David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1941 play is a world away from the prestigious epics that would become synonymous with the director. Nevertheless, there is an elegance to this supernatural comedy, sometimes, it seems, at the expense of a lightness of touch that would wring the most from Coward’s wit and playful dialogue.
Charles Condomine, researching his new novel, invites medium Madame Arcati to perform a séance at his house. The result is the appearance of his deceased wife of seven years, much to the chagrin of this current betrothed. On learning of the true intentions of his ex, Charles is no less unsettled.
It may be that Lean’s concentration on technical mastery was at the expense of eliciting laughs; or perhaps he just wasn’t adept at comedy. He chose to film in Technicolor, and decided not to utilise the expected double exposure method to render the returned spook; instead Kay Hammond was suitably made up (in fluorescent green) and the lighting followed her, rendering the desired ethereal glow. The film is nothing if not precisely made, but it seems that Lean, intentionally or not, brings too much weight to material that should have been light and frothy. Coward wasn’t too happy with the translation. He’d suggested the play to Lean (Hollywood had come a calling due to its success, but Coward resisted the wooing) after they collaborated on In Which We Serve, but allegedly asked Lean, “How the hell did you fuck up the best thing I ever did?”
Both Margaret Rutherford (as delightfully batty as only Rutherford can be, and written with her in mind) as Madame Arcadia and Kay Hammond as deceased wife Elvira were transferred from the original stage production. An impossibly young Rex Harrison (not yet 40) judges the tone just right, bringing to Charles Condomine an upbeat stoicism towards all that he encounters (most surprisingly – but amusingly – in response to the fate of his living spouse). His unflagging breeziness does much of the heavy lifting in making this watchable (but, as said, Rutherford is peerless). Both Constance Cummings (as current wife Ruth) and Hammond are perfectly accomplished; the former unimpressed at what she perceives to be flights of fantasy on the part of her husband, the latter informing Charles’ scheming departed with a louche mischief and a delivery that sounds just the right side of drunk.
The action of the film appears to take place in Ashford in Kent (at least, according to the Condomines’ telephone), but Coward wrote the play while holidaying in Portmeirion (the location for the Village in The Prisoner); his office and flat had just been destroyed in the Blitz. Accordingly, it seems that Coward’s intention was to write something that would take the audience’s minds off the grim realities around them. That he did so through a piece that makes light of death could be seen as ironic; certainly, he came in for some criticism for just that. This didn’t stop the play from becoming a huge hit (hence the film offers), seen in part as a consequence of tapping into a topical subject (the desire to make contact with the dearly departed).
Indeed, Coward was drawing upon a field that had blossomed in popularity during WWI (Arthur Conan Doyle being one of its chief proponents, having lost a son in the conflict), and had been subsequently assaulted with a barrage of accusations of fakery and confidence trickstering. This is the starting point of Charles Condomine in the film; his novel is to concern a sham psychic and Madame Arcati’s “performance” represents research material. Coward pulls the rug by unequivocally establishing that the ghostly arrival is bona fide. Madame Arcati is consistently shown to be mistaken and addled in her assumptions, but as much as she is mockable, she is clearly capable (albeit the extent of the apparition(s) takes even her by surprise).
Madame Arcati: Very interesting. I smell ectoplasm strongly.
Elvira: What a disgusting thing to say!
More of a concern than mocking mortality, across the Pond, were the implied extra-marital affairs of both Charles and Elvira. She continually mocks him for his stuffiness and apparently cuckolded him at every opportunity (even on their honeymoon). If Charles appears blasé about the loss of Elvira, he is even more so about his wife’s carrying-on; until we learn that he didn’t mind as he was embarking on his own simultaneous philandering. A line about Ruth taking an inventory of Charles’ sex life was deleted from the US release. Much more eyebrow-raising, to my ears, was the reaction of the maid to Charles’ offer of payment; her inference being that the money was for “services” provided.
That said, for all its risqué qualities, the film finishes on a less blithe note. The ultimate pay-off, while both humorous and tidy, implies a moral judgement on the smug Charles. Tellingly, this is different to the ending of the play, which is much more in line with Coward’s irreverent tone. Coward also includes quite a clever late stage twist of the sort you’d be more likely to see in your classic ghost story (but here played for laughs).
Ultimately Blithe Spirit is a likeable disappointment. Much like Anthony Asquith’s version of The Importance of Being Earnest a few years later, Lean appears to come unstuck attempting to translate the energy of the play to the big screen. It’s left to several spirited performances to show off the quality of the material.