Cast & Crew
In London, in 1949, elderly Mrs. Erlynne is attending an auction when she recognizes one of the items being offered, a Regency period fan, as belonging to her. It had been in storage for many years and is being sold as unclaimed property from a blitzed building. The auctioneer informs Mrs. Erlynne that if she can find another party who can vouch that the fan is hers, she can have it. Anxious to reclaim the fan, Mrs. Erlynne goes to see Lord Robert Darlington, who does not remember her at first. To jog his memory, she tells him that she has seen the fan that once belonged to the now-deceased Lady Margaret Windermere, with whom Lord Darlington was very much in love. As they walk together, Mrs. Erlynne shows Lord Darlington where they first met, a shop that in 1899 was a jewelers called Warrington's. Mrs. Erlynne then recounts the day in 1899 when in desperation, she came to the shop to sell her earrings. While she is there, she overhears Lord Arthur Windermere, who is accompanied by Lord Darlington and their friend, Cecil Graham, ordering that a fan he has purchased for his wife be inscribed with her name and birthdate. After they leave, Mrs. Erlynne tells the jeweler that Lord Windermere gave him the wrong date for his wife's birthday. When Lord Windermere returns to confirm this, Mrs. Erlynne tells him that she knew the correct date from reading the newspaper society columns. Later that day, however, Margaret comments to her husband that there has been no mention of her upcoming birthday ball in the newspapers. Back in the present, Lord Darlington seeks refuge from Mrs. Erlynne at his tailors, but she invades the fitting room and continues her story: His curiosity piqued, Lord Windermere visits Mrs. Erlynne at her hotel, but she refuses to reveal how she knows his wife's birthdate and explains to him that she is trying to break into London society to find a husband. Later, Mrs. Erlynne is invited to a fencing tournament by Lord Augustus Lorton. Before the contest is interrupted by rain, Lord Darlington makes overtures to Margaret. Soon after the tournament, Lord Windermere learns that Mrs. Erlynne has leased a house in his name. When she informs him that she plans to become Lord Lorton's wife, Lord Windermere tells her that she is the most outrageously brazen woman he has ever met. Emboldened by rumors about Lord Windermere and Mrs. Erlynne, Lord Darlington continues attempts to seduce Lady Windermere. Eventually the Duchess of Berwick informs Lady Windermere of her husband's involvement with Mrs. Erlynne but she at first refuses to believe it. A doubt-filled Lady Windermere finally examines her husband's checkbook, where she discovers records of several payments to Mrs. Erlynne. Lord Windermere tries to explain that he has done nothing wrong, but Margaret swears to find a way to hurt him for what he has done. The next day, Lord Windermere tells Mrs. Erlynne that, due to all the gossip, she will have to leave London. However, while he is with Mrs. Erlynne, an invitation to the ball arrives from Margaret. Lord Windermere, knowing the true identity of Mrs. Erlynne, gives her a check for £10,000. Back in the present, Mrs. Erlynne reveals to Lord Darlington that Margaret was her daughter but Lord Windermere was the only one who knew her secret because in order to appear young, she could not admit to having a grown daughter. Mrs. Erlynne then continues her story: At the ball, after Mrs. Erlynne introduces herself to Lady Windermere, Lord Darlington tells Margaret that he is in love with her and wants her to leave with him. When Mrs. Erlynne dances with Lord Windermere, telling him that she has practically snared Lord Lorton, Lady Windermere leaves the ball and goes alone to Lord Darlington's house. Mrs. Erlynne follows her and advises her to go back to her husband, assuring her that Lord Windermere has been writing checks on behalf of Lord Lorton, who has been trying to conceal his relationship with Mrs. Erlynne from his sister, the Duchess of Berwick. When Lord Darlington returns home with Lord Windermere, Lord Lorton and Cecil Graham for a drink, the women hide. The men soon discover Margaret's fan, and Lord Windermere accuses Lord Darlington of having an affair with his wife. Margaret escapes and Mrs. Erlynne claims the fan is hers, thus implicating herself in an affair with Lord Darlington and ruining her prospects with Lord Lorton. The next morning, Lady Windermere goes to visit Mrs. Erlynne to thank her for her sacrifice and Mrs. Erlynne says that she can repay her by being silent. After telling Mrs. Erlynne that her father died of a broken heart after her mother "died," Margaret leaves without discovering that Mrs. Erlynne is her mother. Mrs. Erlynne decides to stay in London and tears up the check Lord Windermere gave her. Later, Margaret sends her a bouquet of roses and the fan. Back at the tailors' shop, Lord Darlington invites Mrs. Erlynne to dine with him, and they leave to collect the fan from the auction house.
