  The first thing that Mrs. Erlynne does when she sees her son-in-law Lord Windemere (Bert Lytell), is motion him over to a sort of settee, placed under a window in her sitting room; in point of fact it looks more like what we would call a "day-bed" these days.  Windemere is incensed and insulted; he knows nothing of this woman and is recently married.  Mrs. Erlynne, on the other hand, looks as though she a cat that just swallowed the proverbial canary, but laughs it off.  She then proceeds to tell him who she really is.  Again, he is outraged--demands proof--which she provides; he then looks confused and a bit afraid.  It is at this time that we find out that he is familiar with his wife's background, including that she is obviously the product of some sort extra-marital affair.  He reminds her that her daughter had been raised to believe that her birth mother is dead.  Mrs. Erlynne demands to be let back into her daughter's life; the Lord then falls quickly into her trap.  He soon cottons on to what she is really after--his cheque book.  He sits down at her writing desk and begins to write out a check, that starts with £5....Mrs. Erlynne gets a look of slightly evil ecstasy on her face, as if she believes he is about to hand her £5000.  This look is not subtle at all, it clearly sexual excitement over successful blackmail and love of ill-gotten gains.  Clearly, she is not new to this game.  When the cheque comes out £500 instead, she gives him a look of forlorn regret; it's pure artifice, of course.  He is quickly persuaded to add a 1 in front of the 5.  Now, keep in mind that this is not a one time payment--it's a monthly "arrangement." (This comes to around £17,500 per month in today's money!)  It does not take long about for the gossip to begin!  And so the stage is set.

Fast forward several months to a horse-racing track.  The Windemere's are there with a complete party of on-lookers.  Enter Mrs. Erlynne.  It takes little time for practically the entire park to notice that she is there.  Surely she has some rich man in her bed?!  But who?  None of this is actually placed on a title card, Lubitsch needs only to have ladies hissing into each other's ears, talking behind fans and handkerchiefs, and wincing when they train their eyes on her. Caught in the middle of this soup of gossip and assumption is Lady Windemere (May McCoy), who is the only person in high-society London to have not heard the rumors.  This does not last long. The whispers get louder behind her and finally someone says something directly to her about this woman with a mysterious income.  All of this is all conveyed with actual acting, which give a depth to the resentment on the part of those engaged in gossip; gives the pangs of pain on the part of Lady Windemere's face a great deal of honesty.

Seated right behind Lady Windemere, next to her husband, is one Lord Augustus Lorton (Edward Martindale).  One of the scarce title cards announces that he is the most eligible bachelor in town.  On the other side of Lord Darlington sits another member of the gentry, Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman).  It is clear that he has some sort of design on Lady Windemere; he stares intensely at her, especially after the gossip stings her ears, to see how she is reacting.  There is not one doubt that his gazes are penetrating; and the he has some plan forming in his mind when it comes to this young married, and upstanding, woman.  Again Lubitsch manages to get great performances from his actors, and their performances relay all the feelings, be they:  hurt, embarrassed, stung, exposed, designing, completely.

Darlington, clearly not happy with the married couple in mid-kiss!

What happens next is surprising, only because the viewer doesn't see it coming.  Amongst the antics of the gossips and harpies, we barely notice Lord Lorton admiring the visage that is Mrs. Erlynne.  When she leaves the track early, out of embarrassment, he follows her.  This is the part of the film where Lubitsch employs his most clever special effects to be seriously suggestive.  We see Lord Lorton following her, catching up to her a little more with each step; and then screen begins to blacken out from right to left--at first just a little, then more and finally complete fade to black.  The viewer is left to think "okay, what are those two about to get up to??"

As it turns out, he is only attempting to discover her place of residence.  He reaches her door and hesitates, we have a witty title card, throwing in some actual Wilde on the nature of gentlemen ringing a lady's doorbell; and finally, his stiff extended fore-finger (another suggestive) and the pushing of the bell.  He gains admittance and is shown into the same sitting room as Lord Windemere had reluctantly became the victim of blackmail.  Again Mrs. Erlynne waves toward the window settee--this time Lord Lorton accepts quickly; well for it's day, that would have been shocking to audiences.  What happens next, would have only intensified that shock.  When sitting down, Lord Lorton offers her a cigarette (though Lubitsch updates the timeline of the story to the 1920's, it was still frowned upon for women to smoke, especially in mixed company), she accepts and begins to tease the end of the cigarette with mouth, all the while staring at the Lord sitting next to her.  After this, we get one of those rare title cards, that reads "But when the relation becomes more friendly___"--clearly we are meant to speculate on what exactly is meant by "friendly"--and what is with that dash??

