Cloak of Mystery


THE FIRST APPEARANCE OF OSCAR WILDE
AS A CHARACTER ON SCREEN—BUT WHO WAS IT?

In charting the cultural rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde in my article Finding Oscar, I alluded to the first appearances of him as character on screen.

I made reference to the well known bio-pics about Wilde released in 1960; before those he was in episodes of two separate UK and American TV series in 1958; and the erstwilde earliest Oscar could be found in a Canadian TV drama series of 1955.

Now the bar has been lowered. Predating all of those Oscars was this brief portrayal (above) by a quite Wildean-looking actor complete with cane and green carnation.

The problem is that nobody seems to know who he was.

Another still from the film showing a mock up of a poster outside the offices of Richard D’Oyly Carte.

The film in question is the technicolor feature The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan released in 1953. It was made by the fine team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder as a contribution to the national celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It was a flop. The film, I mean—particularly for the hitherto solvent production company British Lion Films.

If you want my opinion, the ennui generated in 1950s audiences by The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan can be attributed to not enough Story and too much Gilbert and Sullivan. By that I mean the eight musical interludes by original cast members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company parachuted into the piece whose interminably tedious trespassing over the tale probably brought forward the birth of rock ‘n roll by a good two years.

Who’s OW First?

The film’s lack of success might be the reason why we haven’t heard of the groundbreaking Oscar, but that’s no reason not to know who played him.

That mystery, I suppose, can be put down to the fact that Oscar merely has a walk-on part. He turns up briefly in the film during a scene at the Savoy Theatre on the opening night of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe—never mind that the gadabout was actually in Greenwich Village, New York at the time. [1]

In the foyer prior to the show, Helen Lenoir welcomes Sullivan with the exciting news that “everyone will be here tonight, the Prince and Princess of Wales, The Duke of Edinburgh, Gladstone, Oscar Wilde, Mr. Irving…” and soon we see Oscar greeting a lady and then chatting with a character who may be Shaw who whispers “good evening, Oscar”. And that’s it.

First Aid

So, just a brief appearance by an unknown extra. But wait. Surely, cast lists at movie databases quite often record actors who played minor and uncredited roles. So why is our own outcast nowhere listed?

Someone must know! Take this as a plea to find out who this first Oscar was, and the Comments section awaits the results of serious research.

Play For Trivial People

In the meantime for the more trivial among us, there are, instead, a pair of well known actors to focus on in the The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan and they form a very neat piece of Wildean trivia.

The role of W. S. Gilbert is rounded out by Robert Morley who later played the title role in Oscar Wilde (1960). And the character of Richard D’Oyly Carte is played by a goateed Peter Finch who also subsequently had a fling at Fingall in The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1960).

Thus we have two future Oscar Wildes in a film featuring another Oscar Wilde. Or, put another way, three Oscar Wildes in one film.

Or put yet another way: a movie from 1953 that collected three Oscars without even being nominated.

© John Cooper, 2021


[1] The film also depicts the opening of Iolanthe as being simultaneous with the opening of the Savoy Theatre. However, the Savoy Theatre actually opened earlier, during the run of Patience.

Published by

John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

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