Paul S. Fox
Maurice De Packh
Johann Strauss Ii
E. Clayton Ward
Darryl F. Zanuck
The Fan (1949)
The largest complaint the film met with upon release was the revamping of the text, which frames the Victorian-era action at length through the memories of Lord Darlington (George Sanders) and Mrs. Erlynne (Madeleine Carroll), as old wheezers stumbling through the post-Blitz London ruins. The screenplay (co-authored by Dorothy Parker) does jettison a good deal of Wilde's wicked bon mot-laden text, presumably in the interest of narrative briskness and sentimentality (and long may we ponder a middle-century America where the common newspaper movie reviewers knew 19th-century Wilde plays well enough to notice or care about their abridgment). The story, in any case, does move much quicker - to the arrival of the younger and scandal-trailing Erlynne in London, where she quickly insinuates herself into the social circle around the Windermeres (Jeanne Crain and Richard Greene), for the purposes, it would seem, of seducing Lord Windermere. This situation provides Darlington in his prime the opportunity to swoop in and take advantage of Lady Windermere, for whom he cynically pines, but gossipy secrets are eventually made to reveal unexpected agendas, and the Windermere marriage, subject to so much jeopardy from without, emerges as the sole honest institution in a decadent societal landscape rife with proper-Brit sharks and hyenas.
Except not quite in Preminger's version. Otto was always scrupulous about his characters' moral relativism; in his filmography, no one is villainous, and people aren't destructive nearly as often as are the misunderstood circumstances that connect them. In that sense, Wilde's semi-comedy is premade for Preminger; its entire story arc is about peeling its characters' onions and discovering their real stories beneath the facades. The first surprise here, however, given the project's pedigree, is how little Wildean stuff we get to hear burble over Sanders' inimitable larynx. Unarguably something like Golden Age Hollywood's prototypical Wildean figure, Sanders also provided insouciant support and narration to the 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but that aside, the star's unique potential for maximizing Wilde's brand of acid-dried wit went largely unexplored. How a production of The Importance of Being Earnest was not mounted to capitalize on Sanders's peak years defies explanation.
Carroll, though, is a revelation - well past 40, and far from her bloom of icy youth well-remembered from The 39 Steps (1935) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), here is Carroll in her last full-fledged feature, near retiring but spry and confident and zesty, commanding the movie around the relatively inexperienced Crain, Greene and Hugh Dempster. Crain, for her part, gets to play a woman of self-possessed intelligence relatively early in her career, rather than the litany of spunky corn-fed maidens she was usually saddled with, and she is radiant.
But Premingerians will see beyond the people - to the ways in which the director orchestrates their movements and relationships in space, in order to create the story's tensions with visuals. A minute-and-a-half roving shot during the climactic ballroom sequence is a mini-masterpiece in limning complex dramatic situations, with at least eight major shifts between character perspectives, while an innocent scene in a shoe store is galvanized by the camera's investigative movements and multilayered planes of action. Preminger loved the unmanipulative two-shot, and usually resisted any shot or cut that emphasized "impact" - the better for us to consider the characters and their actions for ourselves. The movies of vital Hollywood auteurs like Preminger should be both watched and listened to with attention, yet woefully, in their day and now, viewers will lazily simply absorb the dialogue and acting, and consider the movie seen. Suffice it to say that most of the pre-1964 Preminger films could, and perhaps should, be seen twice, once with the sound turned off - in this case, what's left of Wilde's words would be completely lost, but Preminger's eloquence would be revealed, as an elemental factor of the art of cinema.
For all of that, The Fan is for the most part a quintessentially unpretentious studio factory product, a true auteur chestnut hidden beneath the veneer of standard postwar, mass-produced costume-drama entertainment, with its own emphasis on narrative drive, decor and star power. If movies, generally speaking, were in fact saved from assembly-line calcification and/or the onslaught of television in the '50s, it was the secret work of auteurs like Preminger that rescued them, and thereafter inspired the New Wave era that sustained global cinema artistically for decades. The Fan is that film - the forgotten sub-A-list Hollywood output, adapted from a classic and using stock sets on the Fox lot, which when you watch it now reveals an artist at work creating a complex human reality, expressing things with movement and perspective only movies can capture.
By Michael Atkinson
The Fan (1949)
Warner Bros., which had produced an earlier version of Oscar Wilde's play directed by Ernst Lubitsch (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.2946), announced in May 1946 that it would make a second version starring Bette Davis. However, according to documents in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Fox bought the rights to the Wilde play from Warner Bros. in October 1947, through a third party, for $25,000. The play was in the public domain in the U.S. but was protected in Great Britain and most of Europe until December 1950. The studio announced that Gene Tierney would play Lady Windermere, but she bowed out due to pregnancy. Actors Eric Noonan, Terry Kilburn and Tempe Pigott are listed as appearing in the film by the CBCS but were not in the print viewed. Wilde's play was also filmed in Britain in 1916 with Netta Westcott as Lady Windermere, in Mexico in 1944 with Susana Guízar, and in Germany in 1935 with Hanna Waag, directed by Heinz Hilpert. In Argentina, Dolores Del Rio and Fernando Lamas starred in the 1948 Luis Saslavsky version, Historia de una mala mujer.