Sunday, June 10, 2012


Released the same year as Brief Encounter [review], David Lean’s adaptation of Noël Coward’s hit comedy Blithe Spirit couldn’t be further in tone from what would become the duo’s unassailable masterpiece, and yet thematically, they are actually pretty close in terms of their deeper narrative concerns. At the heart of Blithe Spirit beats questions of conjugal love, infidelity, and a cast of characters who soldier on together even when the soldiering gets rough.

Rex Harrison leads the cast of Blithe Spirit as Charles Condomine, an upper-class author content with his posh lifestyle, so much so that there is even some suggestion that his writing isn’t as good as it once was. Charles is married to Ruth (Constance Cummings), who is his second wife. She seems an able companion for him. Their senses of humor are in line with one another, and she goes along with his mad ideas. The current one is to have a medium come to their home for a séance. Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, also in Asquith’s The Importance of Being Earnest) is the village joke, but she’s exactly the punchline Charles is waiting on: he is hoping to learn the art of the spiritual charlatan for the latest mystery he is penning.

Naturally, since this is a light comedy, that floating table holding the crystal ball is going to turn, and Charles is going to get what is coming to him. His first wife, the late Elvira (a saucy Kay Hammond), has been a presence in his house since her passing seven years ago, even if only as a topic of discussion between Charles and Ruth. Arcati’s shenanigans make that presence far more real: Elvira has returned as a ghost, one that only Charles can see and hear. His panic and the seemingly one-sided conversations he has with the ghost cause a rift with the understandably irritated second wife--but that’s only the beginning of Charles’ supernatural woes.

Blithe Spirit is, at a surface glance, charmingly toothless. The comedy is light and airless, playing rather innocently with the notion of a restless afterlife. In other words, it’s as far from spooky as you’re likely to get. Watching it actually reminded me of what a big fan of the Topper films I was as a child. I very much liked the idea of having spectral friends that only I could see, standing by my side, helping me out of scrapes. (Naturally, I was also on Jimmy Stewart’s team any time I watched
Harvey.) Blithe Spirit made me want to revisit Topper to see if it’s as harmless as I remember.

Because, of course, being a Noël Coward script, Blithe Spirit’s frothy appearance masks some darker, more mature undertones. There is much one can infer from the coded barbs that were the author’s trademark. (Such as, the suggestion that the previous maid got a sudden case of the marrieds because she was pregnant; it was only 1945, after all, and censorship being what it was....) Ruth’s jealousy of the unimpeachable, crystallized image of her predecessor gives way to a truer picture of Elvira when the dead woman returns and we see how she icily bullied her husband as a matter of foreplay. Presumably since they no longer have to get along by way of corporeal cohabitation, the veil between Charles’ romanticized feelings for Elvira and the side effects of her acidic promiscuity start to become more clear.

The ensemble cast is perfectly gung-ho and able-bodied. They stay committed to Blithe Spirit even when some of the slapstick gets clunky. (Lean’s direction seems to grow more wooden in direct proportion to how silly the story gets.) Rex Harrison adheres pretty closely to the Rex Harrison brand, so he is good, but offers few surprises here (none of that nastiness that makes his turn as Henry Higgins stand out amongst his filmography). Constance Cummings and Kay Hammond are both excellent as the wives: one steadfast and plucky, the other sexy and devious. Even better though, is Margaret Rutherford’s performance as the spiritualist. She is an exceptional character actress, and she creates a busy-bodied, addle-brained persona for the old woman. Rutherford’s performance is both physical and verbal, and despite the obvious craft put into it, surprisingly natural.

Perhaps more impressive, though, is how Lean and cinematographer Ronald Neame (who also contributed the script) handle Blithe Spirit’s special effects. There is less cinematic trickery here than there are tried-and-true stage techniques. Phosphorescent make-up and matching, flowing robes give Elvira her ghostly pallor. Only the woman’s lips have maintained a lively hue: red, passionate, alluring. Symbolically, the lady has yet to give up her last breath.

Those who have seen Blithe Spirit will know I am being coy in how I doled out that last compliment. There are some surprises to be had in the story’s later acts that, while not necessarily mind-blowing, add to the fun. The pace of the film increases as the situation becomes more desperate and Charles seeks to free himself from being haunted. The final scenes add further weight to the relationships, with us learning that Charles himself was not quite the gentleman he maybe pretended to be. Yet, there is also some validation of these relationships. Coward’s script may not necessarily seem to get behind the sanctity of marriage, but it does land firmly on the side of lifelong companionship--no matter how maddening or begrudging it might become. Some people are just meant to be stuck together.

This poster makes me laugh, since it looks nothing like the movie. Compare this lovely still of Kay Hammond below to the paperback novel painting above just to see how different they are.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

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