Blithe Spirit (1945)

+++ Charles Condomine, a novelist on the look-out for material for his new book, is inviting an eccentric spiritistic medium into his home for a séance. The other guests on the night are in on the plan, admonished not to let the spiritist know that they are all sceptics and are really just there to witness the “show” she is going to put on. However, when all is over, it seems Charles may have gotten more out of the bargain than expected. +++

Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit as a stage play which had been running with enormous success since 1941. So a film adaptation seemed the next logical step. However, Coward refused to sell the rights to Hollywood, who he felt had butchered several of his plays before. Instead the rights went to a British company, with Coward producing the adaptation and David Lean directing it. While this was Lean’s first comedy, he had worked with Coward before on In Which We Serve and the adaptation of Coward’s This Happy Breed.

Everyone, it seems, had a hand in the film’s adapted screenplay: the director, David Lean, the co-producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, and the cinematographer, Ronald Neame. Imdb lists Noël Coward himself as an uncredited contributor to the screenplay, but the extent of his involvement is unclear. Reportedly he would have preferred to have no changes at all, seeing that the stage play was such a big success. And he is said to have been very unhappy with the new ending that had been written for the film.

It’s going on 20 years since I have seen the play on stage, so I can’t comment on any other differences (other than the obvious fact that Lean took the film out of its one-room environment and into the outdoors as well as into a second location). But the one negative thing that I always feel about Coward is something that shines through in this film (and that I will therefore assume is a problem already present in the stage play): Coward is mostly about premise and dialogue. Characters as well, possibly, but plot and story not so much.
Blithe Sprit has a highly interesting premise which works as a breeding ground for many a funny scene and fantastic bits of dialogue. Nobody does dialogue as well as Noël Coward. But beyond that, there is fairly little plot once the main “event” in the film has unfolded. Coward has his intriguing premise and interesting characters, but he does no really know what to do with them. Probably not because of a lack of fantasy or talent. I fear that he simply loses interest in them. Coming up with a premise and writing witty dialogue is fun, developing a plot and working out a story is trudging work. I think you can see the same problem in Present Laughter as well, for example.

So the dialogue is the film’s biggest asset, and most of the best exchanges take place between Charles and his second wife, Ruth. Starring in these roles, Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings are therefore most essential for the film’s success in the dialogue department. They have good chemistry, play off well of each other, and deliver the witty lines in just the right manner. I cannot recall any particularly risqué lines in this film, but at least one exchange between Harrison and Cummings proved too much for American censors and had to be cut for the film’s US release.

With Margaret Rutherford and Kay Hammond, two key cast members who had already been in the stage play joined on for the film as well. Hammond works nicely as she can put her bonne-vivante character in a nice contrast to Cummings’s more straight-laced Ruth.

Rutherford is, of course, an asset in any film she is in, so it should be no surprise that she is the film’s MVP in the role of the medium, Madame Arcati. Arcati’s eccentricity, her complete lack of style and grace, and the absence of any spritist pretense make for an interesting mixture, and Rutherford is perfectly cast for this type of medium.

This was a rather high-quality production, considering that money and resources must have been tight in 1945. Famous British composer Richard Addinsell provided the music, and the film was done in Technicolor. For me, however, this is one of those things that might work against the film. The “ghost effects” in the black & white film Topper, for example look much better than the Technicolor ghost effects in Blithe Spirit. The effects of both Topper and Blithe Spirit are well-regarded – Tom Howard won the visual effects Oscar for Blithe Spirit, and Topper saw both of its sequel nominated in that category. But for my money, the greenish tone of the effects in Blithe Spirit makes them look quite “cheap” today, whereas Topper’s effects have aged much better.

The problem that I have with Blithe Spirit’s ghost effects are in a way related to the question of the film’s overall style. In order to firmly root the Condomines in the modern world, the filmmakers chose a modern country house as their home, quite unusual for a British film. “Mid-century Modern” might be a label that loosely fits this house and its furnishings. The Condomines and their friends are thoroughly modern people who do not believe in superstitious nonsense. And these surroundings are meant to illustrate and emphasise this. By contrast, Madame Arcati’s village home is a cottage full of spiritistic clutter. But while the choice of the Condomines’ modern home is a valid one, and the reasoning behind it justified, in terms of atmosphere it might work less well for the film as a whole. Would it hot have been more atmospheric (for cinematic purposes) if audiences could witness this story being played out in a somewhat “Gothic” country home? The type of house which seems to populate so many other British films? And this is the style question which applies to Technicolor as well. Having a bright, colourful world which our protagonists inhabit helps to sell the premise that this is a modern, rational world – a world which we see later invaded by spiritualism and the supernatural. And as I just pointed out, this is a very valid artistic choice. But as a cinematic experience, this film might have worked better in black & white, because of the atmosphere; just like the style of the house and furnishings might have worked better if it had been chosen to support the film’s atmosphere rather than to support the film’s premise.

I am well aware that this stylistic question is a very minor issue. It just dominated my mind because I recently encountered several discussions in which people were wondering which black & white film might benefit from colourisation. And so, watching Blithe Spirit, it occurred to me that this might be a counter example of a film that might have benefited from being shot in black & white. And on that note, I should add that the aforementioned Topper was the first film to fall victim to the colourisation craze of the 1980s, so if I ever get the chance to see that version, it should be interesting to see if the film’s atmosphere suffers from it in the way I feel Blithe Spirit suffers from being shot in colour in the first place.

There is little else to say about this film. It is a very solid comedy with great dialogue and very good performances. I would rate it at 7 out of 10, or higher.

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