Lord Augustus Lorton
The next live action that we see is Lord Lorton frantically ringing Mrs. Erlynne's bell with impatience; walking in quickly and hanging his hat, cane, and over coat inside her residence with extreme familiarity.  Upon his easy entrance (almost as if he were in his own residence) to her sitting room, we see her puffing away on a cigarette in a very "un-ladylike" manner.  He takes the cigarette from her and puts it out in her ash tray; there he sees a barely smoked cigar and gives her a surprised and disappointed look.  Now the cigar becomes immediately suggestive because it hasn't be cut for smoking (what some cigar smokers call "circumcising" of the role).  As Lorton gets more and more jealous and, she becomes desperate to stem his anger and stave off his leaving her, she retrieves a band from his own brand of cigar and gently slips it over the cigar--another strikingly suggestive visual moment.  She then saunters over to him, to take a cigar from his own pocket holder-again this is done easy and suggestive familiarity.  He becomes convinced and accepts her explanation. From here the film shifts gears significantly. It follows from the fast paced "swinging" woman about town, to the arena domesticity in the Windemere household.

Suddenly, it is the morning of Lady Windemere's birthday, the first of her married life.  Her husband escorts her to a room full of gifts, which included all manner of expensive gifts of jewelry; but the gift that he saves for last is a fancy, but still simple, fan.  She is delighted with it.  Lord Darlington then arrives; not fearing anything, her husband then leaves his wife alone with his old friend.  The playful sexual props may have disappeared, but the domestic drama that takes over is no less thin on sexual matters. We now have a marriage at stake, and this finally puts a mother's instincts into play for the first time since a now grown and wedded child was born.  

Lord Darlington and Lady Windemere
The title of the film would lead one to think that the fan would be a major sexual innuendo of the story, but it shows up past the half way point in the film.  It's not that the film leaves off being interesting after the fast and furious sexual suggestions in props earlier on; quite the contrary, it then moves on from an arena playfulness, into one of real peril for the heroine of the film. Lord Darlington sees Lady Windemere's birthday as the pivotal moment to make his move.  It becomes obvious that he has been slinking around; spying on Lord Windemere.  Having been left alone with her in her own sitting room filled with morning light and gleaming with presents, talk turns to a party being thrown for her that night.  Darlington, sitting with her, gives her the same look that we saw at the racetrack.  We know something coming.  He pounces on this chance and asks to show her something outside and guides her the window.  Outside we see Lord Windemere dismiss his own car, cross the street and get in a cab, which soon pulls away.  There, he's done it--he asks her what kind of man dismisses his own car?!  He then "sets the hook" by suggesting that she check her husband's writing desk, which is suspiciously locked.  Having gotten the drawer open, it contains many cashed cheques made out to Lady Erlynne.  She is devastated.

A declaration of love

A finally it comes, his out and out declaration of love.  What he means by "love" is still unclear however.  What is clear, is that Lady Windemere is put in a really delicate situation and, he pesters her further over why she would want to stay with a cheating husband.  With her birthday party looming, she is left to wonder how she will go forward in life.  Meanwhile, the scene suddenly shifts back to Mrs. Erlynne's sitting room.  Lord Windemere is there handing off the monthly money; she ambushes him with a request, really more of a demand, to attend her daughter's party.  He at first resists, but soon gives in.  He returns home, unbeknownst to him, to a very upset wife.  He tells her that he's invited Mrs. Erlynne to her party, insisting that she is indeed of woman of quality.  There is no way that he can know that this is the LAST thing he should be saying, or indeed, doing.  Understandably his mortified wife explodes and demands that the invitation never be sent.

Cut to the party.  Lady Windemere seems to have calmed down and is enjoying her evening with friends and family.  Meanwhile Mrs. Erlynne is growing inpatient at her residence waiting for an invitation that will never come.  Fed up, she decides to crash her daughter's party, sure that some mistake kept the invitation from arriving.  However, upon her entry to the Windemere house, she is told she is not on the invitation list.  She is at first mortified and then sad.  At this point, who should enter, but Lord Lorton, who is late for the party  He is brimming with joviality and is genuinely happy to see her there.  He then, on the quality of his name, secures her entry to the party.  

When she is announced, Lady Windemere is shocked.  May McAvoy who plays the Lady, does a good job of pulling off a look as if she had actually been hit with a real electric shock.  Lord Windemere seeing and hearing a hush spread across the room, springs to action and begins to introduce Mrs. Erlynne around the room.  Before long she is introduced even to gossip harpies, who, one by one, sit down with a chat with her; they each find her to be perfectly pleasant.  Things seems to calm.  Lady Windemere, however, decides she needs some air and steals out into the garden.  While there Lord Darlington ambushes her and repeats his declarations of love and adoration to her. The suggestive moment here comes when he takes her fan in one hand, while touching her hand with his other, while pleading his love for her.

