Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945)

Synopsis:

Novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady) 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 out of sheer boredom. He’s also interested in incorporating the experience into one of his novels. Arcati inadvertently brings back the ghost of Condomine’s first wife (Kay Hammond, Bitter Sweet) to the dismay of his current wife.

Reaction & Thoughts:

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

It has been said that Coward wrote the play in just three days. Blithe Spirit has come to exemplify the writer’s style and wit. This translation of the hit play to the screen, adapted by Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame, and Lean, 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 result the movie doesn’t work as well as it should.

Also, miscasting throws things off. Harrison’s Condomine is supposed to be a bored middle-aged man, but the thirty-six-year-old actor looks like a dashing playboy in his prime. The first wife was written as a sexy and exciting woman who reawakens the younger Condomine. But she’s played by a matronly-looking Hammond. The new wife is played by gorgeous Cummings. You never understand why Condomine is infatuated with the deceased wife. As far as I’m concerned, Rutherford’s Madame Arcati saves the picture. She is hilarious as the eccentric psychic.

I enjoyed the Oscar-wining 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 a delightful 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 narrates. Color, 96 minutes, Not Rated.

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