FOR those who would view the embarrassment of a man standing in a witness box and defending himself against charges of the most sordid and disagreeable sort, we can recommend Jo Eisinger's screen version of the Leslie and Sewell Stokes play, "Oscar Wilde," which had its first American showings yesterday at the Forum and the Sixty-eighth Street Playhouse.
One can scarcely imagine a more painfully melancholy sight of a man's humiliation than that of Robert Morley, playing Wilde, breaking down under the stern examination of a righteous Sir Ralph Richardson.
Sir Ralph, as the lawyer defending the Marquis of Queensberry in the case in which Wilde has accused the peer of slander with respect to his relations with the latter's son, has got the brilliant wit and author on the witness stand and is doggedly going at him as if he, not the peer, were on the pan.
Deftly, he has drawn him through a crisp philosophical exchange of comments and pointed observations on morality in literature. Blandly, Wilde has answered with intelligent and devastating quips, aware of his command of the courtroom as the lion of London's literary set.
Then, suddenly, the lawyer shifts position and viciously fires his questions at the highly sensitive area of the personal relationships of Wilde. Who were the young men that the author had at clandestine parties in his rooms? Why was a man of his age interested in such youths? Did he happen to adore this one?
"I've never adored anyone but myself," the now vexed and agitated author snaps back with piteous élan. Slowly he wilts and wobbles under the lawyer's barrage of dates and names.
It is a taut and tempestuous performance that Mr. Morley and Sir Ralph put on, estimating the terrible shock of extinction that came with the courtroom humiliation of Wilde. But this courtroom exchange, which is extended through two or three reels of the film, is not only the best thing in it but also the only thing dramatic or to the point.
For the brittle build-up of the friendship between Wilde and the marquis' son, the elegant Lord Alfred Douglas, played by John Neville with lip-pursed skill, is disturbingly arch and ambiguous. It certainly does not lay down any sense of the literary magnificence or the personal integrity of Wilde. In this phase, Mr. Morley is a bit repulsive; indeed, not at all the interesting character he was in the play when it was seen here in 1938.
After the extinction of the author, the extension of his ordeal into jail and then to self exile in Paris is anti-climactic, at best, and a good bit mawkish and distasteful, with his reciting from the Bible at the end.
Dennis Price, Phyllis Calvert, Edward Chapman and Alexander Knox do well in roles that are sketchy and artificial at times. Gregory Ratoff's direction is more ambitious than Mr. Eisinger's script, which eventually leaves one with the feeling that it was intended mainly to scandalize and shock.
A second British film on this subject, "The Trials of Oscar Wilde," will open here next week. It will be interesting to compare it with this somewhat less than satisfactory one.
OSCAR WILDE, screen play by Jo Eisinger, based on the play of the same name by Leslie and Sewell Stokes; directed by Gregory Ratoff and produced by William Kirby at the Walton Studios, Surrey, England. Released by Four City Enterprises, Inc. At the Forum, Broadway at Forty-seventh Street, and the Sixty-eighth Street Playhouse on Third Avenue. Running time: ninety-six minutes.
Oscar Wilde . . . . . Robert Morley
Constance Wilde . . . . . Phyllis Calvert
Lord Alfred Douglas . . . . . John Neville
Sir Edward Carson . . . . . Sir Ralph Richardson
Robert Ross . . . . . Dennis Price
Sir Edward Clarke . . . . . Alexander Knox
Marquis of Queensberry . . . . . Edward Chapman
George Alexander . . . . . Martin Benson
Justice Henn Collins . . . . . Robert Harris
Justice Wills . . . . . Henry Oscar
Solicitor-General . . . . . William Devlin
Cobble . . . . . Stephen Dartnell
Lionel Johnson . . . . . Ronald Leigh-Hunt
Inspector Richards . . . . . Martin Boddy
Richard LeGallienne . . . . . Leonard Sachs
Clerk of Arraigne . . . . . Tom Chatto
BOSLEY CROWTHER New York Times 21 June 1960