She rebuffs him and moves out into the garden itself.  Darlington shrinks away.  Mrs. Erlynne, now being this close to her child, cannot help but step out to admire her from afar as she paces around in he garden.  Lord Lorton cannot help but follow her out there to woo her actually for a marriage proposal.  Unfortunately, he does this from behind a large bush; so when Lady Windemere looks up, she sees to her shock Mrs. Erlynne staring at her, with the arm outstretched to an unseen admirer, the Lady assumes that the man behind the bush is, in fact, her husband.  She's had enough.  She makes for Lord Darlington house, with the intent to stay the night with him.  She soon gains admittance.  Unknown to her, Mrs. Erlynne has discovered the note she has left for her husband informing him that she is leaving him for Darlington.  She then confiscates the note and plays up a sham that Lady Windemere is not feeling well and has gone to bed.  She then makes for Darlington's house and soon let in.  At this point one does have to wonder what sort gentlemen Lord Darlington really is; if women can be so easily admitted to his house while he is away, what must say something about his prior behaviors and activities....

When the young lady sees the woman she has no idea is her mother in Lord Darlington's house she is at first insensed and dismissive.  The viewer expects Mrs. Erlynne to blurt out who she is; and she does struggle to keep the words from passing her lips.  Biting her lip, she thinks the better of it and falls to entreating the young lady to flee and return home to her husband.  It is at this point that she does blurt out that she had done the very same thing and that it ruined her life.  So, now we know the whole story of the conception of Lady Windemere and why she was brought to believe her mother was dead.  Of course, the young lady has no idea that this is what she is being told, only the viewer is in the know.  But, the story does impact her and she allows Mrs. Erlynne to assist her out of the situation.  Before they can make good their escape, however, the men from the party have decided to have an after-party at Darlington's house, with Lord Lorton amongst them.  They flood his sitting room, leaving the two women trapped in the back of the house.  

Seeing the men arriviving for after-party

The only problem with fleeing out the back....Lady Windemere has accidentally left her fan on Lord Darlington's couch!  What to do now?  Mrs. Erlynne tells her daughter that she will take the blame; she knows her reputation precedes her--though she now has everything to lose--having been proposed to earlier in the evening.  She sends the young woman out and steels herself to confront the men.  Meanwhile, the fan has been discovered.

Facing the men

Mrs. Erlynne then confronts the men and claims that she took Lady Windemere's fan by mistake.  Lord Lorton stares at her, confounded and wounded.  Everyone else, including, and especially, Darlington looks confused and embarrassed. She is crest-fallen as she glances at Lorton and then leaves.  The young Lady Windemere has been saved; still believing that her mother is dead, but in debt to the woman she believed had been carrying on an affair with her husband.  She never discovers the real reason her husband was paying Mrs. Erlynne.  For her part, the very next day, Mrs. Erlynne has decided that she should continue her "adventures" and is packed up and planning to leave the city.  On her way out, she encounters Lord Lorton, who is on his way to her place of residence.  Being the woman wit and character that she truly is, she informs him that "no I don't think I will marry you!"  She then gets in her packed car, but Lorton follows, gets in with her, and they drive off together.  The implication is that they will indeed be getting hitched, but that is mearly an assumption.

The unresolved issues within the story is pure Wilde.  Ever the social satarist, he was never going to let the English gentry off with a straight forward happy ending, with all the parts reconciled, and all the secrets discovered and explained.  To convey the complicated nature of this through the lens of proper and improper sex, Lubitsch needed a clear vision as to how to approach the visual effects to have them forward the narrative. Because, again this is silent cinema.  This led to a masterful handling with a number of sexual props.  Even the sets themselves seem to convey this; they a comically over-sized.  Of course, there are practical reasons for the sets to be so over-large, from the point of shooting the film entirely (mostly) on a sound stage.  Still one cannot watch the film without having a sense that the especially large doors are meant to be constantly suggestive.  What I have come to love about this film, is it's play on the suggestive; the creative way in which Lubitsch approached it's production.  It has been said that he is the real star of the film, since none of the players were particularly famous.  His direction of the actors is impeccable, during an era when directors approached the job more with fussing over dialogue cards, rather than on directing the actual people in their film.  I feel I don't need the closure of all being known.  We see that one marriage was saved, and another, possibly, is produced.  The comedic and melodramatic sexual misunderstandings provide for a kind of re-marriage at the end.  That is enough for me.  Nice neat bows on packages not needed!

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