Blithe Spirit (1945)

Synopsis:

Novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison, Cleopatra) leads a quiet life with his second wife (Constance Cummings, Remember Last Night?) in the English countryside. Condomine asks psychic Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, The V. I. P.s) to perform a séance in his house, and Arcati inadvertently brings back the ghost of Condomine’s first wife (Kay Hammond, Bitter Sweet) to the dismay of his current wife.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Time is the reef upon which all our frail mystic ships are wrecked.”

“I’m not ready to do this sort of stuff,” director David Lean protested after dramatist Noel Coward asked the director to adapt his play into a movie. “Nonsense, my dear,” Coward responded. After Lean showed Coward the finished film, the playwright allegedly said, “David, you’ve just f–d up the best thing I ever wrote.” While far from being perfect,  Blithe Spirit is pretty funny in places, and it has high entertainment value.

The legendary play Blithe Spirit has come to exemplify Coward’s style and wit. Adapted by Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame and Lean, this film version of the play is good but flawed. The main problem is that, according to co-writer Havelock-Allan, Lean “had a strong prejudice against upper-class frivolity.” Lean didn’t find Coward’s story funny and as a result the movie doesn’t work as well as it should.

Also, miscasting throws things off a bit. Rex Harrison’s Condomine is supposed to be a boring middle-aged man, but the thirty-six-year-old actor looks like a dashing playboy in his prime. The first wife was described as a sexy and exciting woman who reawakens the younger Condomine, but she’s played by a average-looking Kay Hammond.

In addition, the new wife is played by the gorgeous Constance Cummings. You never understand why Condomine is infatuated with his deceased wife — Hammond and Cummings should have switched roles. As far as I’m concerned, the inimitable Margaret Rutherford saves the picture. Rutherford is irresistible as the eccentric psychic.

I also enjoyed the Oscar-winning visual effects (by Tom Howard). The on-camera effects look great in Technicolor. Today they don’t look like much, but the technical team went through hell in order to achieve the desired ethereal effect. None of these tricks helped the film at the box-office; it was a notorious financial failure. It’s quite possible that wartime audiences didn’t find a movie about dead people funny.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Director Lean never had anything good to say about the movie. I think he exaggerated quite a bit — this is a delightful comedy of (British) manners. Warts and all, Blithe Spirit is an enjoyable movie. The cast includes Hugh Wakefield (1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much), Joyce Carey (Greyfriars Bobby) and Jacqueline Clarke (The Queen of Spades). Coward did the narration. Color, 96 minutes, Not Rated.

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