Not classic Hollywood but definitely classic British, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST,based on the play by Oscar Wilde,was made in 1952 in color. It’s very funny and it’s famous for one line which is delivered so unforgettably by Edith Evans.
Jack (Michael Redgrave) is an orphan. He was abandoned as a baby in a handbag in a cloakroom in Victoria Station in London. When snobbish Lady Bracknell (Edith Evans) hears his story, her reaction is instant and hilarious.
In a voice a foghorn would be proud of, she expresses her displeasure in two words: “A HAND-BAG?”
Many other actresses have delivered this line, but it really does belong to Edith Evans.
Later, when Lady Bracknell finds out that Jack wants to marry her daughter, she has not forgotten the circumstances of Jack’s history:
“You can hardly imagine that I or Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter- a girl brought up with the utmost care – to marry into a cloak room, and form an alliance with a parcel?”
The film’s director,Anthony Asquith commented:
“Although I was sparing with the big individual close-ups,I was tempted in the scene where Edith Evans’s voice goes up three octaves on a single syllable when she says the word “hanndb-a-g”. On films, voices haven’t the need to be raised to reach the back of the gallery. We take care of that,and actors and actresses keep their voices right down.
In the case of Lady Bracknell,however, it was different: she is a monster anyway and she is more than life-size, and certainly Edith Evans IS life-size. I didn’t try to modify her performance in any way,because it seemed to me to be splendid.”
Many stars have played Lady Bracknell on film or stage – Maggie Smith,Judi Dench,Penelope Keith – but I can think of only one other actress who could have been as funny delivering that line – Edna May Oliver.
Handbags at dawn for Dame Edith and Edna May. May the best dragon win!