Looking Back At BLITHE SPIRIT (1945) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BLITHE SPIRIT (1945)

Tony ain’t afraid of no classic ghosts…

Ghosts are a glorious fictional device, and you can use them to almost any effect.

In Hamlet, the ghost of the indecisive prince’s father spurs him to at least the potential of action, and eventually to full-on tragedy, taking almost everyone around him out when goes.

In Macbeth, a ghost, duly deployed, drives a guilty king to acts of unparalleled madness and bloodshed.

In A Christmas Carol, ghosts are used both as warnings to amend one’s life and as guides to show how it can be done.

The rise of a new secularism in the 20th century, and its continued blooming in the 21st, has rather changed our views on what ghosts are good for though. Certainly, we still use them to scare our socks off – as in Poltergeist, for instance – but we’ve more or less ghettoised the scary ghosts into the horror genre, where they can be easily ignored if we don’t want to be afraid, both by their supernatural power and by what that power represents.

Meanwhile ghosts as either romantic or comedy figures have flourished, with just a little fudging around the edges. In A Matter Of Life And Death, the dead and the should-be-dead battle for the life of one of their number, who has fallen in love with a living person and demands the right to explore that relationship. In Ghost, a man murdered for profit won’t move on until he knows the woman he loved is safe. In Ghostbusters, the dead are frequently de-humanised and used as potential nuisances or threats, to be trapped or eradicated by a new scientific breakthrough. The whole premise that “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” is a late 20th century reversal of the traditional reaction of most people throughout history, both in reality and in fiction, when confronted by the idea of the spirits of the apparently departed. These are just a handful of examples, but you get the idea – ghosts can still be scary in their place, but in the mainstream, they’ve shifted towards more romantic and comedy storylines.

One of the earliest uses of the 20th century comedy ghost, and arguably a cornerstone in shifting our perception of ghosts towards the comedy ground, is Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward. At first a play, completed in 1941 while Britain was in the thick of World War II, it was filmed in 1945, and it remains a marvellous synthesis of the practicalities of the stage and the magic of film effects.
First, a word on the cast. In particular, Blithe Spirit stars two actors who receive in the public imagination much too short a shrift. Rex Harrison, viewed from a 21st century perspective, is remembered mostly for his somewhat loud, bluff roles, like Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, trying to teach Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle to speak proper English, and like his own Doctor Dolittle (yes, really – slightly different spelling), replacing volume for singing in what is a somewhat notional musical version of Hugh Lofting’s story of the man who talked to animals.

Forget what you think you know about Rex Harrison. My Fair Lady is almost 20 years on from Blithe Spirit, and Dr Dolittle more than 20. In 1945, Rex Harrison is astounding. Slim, lithe, mobile of feature and more than up for the speed of Noel Coward’s relentless back-and-forth dialogue. If you think you know what Harrison’s all about, and then you see him in Blithe Spirit, it’ll knock your socks off.

Then there’s Margaret Rutherford. Rutherford suffers unduly by caricature of her roles in some immortal comedies and her way of playing Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. One gets an air of authority, of brusqueness and of a comedically-useful rolling eye.

Likewise, forget all that when you come to watch her in Blithe Spirit. Also, as much as Dame Judi Dench gave a very different take on the spirit medium Madame Arcati in the recent remake, forget that too and just revel in pure Rutherford genius here. Again, if you can shed the mental baggage that comes along with the mention of Rutherford’s name, you’re in for a spectacular, vivid treat when you see her in Blithe Spirit.

Now that that’s clear, what on earth is Blithe Spirit all about?
On the surface, it’s not ABOUT too much at all. Once widowed and now remarried writer George Condomine (Harrison) invites some friends round for the evening to experience the utter bunk that is spirit mediumship, as provided by well-known nut-job Madame Arcati (Rutherford). He’s hoping to use the experience, and the knowledge he’ll gain of the ‘tricks of the trade’ to write w new book.

When Rutherford’s Madame Arcati proves to be impishly dotty around the edges, but seemingly better than even she thinks she is at raising spirits, things go unexpectedly right, and the spirit of Condomine’s first wife, the exotic Elvira comes back from the dead to bother the living. Elvira is played with a joyful waspishness by Kay Hammond, bravely acting through some thick greenish makeup to indicate her status among the deceased.

What you then have is a gloriously theatrical scenario, where we the audience, along with George, can see and hear both his wives simultaneously, but where no-one BUT George can see and hear Elvira directly, only by virtue of her poltergeist-like actions. It takes the ultimate in acting commitment to stare directly at someone and talk as though you don’t see them, and even to move through their personal space as though they’re not there.
The combination of this confusion and a fantastic three-way cross-talk scenario, with the living wife, Ruth (played with brisk realism by Constance Cummings) believing the things George says to Elvira are really aimed at her, could easily grow tiresome, but a combination of Coward’s writing and the extremely nimble performances of the three leads makes it fly off the screen and give you unexpected laughs – a trick that was probably more successfully repeated in Ghost than it was in the recent remake of Blithe Spirit itself.

In terms of plot though, there needs to be development – one can’t simply turn the rest of the film into this kind of three-hander. So what you get is a kind of cross-dimensional spiritual warfare, with each of the wives wanting the other one out of the picture. Elvira has by far the upper hand in this, firstly because she’s a ghost and can terrorize Ruth in ways against which has no defence, and secondly because George, vaguely disloyal hound as he is, makes far too many accommodations for his dead wife, at the expense of the patience of his living one.

Before long, all three central players in this trans-dimensional domestic drama are at odds. Of them all, only Hammond’s Elvira is in the least amused or happy.

Enter once more, the redoubtable Madame Arcati, not by any means the overblown theatrical you might think, but the nearest the 1940s could offer to a Ghostbuster (Admit it, you’d love to see Margaret Rutherford rocking a proton pack!). There’s a mixture of practicality and mysticism to her suggestions for getting rid of the unwanted extremely ex-wife. She goes through the books when it comes to rituals, and the reactions are pitched to perfection, both from Rex Harrison and from Rutherford, as they hope, and try, and regularly fail. By the end, Condomine shows her complete disinterest, so commonplace has her failure become.

The plot is elevated again when Elvira, unable to return to wherever she’s been summoned from, decides to go about stealing her husband back in a much more direct way, by the simple expedient of killing him.


Well, without spoilering it for you, that does not go according to plan, and the life of George Condomine gets ever more complicated.

The ending of the movie is a little telegraphed ahead of time, but it does at least deliver a last-moment laugh that sends the audience back into their life happy with the ultimate conclusion, and feeling lifted, entertained, and thrilled by occasional memories of some of the lines and looks that have made up the tale.

Blithe Spirit, as a script, has one or two weird moments, such as the use of a maid who – entirely out of the blue for the convenience of the script – turns out to be a natural medium – but on the whole, when you watch the 1945 movie, you get the feeling that the Noel Coward script is an actor-proof triumph.

That has not however proved to be the case, which gives you a whole new appreciation for Harrison, Hammond, Cummings, and Rutherford, as well as for director David Lean and cinematographer Ronald Neame, who make the whole thing look as effortless and elegant as it does, and who commit to the speed and the pacing of the piece, which helps to lift the back-and-forth dialogue of Coward from potentially ponderous chess into joyously believable tennis, which is undoubtedly how he intended it to be delivered.

If you’ve never seen the original movie, you’re not living your best life, whatever you might think. Go check it out and have yourself some classic ghostly laughs.

Watch Blithe Spirit today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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