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

 

 

Murder at the Gallop

Margaret Rutherford in riding gear in Murder at the Gallop

 

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

 

 

15 September

 

 

Birth of Agatha Christie, 1890

 

On this day in 1890, one of the greatest writers of detective fiction was born. Agatha Christie’s two most famous creations are fastidious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the prim but indomitable Miss Marple. Christie is the best selling novelist of all time and has the longest running play of all time – The Mousetrap – still playing to full houses in London’s West End after more than 60 years. Her stories were being adapted into films already by the end of the 1920s, and continue to this day – Crooked House is just going into production, directed by either Neil LaBute or Julian Fellowes, depending on which rumours you follow. And no less than Hideo Nakata (of Ring fame) recently directed The Incite Mill, which does not at first glance appear to be a Christie product but is clearly influenced by her And Then There Were None. Christie – four billion books and counting and only outsold by Shakespeare and the Bible – keeps on going.

 

Murder at the Gallop (1963, dir: George Pollock)

The best of the four films starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, Murder at the Gallop is actually an adaptation of a Hercule Poirot story, After the Funeral. Centring on the murder most horrid of a harmless old buffer, it eventually sees Miss Marple joining a riding club in an attempt to find out whodunit. The thought of the redoubtable Margaret Rutherford climbing onto a horse is amusing enough, but the highlight of this film is Rutherford’s shameless mugging to camera, tongue literally in cheek, eyes rolling while Robert Morley, also engaging in scene-stealing of a most florid nature, lays on the flattery. Purists aren’t fans of these Rutherford films but they’re all crisply shot in black and white, and this one benefits from a jaunty Ron Goodwin soundtrack – a middle-aged guy’s version of swinging young people’s music. That, Rutherford’s bizarre dress sense and proper repertory-style acting from the likes of Flora Robson and Noel Howlett, not forgetting regulars Stringer Davis (Rutherford’s real-life husband) and Charles Tingwell as the cheery put-upon Inspector Craddock, make this an entirely enjoyable piece of escapism.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Rutherford was no stranger to death – her father bludgeoned her grandfather to death with a chamber pot; her mother committed suicide
  • “I never intended to play for laughs,” she said in her autobiography – surely not true
  • Purists might not like the Rutherford Marple films but Agatha Christie dedicated a book to the actress
  • She’s wearing her own clothes and has had her own husband, essentially playing himself, written in to the script

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Murder at the Gallop – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

Dame Edith Evans

Fifty years after the making of this quintessentially British comic classic it was remade starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Judi Dench and the then almost incandescently famous Reese Witherspoon, to give it a bit of global appeal. That’s a great cast – three Oscar-winners and a scene-stealer par excellence (see Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding for evidence of that). So no argument there.

But they still couldn’t beat the original. That’s because they really, really don’t make them like this any more. No one speaks like Edith “a handbag” Evans. No one resembles Margaret Rutherford’s preposterously dotty, doting Miss Prism. As to direction, what hotshot these days would settle for the approach of Anthony “Puffin” Asquith – put actors on stage, bung camera in front of them, shout “action” – a technique so simple it’s almost avant-garde?

It was typical of Asquith, who knew not to get in Oscar Wilde’s way, especially when Wilde is delivering a story about subterfuge and false identity teetering on the edge of the unfollowable, that’s when he’s not delivering epigram by the kilogram.

The two male leads, Michael Redgrave and Michael Dennison, are possibly a full decade too old to be playing young bucks, it’s true, but everything else is as bright and perfect as the Technicolor cinematography.

Interesting factoid: it was Asquith’s father, as Home Secretary (and a future Prime Minister), who had ordered the arrest of Oscar Wilde for homosexual acts.





The Importance of Being Earnest – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013