Cloak of Mystery

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.

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.

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.

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.

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a independent scholar who has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde. He is a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America. For the last 20 years Cooper has specialised in Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour becoming a consultant on Wilde’s American experience to biographers and the wider media. Cooper lectures on Wilde and has conducted new and unique research into Oscar Wilde visits to New York culminating in a guided walking tour. Online he is a popular blogger and the creator of the noncommercial archive 'Oscar Wilde in America’ which incorporates his work on the Sarony photographs, and a detailed documentary verification of Wilde’s American lecture tour. In 2012 Cooper rediscovered Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

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