Reels of Gold: Classic Film Talk
Today we reminisce about David Lean’s
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Directed by David Lean
Starring: Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford
This couple is Charles and Ruth Condomine, who have been married for 5 years. It is the second marriage for both – Charles’ first wife, Elvira, died 7 years prior and Ruth was divorced. On the evening we initially meet them, they are dressing for a small dinner party. The guest of honour is Madame Arcati, a medium who summon spirits from the ‘other side’. Though she has had over 6 years experience working in London, she is readily mocked due to her given trade. She has been invited because Charles is writing a book on The Tricks of the Homicidal Medium. Mme Arcati is quite eccentric in her mannerisms and style but she is upbeat and good-humoured. She claims that she has a spiritual control; a 7-year-old girl called Daphne who died in 1884. After everyone has finished eating, she starts the séance. To begin with, Mme. Arcati asks if any spirits are present and it is revealed that a spirit there wants to communicate with Charles. Then, she goes into a trance and starts speaking in a little girl’s voice. At the same time, Charles starts hearing another voice that no one else can hear but decides to remain mum. After awakening from her trance, Mme. Arcati leaves and immediately after that the ghostly apparition of Elvira walks into the living room.
Needless to say, Charles is not only shocked to see her but confused as to why she is not visible to anyone else. Ruth thinks that he has had too much to drink and they both call it a night though Charles will stay up and converse with Elvira. The next morning, he wakes up almost refreshed, happier, and more courteous after his late-night talk though he cannot remember if Elvira was real or if it was just a figment of his imagination. That evening, Elvira appears again and Charles asks her to manifest her existence to Ruth. Even after Elvira does so, Ruth does not believe him (or trust Elvira) and goes to see Mme. Arcati for help. Mme Arcati is more delighted in knowing that her séance was a success than listening to Ruth’s pleas. When Ruth returns home, she sees an ambulance and discovers that Charles, the gardener, the cook, and the maid have all had violent accidents. She starts suspecting that Elvira is trying to kill Charles so that they can be re-united in the afterlife.
Do you think Ruth is on to something? Is Elvira to blame is or is it a matter of coincidence? Will Elvira ever be able to go back ‘home’?
It would be ghastly of you not to want to find out!
Blithe Spirit was David Lean’s third straight film venture with playwright Noël Coward. As with their two prior films, this screenplay was adapted straight from a successful stage production. Coward desired for Lean to remain strictly true to its theatrical set-up and insisted that the entirety of the film’s action take place in one room. However, Lean varied the filming areas around the Condomine house, even managing some exterior scenes/shots as well as two stops at Mme. Arcati’s house. It was filmed in Technicolor, which was a more intense colour technique than Lean had previously used for This Happy Breed. Again, it is worth noting that it was quite something for him to be able to obtain colour reels during World War II. The only thing that profoundly displeased Coward was the film’s ending which was strikingly different than the one he had written in the play.
The story is a light-hearted dark comedy that finds a funny, nonchalant side to mortality and the paranormal. I would say that the humour neither goes overboard nor does it border being morbid in nature. The fact that the picture is filmed in Technicolor greatly helps its overall appeal, giving it a warm, bright, and lively ambiance. Elvira appears very ethereal and is dressed in a lovely shade of pale green. Her facial make-up matches to fit her wardrobe which is somewhat obvious to the naked eye in colour but which allows for her seem semi-transparent in comparison to the people and surroundings around her. (That is, of course, when she is seen by Charles. Otherwise she is invisible to others.)
Coward provides for a delightful and funny storyline but this is perhaps no surprise because he was largely renowned for his smart writing. When Charles asks Elvira to prove her existence to Ruth, she complains that “it takes years of study to muster up a manifestation.” This line reminds me of the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life explaining to George Bailey that he cannot do divine, ‘magical’ things because he has not yet gotten his wings after nearly 200 years! Another great one-liner from Elvira comes from when Mme. Arcati is conjuring another spirit and a sudden noise is heard. Elvira is a bit taken aback and says, “If it’s a ghost, I shall scream!” Another movie that reminds me of this kind of humour is Arsenic and Old Lace although it is quite darker all-around and more over-the-top in style.
There were a number of special effects and they were all done incredibly well for the time. Tables shake and rise by themselves, a pot of tulips moves from one part of the room to another, chairs move by themselves, and so on. One of the most memorable special effects scenes is when Charles and Elvira take a car to get to Folkestone so that she can see some old friends. (The idea in itself is crazy but I suppose she is going to profit from being back on Earth to catch up on old times!) Elvira is doing the driving and the driver’s seat appears empty to a police officer directing traffic. Charles thinks nothing of it and just smiles to the dumbfounded officer and the car seemingly drives away all by itself. It may seem that the jokes and the humour are simple but, in fact, the film is hilarious.
This films boasts are wonderfully talented cast. Rex Harrison is very young and debonair, not yet displaying some of the campiness and over exaggeration that could appear in his later performances. Ironically, he would later go on to play the ghost of a sea captain in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Constance Cummings and Kay Hammond were perfect as the bickering current wife and deceased wife of Charles. The spotlight readily goes onto Dame Margaret Rutherford who gives a knock-out performance as Mme. Arcati. She is simply fearless in her role, never holding back and really giving it all she has got. You would think that she really believed in the conjuring of spirits and perhaps even practised it herself in real life.
Blithe Spirit has a universal appeal but particularly to those who like diluted dark humour and screwball comedies though the ‘screwballiness’ of this film is a little less zany than some of its American counterpart productions. On the whole, the British are known to be more reserved. The film did not fare well at box-offices upon its release but has become more appreciated over the years. Having premiered only 6 days after V-E Day, perhaps audiences were not so ready to celebrate after so many years of war and unrest. We should feel lucky to be able to enjoy it today.
Here are some black-and-white photographs taken from the set. Note how different Elvira’s make-up photographs on B&W compared to the Technicolor treatment.