The Importance of - HUH?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I've always loved Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. I have no idea of when I first read it; by now, I've memorized portions of the play to such an extent that I can say the lines just before the characters do in my favorite version of it. And my favorite version is the 1952 film by Anthony Asquith, starring such performers as Michael Redgrave and Dame Edith Evans ("A handbag?"), not to mention Dorothy Tutin in her screen debut and the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood. I saw that film on TV long before we had a color set; in fact, I find I tend to think of it in retrospect as being in black and white - which it isn't. And, recently, I wondered whether it had made its way to DVD. That resulted in one of those "oh, boy!" moments followed by one of those "oh, heck!" moments. Because it was (oh, boy!) available on DVD but it was (oh, heck!) only available as part of "The Criterion Collection" (aka "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films," aka "it'll cost $10 or so more than if it came from some other source").

Now, among the reasons for higher prices for Criterion releases is the excellence of its supposedly meticulous transfers. On the insert sheet, there's a credit for audio restoration. "This digital transfer," moreover, "was created from a new 35mm composite print. The soundtrack was mastered from the 35mm optical soundtrack. Audio restoration tools were used to reduce pops, clicks, hiss, and crackle." And, yes, it sounds fine. But. But. But. A mere 3 minutes 53 seconds into the feature, I'm startled to see, twitching into top-of-screen center, a hair. A hair? In a flippin' Criterion edition? And it wasn't for a few frames; the hair twitched and wiggled impertinently from 3:53 to 5:44, nearly two minutes during which I lost track of the polished performances of Redgrave and Michael Denison in my increasingly disbelieving fascination with something I'd never expected to see from Criterion.

Oh, well, maybe Criterion will reissue the film someday in which it'll boast it's repaired the picture (which, yes, does still have other, more easily overlooked, imperfections) as well as the audio. And I am glad to have even a hairy copy of a delicious play. In fact, my purchase of this version reminded me that I'd also enjoyed the BBC version (starring, among others, Gemma Jones, Paul McGann, and Joan Plowright), so I grabbed that, too, via the BBC's The Oscar Wilde Collection. Hot dog! Four Wilde plays for a lot less than Criterion. But, then, I already commented on the price point, didn't I?

(Oh, and in case anyone wondered: Both the 1952 motion picture and the 1988 BBC TV release outdo the sadly pedestrian 2002 film with Colin Firth. Leonard Maltin commented, "This time, unfortunately, the tone is all wrong: the actors are terribly, terribly coy, the comedy much too self-aware." Yep. And it's just plain tiresome. So, even if you saw that version, do try one of the earlier releases; I'm sure your library will be able to get you a copy.)


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