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Forgotten By Fox: Fan Service

Otto Preminger adapts Oscar Wilde, flattening the epigrams but bringing out surprising naturalism and grace.
David Cairns
As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
***
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," Oscar Wilde as purred by George Sanders, is enough to make any film worth while.
A friend of mine once appeared on a daytime quiz show, on which he was required to complete the quote from the word "...but..." His heroic stab at an answer was, "...but some of us belong there?"
I suppose one of the achievements of Otto Preminger's The Fan, a 1950 film of Wilde's 1892 play Lady Windermere's Fan, is that it makes the familiar lines and immaculately sculpted epigrams sound like real people talking. This is all-too-frequently at the expense of getting the laughs Wilde surely intended, but it does keep the story involving as drama. "Otto had the sense of humor of a guillotine," observed Vincent Price, who worked for the Viennese Mr. Freeze on several occasions.
Preminger was becoming one of the studio's most distinguished directors, after a rocky start and personal clashes with Darryl Zanuck that led to the studio boss deciding to ban Preminger from ever directing again. A shrewd politician as well as an artful filmmaker, Otto managed to steal Laura (1944) from Rouben Mamoulian, and his career was made.
In brief: Wilde's play deals with an adventuress (Madeleine Carroll), who is somehow able to blackmail young Lord Windermere (therein lies the mystery) into financing her entry into London society. But when Lady Windermere hears the gossip about her husband's new friend, and looks at his checkbook, she suspects an affair. Suave cad Lord Darlington (Sanders), in love with her, sees this as an opportunity to make his play...
This is another exhibit in Otto's Lubitsch complex: when both men found themselves at Twentieth Century Fox, Preminger became a kind of protégé to the genius of sophisticated comedy, directing a Royal Scandal (1945) under the master's supervision, and taking over That Lady in Ermine (1948) when he died of a post-coital heart attack. The Fan is a remake of Lubitsch's 1925 silent version, which starred Ronald Colman and famously didn't trouble to include any of Wilde's dialogue in its intertitles, preferring to be a triumph of visual storytelling instead.
Preminger had really a very different sensibility from Lubitsch, and nursed theories about where Lubitsch erred in distorting realism for the sake of comedy. But his attempts at Lubitschian wit hadn't fared well with critics. Even Billy Wilder admitted that Lubitsch could not really be imitated. But The Fan was a project where Otto could tread the same ground without suffering unflattering comparisons.
And it's a pretty interesting affair: yes, I would say interesting rather than emotional or comical. The screenwriters, who include Dorothy Parker, no mean wit herself, open the story in the modern day, that is to say post-Blitz London, affording Otto, who was a vulgar showman as well as a sensitive storyteller, to drive a poster for Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement, another Fox film, through frame on the side of a double-decker bus.
Then we meet Carroll, in her last film before retirement, and George Sanders, in old-age make-up that's helped immeasurably by fairly distant framing and marvelous performances, with a slight framing narrative designed purely to lead us into flashback. Though this all retards the story a considerable way, it allows for some interesting transitions, in the boldest of which we pan from 1896 to 1950 in an unbroken shot. This was pretty radical stuff at the time, but must surely have been suggested by Enchantment, a shamefully little-known film from 1948 which likewise features the London Blitz, transitions across decades covered in single shots, and excellent old age makeup and performances.
Once we get back to the Victorian era we can meet our underpowered stars, Jeanne Craine (who does do an excellent English accent) and Richard Greene (a popular TV Robin Hood in a British series scripted mainly by blacklisted Americans, who found themselves able to freely advocate stealing from the rich and giving to the poor in a safe context). They're pleasant enough, but particularly guilty of throwing away the best lines. Whereas supporting players like Martita Hunt and the aforementioned Sanders have the gift of tossing their lines ever-so-lightly, like hats, and having them land on the right hat-peg without seeming to aim.
But Carroll is the emotional heart of the film, playing an adventuress with redeeming traits. The framing structure make it clear that she and Sanders are the film's true protagonists: though in theory, everybody's sophisticated since they deliver Wildean epigrams all the time, they're the ones who make things happen. The young marrieds are supposed to be what we care about, and nominally the object of the play is to see their union threatened then saved, but Preminger is probably not far from Wilde in preferring the rogues to the virtuous.
Lots of really good long take work from this director: he doesn't make a fetish of it, though, and part of his skill lies in the way he lets the characters pull the camera about through different compositions, lands on a medium shot, then cuts to a matching angle on another character, maybe chops back and forth a few times, then lets that new angle evolve into another complex set of moves. He covers the scene beautifully without shooting anything so bland as mere coverage. He keeps a dramatic flame flickering without ever seeming to feed the fire.
In other words, this is vintage Preminger, even if the material might seem more suited to one of Fox's other top directors, Joe Mankiewicz. More on him soon.
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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