The Fan Review
Reading about Otto Preminger's 1949 film version of the Oscar Wilde play Lady Windermere's Fan, here shortened to just The Fan, you'll find little praise and a near consensus that Preminger, also the producer, both bungled the source material and made a boring film. The director himself said as much when dismissing the movie in a 1970 interview by recalling it was his only picture he lost faith in while still shooting. From what I can gather, Preminger almost certainly was the one responsible for getting the movie made as Fox head Daryl F. Zanuck didn't typically usher such staid fare into production, especially absent a major star. Preminger also put writer Walter Reisch in charge of a first draft before turning the script over to Dorothy Parker and Ross Evans for polishing. Otto even had his Laura star Gene Tierney lined up to play Lady Windermere until she became pregnant and had to drop out. Her replacement, Jeanne Crain, was another Preminger regular, having already made a pair of forgettables - In the Meantime, Darling and Centennial Summer - with the filmmaker. Ultimately, then, it's mainly Preminger's fingerprints across The Fan, whether he liked them or not.
When it opened the reaction was mostly indifference and the film's reputation has neither grown nor receded in the past sixty years. No one really seems to care, which is not surprising since Wilde's play has been filmed many times across multiple languages. If there's a definitive version it's probably the 1925 silent film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, a director with whom Preminger's career crisscrossed a number of times. Regardless, The Fan via Preminger is not a strict adaptation and, thus, is sure to disappoint those looking for something in that vein. It instead uses a flashback structure probably designed to bring in contemporary viewers. The setting is London and the time is now (or 1949). An auction is occurring where a fan from several years previous is being offered for sale. An elderly lady protests that no one can purchase the fan because it's rightfully hers. The auctioneer understandably balks, but upon her insistence, the woman is given a day to prove ownership.
From there, the woman, who's revealed to be a Mrs. Erlynne (effectively played by Madeleine Carroll, the ex-Mrs. Sterling Hayden and one-time highest paid actress in the land, in her last film) tracks down Lord Darlington (played with a minimum of hamminess by George Sanders) and attempts to persuade him into remembering why the fan is rightfully hers. This process lends itself to the flashback that becomes the main story. We're still not quite caught up with Wilde's play yet, though, as Preminger and his writers instead build things up by introducing how Mrs. Erlynne first met both Lord Darlington and Lord Windermere. There's also an excursion into a soggy fencing match. These little additions, bravely included in a film that runs just 76 minutes in PAL-shortened form, help to further separate Wilde's story from the Preminger film. Indeed, I think it's a bit unfair to criticise The Fan because it chooses to blaze its own trail instead of being a pure adaptation. The additions serve to stifle Wilde's comedic elements, a point of contention for some, but they also further an elegance that's almost surprising from Preminger, who often flatlined the lighter elements of films like A Royal Scandal and That Lady in Ermine.
By removing the attempts at comedy, Preminger's direction is free to focus on a tighter storyline, which he then plots to within an inch of its life. Mrs. Erlynn's secret is revealed late in the film, coming as a bit of a shock to those unfamiliar with the story and providing a key motivation for much of what's going on. Where the play might be able to exist comfortably on its dialogue and charm, The Fan absolutely needs this piece of information to make sense. It's built entirely around Mrs. Erlynn entering the London aristocracy and making a stir. Her mysterious past serves as a vital slow burn secret that resonates much more when you don't already know who she really is and why she aims to enter the Windermeres' lives. This very well could be why the film hasn't made a bigger splash. It shrugs off the Wilde wit in favour of his main story. By only looking at the bare essentials of Wilde's plot and also adding some extra exposition, The Fan lives and dies on the very Preminger attributes of plotting, performance, and technical details.
As most always, the camera technique Preminger utliises is nearly beyond reproach. Cinematographer Joseph Lashelle, who also shot Laura and Fallen Angel plus Cluny Brown and The Apartment, maintains typically fluid shots that frequently culminate in long takes. The scene late in the film when Mrs. Erlynn and Lady Windermere hide in Lord Darlington's house is a quiet marvel. Throughout, Preminger maintains a signature cool aloofness that often seems almost involuntary. His demeanor as a director has always been advertised as strict and harsh, but there's an elegance in the finished product. When you read about Otto Preminger, both in Foster Hirsch's excellent Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King and Chris Fujiwara's critical The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, you come away with this strange contradiction between a prickly craftsman and a far more gentle and seductive man who, for example, fathered a child with the infamous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. I bring this up because there's a dichotomy at work seemingly difficult to reconcile when viewing his films.
