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

 

 

My Fair Lady

Wilfrid Hyde White and Audrey Hepburn, plus hat.

 

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

 

 

14 January

 

 

Cecil Beaton born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Cecil Hardy Beaton was born, in Hampstead, London. This son of a timber merchant was only interested in art from a very early age. Young Beaton was taught to use a camera by his nanny, and went on to spend his life making photographs of one form or another. He studied art, history and architecture at Cambridge University though left without a degree and after a short time trying to work in his father’s business set himself up as a photographer, using his society connections to get him the sittings for photographs that he could sell on to magazines hungry for glimpses of the lives of the rich and well connected – Vogue, at first. He went to New York, where he slowly made his name, returning to the UK with a contract with Conde Nast.

Beaton’s name will always be associated with the higher echelons of British society – royalty, aristocracy, people of “breeding”. And no wonder they flocked to him, because Beaton’s photographs presented these people as they saw themselves. However, during the Second World War Beaton showed himself equally adept at taking striking portraits of everyday folk – girls serving soldiers in tearooms, a young Blitz victim clutching her teddy bear in hospital. Though some anti-Semitic remarks he had scrawled in the border of an illustration had got him fired from Conde Nast (“dirty kikes” – it might have been meant as a joke but didn’t go down well in New York), his work during the war restored his reputation, and he moved into theatre design. His stage designs for the Broadway run of My Fair Lady got him the gig doing similar for the film version and a new career in film design opened up, though he had been designing “gowns” for films as early as 1941’s Major Barbara. He was the production designer on only two films, My Fair Lady and Gigi, and won Oscars for both. A fey man who in his youth entered into the world of boisterous cross-dressing which the upper classes seem to embrace so whole-heartedly in their salad days, Beaton seems to have been bisexual as an older man, having notably had an affair with Greta Garbo. Though it is said that the love of his life was the art collector Peter Watson.

 

 

 

My Fair Lady (1964, dir: George Cukor)

The practice of a high-born individual stooping socially to regenerate the exhausted bloodline is cleaned up for fiction in this adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. And if you’re in the cleaning up business, then call in George Cukor, the “women’s director” whom generations of Hollywood actresses had leant on (even after he had been fired from Gone with the Wind Cukor was receiving nightly calls from the film’s female stars, hoping for help with their lines). Call in the effortlessly urbane Rex Harrison (a shit in real life, but there you go) as phonetics Professor Henry Higgins. Call in Audrey Hepburn as the Cockney flower girl he turns into a member of high society (she’d helped turn Holly Golightly from a prostitute to a dizzy gadabout in Breakfast at Tiffany’s after all). And call in Cecil Beaton, whose sets and costumes threaten at every turn to upstage everyone else involved in the film. Even the intermission card, all fragile floral beauty, is by Beaton. The themes of the film are darker than they at first appear: what use is a woman who can talk posh but who has no money? What use is a woman at all – or “why can’t a woman be more like a man” as Higgins puts it in his spoken-in-jest song. There’s even more to it than that, of course – Shaw wasn’t in the business of writing a play about people from different class strata without making a point about social mobility. But which one? That an English(wo)man is condemned to a social position depending on the accent they are born with? Or that it’s easy to change your circumstances: all you have to do is change the way you speak? Did I mention the costumes? Yes. The music? It’s by Lerner and Loewe and is notable for three reasons – because of Harrison’s spoken delivery, entirely appropriate for a phonetics professor; because Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon (Julie Andrews, a real singer, having been turned down for the role, even though she had made My Fair Lady a hit on Broadway); and because the songs seem to fit so well the purpose they are designed for. I Could Have Danced All Night, that’s the delightful waltzing, swept-off-my-feet number. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, the tender love ballad. Get Me to the Church on Time, the Cockney knees up. Just You Wait, the spitfire riposte. It’s a great film, a lavish one, a long one too, nearly three hours. It flies by.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Cecil Beaton’s sets, clothes, hats
  • Eight Oscars, none for the actors
  • The excellent support cast including Wilfrid Hyde White and Gladys Cooper
  • The restoration is a work of art in itself

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

My Fair Lady – at Amazon