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

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Brief Encounter

Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

6 April

 

Petrarch first sees Laura, 1327

On this day in 1327, one of the most celebrated romantic sightings in literature happened, when Francesco Petrarca, the scholar, poet and former priest often credited with starting the Renaissance, first caught sight of a young woman called Laura (possibly Laura de Noves) in church. He was immediately smitten.

Laura was married and rebuffed his advances. So he poured his feelings into poetry, resulting in a book of 366 poems which later were called Il Canzoniere (Song Book).

It is one of the most sustained works on unrequited love in the literary canon and became highly influential on the development of literature in Europe and beyond. Most of the poems Petrarch wrote were sonnets, a form of 14 lines generally in iambic pentameter which he didn’t invent but did perfect – so-called Petrarchan sonnets (like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee?/Let me count the ways”) consist of an initial set of eight lines (the “problem”) followed by a set of six (the “solution”).

 

 

 

Brief Encounter (1945, dir: David Lean)

Like Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love, Brief Encounter hums with repressed longing. It tells the story of a married woman and a doctor who accidentally meet at a railway station and are immediately plunged into a torrent of emotion neither ever suspected was there.

It might seem counter-intuitive but it’s all the more effective for being in black and white, with dialogue spoken through stiff upper lips by people armoured against the cold in gabardine, wool, hats and gloves. Neither Celia Johnson nor Trevor Howard, its stars, has matinee idol looks. A railway station, lots of clothes, weird accents, boring middle-aged fully clothed people – the whole thing, essentially, is a how-not-to guide on romantic film-making.

And yet here it is, a regular on “best of” lists of romances. Partly it is because the terrible longing is so beautifully expressed through tiny emotional grimaces on the actors’ faces, partly because (like another classic of renunciation, Casablanca) it is an entirely honest attempt by film-makers in wartime to represent the way real people – people caught up in a life-and-death conflict – deal with appalling events. They’re stoic, in other words.

In an echo of that sacrifice, Johnson and Howard cannot have what they most dearly want either. They put individual desire to one side in favour of the greater good. And they deal with this by trying to pretend they didn’t want whatever it was that much after all – until the dam breaks.

Noel Coward’s original one-act play, Still Life, has been fleshed out a bit by writer Ronald Neame, while director David Lean gives us the stark black and white visuals (a year before Oliver Twist) which do so much with so little, flashes of light in the darkness being a recurring visual motif – no need to explain what that means.

The music is Concerto No 2 by Rachmaninoff, the “last of the romantics” and a more suitably swirling, surging piece of music it’s hard to imagine. In fact it’s so right that you can’t use Rach 2 any more except as a cliché of torrid romance – how many films’ scores have that much longevity?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Beautiful, urgent performances by Howard and Johnson
  • A real eye on another time
  • David Lean’s gorgeous monochrome cinematography
  • Rach 2 – absurd, heroic, poignant

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Brief Encounter – at Amazon

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Oliver Twist

Oliver is menaced by Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist

 

 

The sort of film that most of us have slept through a few times. No, not the one with “Consider Yourself” and all those other fabulous Lionel Bart songs. Instead, it’s the David Lean version of Dickens’s story of a nice young lad all at sea in bad old London, completely song-free and freighted with baggage – Alec Guinness’s Semitic schnozz for starters, his wheedling manner for another – as thiefmaster Fagin. But beneath Fagin’s hard shell and stereotyped Jewish image (based on the Cruickshank drawings, that’s Lean’s and Guinness’s defence) there beats a heart of gold, while around him operates his gang of reasonably well-cared-for ne’er-do-well pickpockets. It’s Robert Newton’s Bill Sykes who’s the real villain here, as it was in Charles Dickens’s original story. So, having snoozed through, why bother to watch it again? Because the remastered version reveals Guy Green’s beautiful cinematography, a feast of rich blacks and brilliant whites and barely a half-tone to be seen. It’s the perfect visual counterpoint to the stygian performance of Newton and the lilywhite prissiness of John Howard Davies as Oliver. Gorgeously chiaroscuro and with crazily tilting sets, this is Lean grabbing at the revival of Expressionism that was sweeping through cinema in the 1940s. Naturalistic? Not even slightly. Consider yourself well served.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Oliver Twist – at Amazon