Blithe Spirit (1945)

Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford and Constance Cummings

 

“How the hell did you fuck up the best thing I ever did?” Noel Coward famously asked director David Lean when he first saw the film version of Blithe Spirit, a play that had wowed London in 1941 and went on to do the same on Broadway.

We’re now often told the film – a relative flop on its first release – is a classic. It isn’t, but certain elements of it remain quite special, most obviously Margaret Rutherford, who steals the film with a performance of batshit comic gurning so dazzling that the film flags whenever she’s not on stage… set, whatever.

“Just photograph it, dear boy” was Coward’s instruction to Lean, who ignored Coward and opened out the play a bit with a few exterior shots and a ride in a sports car. But it remains in essence a stage play that’s been filmed, like The Importance of Being Earnest.

Coward being second only to Wilde in terms of aphoristic pizzazz, it bounces along at remarkable speed, and within scant minutes of its opening we’ve been introduced to the main characters – the achingly cynical Charles and Ruth Condomine (Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings), their boring and unimportant friends George and Violet Bradman (Hugh Wakefield, Joyce Carey), and Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford), the medium Charles has hired in as a research aid to give the novel he’s struggling with an injection of bogus spiritualism. He is sure Arcati is a fraud; she’s convinced she isn’t.

Both Charles and Ruth have been married before – quite racy for the 1940s, but then this is life among the “smart set”. But it’s Charles’s dead first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), who arrives from the afterlife during the seance and proceeds to make his life miserable.

 

Kay Hammond, Constance Cumming and Rex Harrison
Three’s an upload? Elvira, Ruth and Charles

 

Two women fighting over Rex Harrison. As in art, so in life. The actor knew what this was all about – two women killed themselves over Sexy Rexy (as Hollywood dubbed him, to his discomfort) during a long career of philandering that also found time for six marriages – he’s perfect casting as Charles.

The rest of the film is essentially a joust with three people at the tilt – Charles, Ruth and Elvira, with Madame Arcati dropping in now and again to liven things up when they flag, as they sadly do.

What a vision of the well-to-do English lifestyle it paints – dressing for dinner, table linen as crisp as the Condomines’ vowels, an Englishman’s home is his castle, servants, discussions about what cook will make for lunch, and so on.

The fact that it looks so great and that you can see how exquisitely well made the clothes are (even those of Arcati, who’s not meant to be worldly in the least) comes down to the use of Technicolor to shoot it – DP is Ronald Neame, a towering talent who could turn his hand to any aspect of film-making. He’s also one of the writers of this adaptation, but was also a notable director (The Poseidon Adventure) and producer (Brief Encounter).

A film released in 1945, in the aftermath of war, and concerned with dead people having an afterlife is obviously going to have a constituency, but Coward’s genius is to make Blithe Spirit a comedy, and one that’s toying throughout with the idea of a threesome between Charles and his two wives.

Unspoken sexual frisson or not, without Margaret Rutherford, who pushes her chest out comically whenever she can, it just wouldn’t have the same dash. She was a large reason why the play was a smash in London’s West End and she’s a large reason why the film continues to be very watchable.

Watch it back to back with the 2020 remake starring Judi Dench as Madame Arcati and it becomes even more apparent what’s its real killer aspect – the bounce, bounce, bounce of Coward’s writing. The comedy calisthenics of Rutherford’s bosom can’t compete.

 

Blithe Spirit – Watch it/buy at Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Blithe Spirit

Leslie Mann, Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Judi Dench

 

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert,” run the lines in Shelley’s poem To a Skylark. And though there’s plenty of spirit in 2020’s remake of a 1945 film often considered a classic, this bird resolutely fails to take wing.

The basic plot remains the same as the original film (and original play): Charles and Ruth Condomine are a rich couple living in elegant boredom out in the English countryside. He’s a writer struggling with his latest novel. So he gets in a bogus spiritualist, Madame Arcati, to conduct a seance, which waggish Charles will use as background material in his book.

The seance goes oddly right, or wrong. When Madame Arcati asks “Is there anybody there?” a spirit actually appears from the afterlife. It is Charles’s first wife Elvira. And she refuses to go back to wherever she came from. And that’s it: the rest of the film is taken up with much farcical to-ing and fro-ing and a lot of friction between Charles and the two Mrs Condomines, one of which only he can see.

Arch wit of a veddy Noel Coward sort was the prevailing tone of the 1945 original. That’s been replaced by kitsch, reflected in the different takes on the character of Madame Arcati. This one is a fraud and knows it. In the original everyone concerned thought Madame Arcati was bogus but she herself was entirely in earnest about her gift, her calling.

Noel Coward’s original play remains largely intact in the central section set in the Condomines’ elegant house, but early and late scenes try to filmify things a bit – we first meet Madame Arcati at a disastrous West End performance, and towards the end the action shifts to Hollywood, where Charles’s novel is being turned into a movie starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. The name Cecil B DeMille is also mentioned.

It’s a brave departure, but the changes up front mean junking some of the best writing in the original – the rapier repartee of Charles and Ruth in the opening moments of the 1945 original film. The later additions are just creative noodling.

Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays Charles. Obviously Stevens has done things other than Downton, but it’s an apt descriptor here because there’s more than a touch of Downton in the upstairs/downstairs gentility (Coward’s fault) and the TV-ish visuals (not Coward’s fault). Director Edward Hall is a Downton alum.

 

Madame Arcati conducts the seance
“Is there anybody there?”

 

Judi Dench as Madame Arcati realises wisely that she can’t match the scattergun brilliance of Margaret Rutherford’s gangnam physicality and instead relies on vocal inflection for laughs. Sadly, Rutherford did that too. Dench, always brilliantly herself, is able to squeeze comedy out of lines that are not intentionally funny, but even so, glimpsing Rutherford in the rearview mirror, Dench occasionally tips a hat (throws in the towel?) with line readings echoing the turkey gobble of the old Dame.

Isla Fisher is miscast as the second, very-much-alive Mrs C, her Aussie accent breaking through all over the place. She’s also badly served by a screenplay that’s made one real improvement on the original, which had a misogynistic streak a mile wide (two silly women fighting over Rex Harrison’s noble Charles, an obvious shit).

Leslie Mann reaps the rewards of the de-misogynifying (is that even a word?) – the first Mrs C turns out to be a smart operator who had a lot more to do with Charles’s success than he’s ever let on.

On the whole, though, the plot tweaks and the filmic locations at beginning and end don’t add much, and leech away much of the original film’s screwball energy.

No one comes out of it bathed in glory. Mann does best, Dench is acceptable, Stevens makes a fine cad but lacks Rex Harrison’s balancing charm, Fisher is a mistake.

The amazing white modernist house the Condomines live in was built in 1932 and is called Joldwynds. It’s the real deal. It also featured in an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot once, and that’s about where this version of Blithe Spirit sits, as a good-looking, for the most part nicely made and solid piece of construction.

 

 

 

 

The original 1945 Blithe Spirit (restored)  – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

 

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2021