Last year saw the publication of two worthwhile biographies of Otto Preminger, the individual tenors of which were well-described by their titles. Foster Hirsch's was called Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, while Chris Fujiwara's was The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger. Hirsch is a veteran critic and scholar who was one of the first film professors at Brooklyn College, while Fujiwara is a much younger critic who has written a book-length study of Jacques Tourneur and contributed to such volumes as Sleaze: Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style and Politics and Sergei Paradjanov. Those who would read each critic's temperament through these facts might conclude that of the two, Fujiwara would be the one to buck conventional wisdom and come to the defense of Preminger's 1949 The Fan, an adaptation of Wilde's Lady Windemere's Fan that Preminger himself once termed "one of the few pictures I disliked while making it" and later described as one of his "sick children."
One would be incorrect. In both his book and in the booklet for this BFI DVD of The Fan, Hirsch is the one who comes to the picture's defense, saying it is now "poised to take its rightful place as a distinguished entry in the director's body of work." Fujiwara, on the other hand, calls the picture "troubling," and says that Preminger and co-screenwriters Walter Reisch, Dorothy Parker and Ross Evans, "fall considerably from the level of Wilde." Your own correspondent's position is somewhere in between Hirsch's and Fujiwara's, leaning towards Hirsch's. "Distinguished" is precisely the right word for The Fan, as it is not, as it happens, one of Preminger's great films. For me, what really sells it is that it's at heart an ideal version of Lady Windemere's Fan for people who aren't crazy about Lady Windemere's Fan. And I'm one of those people.
Wilde's 1892 play rather gives itself away with its full title: Lady Windemere's Fan: A Play About A Good Woman. (The most recent screen adaptation of the piece, and an entirely ghastly one, takes A Good Woman as its title.) I've always found it an uncomfortable mix of satire and melodrama whose heart-tugging element rather reeks of Victorian kitsch. Preminger's adaptation seeks to scuttle that element entirely by placing the play's plot within a framing story set in 1940 London. In a twist that rather obliquely pre-echoes Ian McEwan's Atonement, we learn right away that two of what will be the film's principal characters are dead, killed in a blitzkreig. The two characters from Wilde's scheme who have survived, and now live as more-or-less relics in the modern world, are Mrs. Erlynne (Madeleine Carroll), the "adventuress" whose curious involvement with young Lord Windermere (Richard Greene) cast a pall of scandal over his new, loving marriage to the beautiful Lady Windermere (Jeanne Crain); and Lord Darlington (George Sanders), the cad and bounder who sees in the potential schism in the Windermere marriage a ripe opportunity to seduce the lady of that house. Calling upon the rather grumpy Lord Darlington in his old house, now largely a residence for war volunteers, Mrs. Erlynne draws him into a memory play that, as Fujiwara astutely notes, "bridges Laura and Bonjour Tristesse."
So, one might ask, what's not to like? Fujiwara insists that, "to move the audience," the relationship between Mrs. Erlynne and Lady Windermere—and if you didn't already know or haven't guessed yet, it turns out that Mrs. Erlynne is actually, gasp!, Lady Windermere's mom—"must involve love." Yet in their climactic scene together, Preminger directs Madeleine Carroll and Jeanne Crain as if they were Judith Anderson and Gene Tierney in the bedroom in Laura.
Perhaps Preminger wants us to understand that Mrs. Erlynne really hates and resents her daughter and sacrifices her own 'happiness' so that she can feel justified in her resentment..." Yes, perhaps that is so. For all of Preminger's objectivity, he was, at his best, a masterful calibrator of emotional effects, and for all of its moments of sharp loveliness, The Fan ultimately seems a bit confused.
That confusion may be the result of its briskness—although much of the comedy of the original has been shucked off, this is one of the breeziest Wilde adaptations ever, clocking in at under 80 minutes. Co-screenwriter Reisch complained the picture was "too slow. Everyone spoke like everyone else, very stilted and mechanical dialogue—brilliant, the most wonderful dialogue on earth, but totally inhuman." One wonders what cut of the film Reisch saw, or, really, just what he was on. The handling of the dialogue is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. Madeleine Carroll whips off Wilde's epigrams with the speed of a Howard Hawks heroine, making them sound very nearly like things real people would actually say. As for Sanders, well, his bearing and delivery always make him seem like a Wilde creation in and of itself. But Preminger also makes the bold maneuver of investing Lord Darlington with some actual emotion; the frame story here reveals that he truly loved Lady Windermere. That, combined with Greene's woodenness as Lord Windermere, combine to make the viewer rather wish that an ardent vice had triumphed over dull virtue in this scenario.
The Region 2 U.K. disc of The Fan features a very handsome transfer of the film, a solid, information packed booklet, and adds to the disc a surprisingly fluid 1916 adaptation of Wilde's play by Swiss-born Britich actor-director Fred Paul.