Noël Coward/David Lean’s “Blithe Spirit” (1945)

Kay Hammond as Elvira

For the past couple of weeks I have been going on a bit about the Noël Coward celebration taking place in NYC and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Coward on Film programming series to go along with it. This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of catching a double feature of Brief Encounter and the subject of this post, the highbrow comedy Blithe Spirit.

This was the third of four collaborations between Coward and renowned director David Lean and based on Coward’s long running West End play (ran for nearly 2000 performances – longer than the whole of WWII)!

This screening was especially exciting because the audience was treated to a newly restored 35mm print of the film (in vibrant Technicolor, no less). This guaranteed that seeing it on the big screen would not disappoint. Thank you BFI (British Film Institute).

In terms of plot, the BFI  (website) offers this very succinct and on point synopsis:

A harmless séance at the home of novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) and his wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) summons up the ghost of Charles’ glamorous first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond in a reprisal of her stage role).

With respect to the end product, Coward himself thought the film was a largely inferior product to the stage play. In fact he used words which are not suitable for this website to describe it.

For my part, there were enough moments that had me cracking up, most notably …

  • The interaction of Charles, Ruth and Elvira in their scenes. I can only imagine how wonderfully this translated on the stage.
  • The scene in which Charles and Ruth are arguing and the subject of past relationships comes up – “If you’re trying to compile an inventory of my sex life, I feel it only fair to warn you that you’ve omitted several episodes. I shall consult my diary and give you a complete list after lunch.”  This was line was excised from the American release of the film (deemed too risqué). Source: Wikipedia
  • The revelation of the cause of Elvira’s death – I was floored!
  • Madame Arcati’s absent-mindedness and incompetence at 1) not realizing what she has unleashed and 2) her several failed attempts at trying to make it right. Rutherford does scatter-brained very well.

One thing that absolutely DID NOT work to for me was the desired affect was the ghastly ghostly makeup – the ethereal, ectoplasmic other-worldliness that was the goal was completely lost in the Technicolor haze. Instead of Statue of Liberty oxidized green, maybe they should have gone for a white or off white.

Another issue of concern is David Lean’s direction. Granted, this film was quite early in his career (well before the grand, sweeping epics that would become his trademark), but it is clear that his comfort zone is in the realm of drama, not comedy. In fact, Rex Harrison allegedly was not happy with how Lean handled the production.

In the end I was able to overlook these issues because the writing and acting worked well.


A BIT OF TRIVIA: Ironically, according to Coward scholar and introducer of the film, curator Brad Rosenstein, Margaret Rutherford  (Madame Arcati) did not  “get” the humor of the play or film. This is ironic because she delivers a great share of the laughs in the film.