Preminger was able to harass and intimidate the especially impressionable, sometimes resulting in fine performances, but also prone to causing stiff discomfort in others. His deserved status as an auteur was built mainly on exquisite work within the confines of the camera. He may not have had anything in the realm of the "Lubitsch Touch" but there was a certain equivalent involving exquisite tracking shots and a cinematic dynamism largely unequaled by his Hollywood peers. Perceptive viewers can probably recognise a Preminger film within the first fifteen minutes, if not sooner. Ultimately, he'd end up with one masterpiece (Laura) and several other good to great efforts, but still a career filled with interesting cinema. The Fan qualifies in that later group, to be sure, and despite being neatly second-tier among Preminger's Fox films, it's never trying or anywhere near as flat as its reputation.
The central performances from Sanders, Crain and Carroll are all worthy of praise. Sanders seems to get the lion's share, but the ladies are equally impressive. Crain divulges her own unique blend of innocence and feisty integrity while Carroll has the true lead of the picture and must keep the viewer both intrigued with her character and somewhat distrustful of her ambitions. She pulls off both attributes with flying colours. In truth, I have no real problem with The Fan. Its brevity works against it by neglecting character development and any gravity we're supposed to apply, but the upside is the zooming pace. There's never any sense of stifled action or boredom, despite a general consensus to the contrary. The flashback structure lends itself to some additional weightiness otherwise missing by presenting Mrs. Erlynne and Lord Darlington as decrepit survivors whose lives haven't exactly followed the bourgeoisie fantasy Wilde's play teases without consequence. It's doubtful anyone expects perfection or a hidden masterpiece at this point, but Preminger's version of The Fan is its own film and deserving of some modest praise. Rarely did the director display such a sensitivity as he did in The Fan, equaled by Bonjour Tristesse and few, if any, others. For Preminger in his odd moment of delicate extraction, this is the film to see, and a strong enough entry to stave off the misunderstanding naysayers.
The BFI has given The Fan its initial DVD release in the UK, and it still remains unavailable in R1. The PAL disc is dual-layered. The progressively transferred 1.33:1 image looks somewhat soft, though free from any real damage. It actually appears less impressive in motion than the screencaps here attest. My guess is that the image could appear better, but the onus is on Fox, which licensed the film to the BFI for this DVD. If Fox undertakes its own disc in R1 the results will probably be an improvement. However, there's hardly any guarantee of such a release and the BFI R2 stands nicely as an able stopgap. If you like the film or you like Preminger, get this DVD. The quality is hardly a strong enough detriment to prevent potential buyers from owning a relatively unheralded picture that's good enough to deserve better.
The audio is pleasantly clear and consistent. Sporting just an English fully uncompressed PCM mono audio track, the disc still manages to offer a fairly excellent listen. Volume is strong without going off the tracks. An unobtrusive low hiss can be heard with some frequency. English subtitles are provided for the hearing impaired and are white in colour.
Just one extra feature is given on the disc itself, but it's a full, feature-length film. Fred Paul's 1916 silent version of Lady Windermere's Fan has been included. The image quality doesn't necessarily impress. Lots of speckles of damage and other concerns abound, but it is an 93-year-old film and this is only a supplement to the main feature. As such, the silent is entirely watchable. It differs quite a bit from the Preminger version and even condenses Wilde's play greatly, with the reveal of Mrs. Erlynn's secret coming in the very beginning. I'd have to agree with the booklet comments that characterise the most enthralling portion of the film as a seemingly stray product placement scene involving an assortment of dogs. Otherwise, it's a somewhat mediocre outing, absent any close-ups on the actors. There's even less humour here than in Preminger's film and no wit at all. It runs 65 minutes and features music conducted and composed by Nicholas Brown.
A 20-page, fully illustrated booklet is also included and found inside the case. It leads with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch's stringent defense of The Fan. Hirsch also provides almost five pages' worth of a biography on the director. The silent Lady Windermere's Fan and its director Fred Paul are additionally given three pages written by Philip Kemp. All in all, a nice effort on the booklet from BFI. An attractively-designed catalog detailing some upcoming BFI releases is also tucked safely in the case.