The British film industry turned out some truly remarkable pictures during the classic era, and On Approval (1944) is a surprising testament to their talent, even if the movie is not especially well known today. Although celebrated British filmmakers like Ealing Studios produced wonderful comedies after World War II ended, this film, adapted from the 1926 play by Frederick Lonsdale, came out while the war was still on, and it consciously turns away from the grim reality of its world to offer a witty romantic comedy in the spirit of Oscar Wilde.
Set in high society in the 1890s, On Approval follows the romantic negotiations of two wealthy women and two impoverished upper class men. One of the women, Maria Wislack (Beatrice Lillie), is a widow who decides that any new husband must be properly tested before she marries him. She has a subject in mind for this experiment, too; Richard (Roland Culver) has been pining after her for some time, and he seems to lack only sufficient courage to make her a formal proposal. Maria, therefore, makes a proposal to him, and it's clear from this point forward that gender roles are going to be reversed as far as these two are concerned. Accompanying this interesting couple on their experimental excursion are Richard's friend, George (Clive Brook), and an American heiress named Helen (Googie Withers). Helen is in love with George, but George seems principally interested in making love to himself and to whatever bottle of liquor is closest at hand. The four socialites intend to carry out their program at Maria's home on a remote Scottish island, but their sojourn there becomes much more comical and complicated when the scandalized servants promptly give notice, leaving the privileged foursome to look after themselves.
None of the actors could be considered household names, but they are all wonderfully funny in On Approval. Each one provides a contrast to the others. Withers is young and doe-eyed as Helen, while Lillie is middle-aged and sharp-chinned as Maria. Culver's Richard is a thin little man, nervous and sincere, while Brook's George selfishly expands himself to fill any space he occupies, all the while delivering snide remarks and catty one-liners. He relentlessly taunts Maria about her age (even though he himself is older), at one point causing her to burst into tears. George then observes, "She's not crying because I said she was forty-one, she's crying because she is forty-one." It's a line worthy of Wilde's creations, and George is very much a Wildean sort of character, dissipated, incapable of sincerity, and deeply funny even when he is most deplorable.
On Approval is not entirely a throwback to the age of Wilde, however. It reveals an unexpectedly post-modern attitude toward its material, particularly in its use of the narrator, who opens the movie by complaining about the war and modern life before shifting the scene to the Victorian Age. The characters on screen are capable of having conversations with the unseen narrator at various points in the film, drawing attention to the artifice of the film. This narrator is not omniscient, and the characters are even able to correct him when he makes mistakes in his telling of the story. Also delightfully ahead of its time is the dream sequence that appears late in the film; the talking moose head in that scene is absolutely hilarious. Yes, it has a talking moose head, and if that doesn't pique your interest you aren't paying attention. I don't know how the dream sequence was played in the original stage version of On Approval, but in the film it's a fabulous romp through the characters' nightmares that puts effects and camera tricks to excellent use.
The gender issues being pursued in the film are complex; sometimes the movie seems sexist, and at other times the women get some well-earned revenge against those assumptions. Helen at first seems like the quintessential "angel in the house" type, faultlessly kind and long-suffering, but that image changes as the story progresses. Maria might be a harpy, and George is certainly a bounder and a cad, but they're evenly matched, at least. Richard occasionally comes across as a foolish milquetoast, especially in one scene where he turns up wearing a frilly apron, but like Helen he turns out to be made of better and firmer stuff than we first believe. One of the film's best revelations is that the nice girl and the hen-pecked man can outwit and avoid their cleverer and more callous companions. Stay with the picture until the end before you decide where its sympathies lie.
An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.