• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:January 29, 2021

Blithe Spirit: A Haunted Marriage


Noël Coward’s original play, which he reportedly wrote in less than a week, premiered in 1941 and the ghost story shocked certain Londoners who in the middle of a war found no reason to make light of death. However, the play became such a hit that few bothered to stay angry. A movie adaptation was inevitable and part of its success was in having original cast members Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford repeat their colorful roles on film.

It was quite a feat of Coward and David Lean to make two such wonderful films in one year. Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit looked like projects that differed a lot from one another, but they had a few things in common – the sharp dialogue and the sophisticated portrayal of very British characters.

Gathering for a séance
The story begins with a number of people gathering at the Condomine home for a séance led by the eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Rutherford). Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) is a writer and wants to include the experience in his next novel. Neither one of the guests really believe in the supernatural, but the medium knows better. At the beginning of the séance she is as always contacted by a girl who died in the 1880s and she locates someone on the other side who knows one of the guests. Nothing seems to happen though and Madame Arcati leaves the party after telling Charles and his wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) to let her know if strange voices or other noises are heard.

At the end of the evening, something does happen. Charles’s deceased first wife, Elvira (Hammond), appears looking very ghostly indeed. Charles is startled but Ruth can’t see her and refuses to believe her husband who after all did have quite a few drinks. As Charles tries to convince his second wife that he’s not drunk, crazy or lying, his first wife becomes very difficult to get rid of. She has a plan how to get Charles to spend eternity with her.

Quite risqué for its time
It’s a very amusing romp; a few lines are even quite risqué for its time and it’s obvious that Coward has a lot of fun portraying marriage and what could happen if a man is caught between two wives who know how to get on his nerves; what happens in the final sequence is the only logical resolution to the story, which up until then has several beautifully bizarre twists and turns. As a straight ghost comedy, Blithe Spirit is one of the most memorable ever; the visual effects won an Oscar and they are still effective enough, although one sequence where Cummings runs straight through Hammond’s ghost proves a challenge too steep for the technology. The colors also add to the impact of the special effects, not least to the ghosts’ sickly demeanor.

The cast is certainly game. Harrison is funny as the husband who remains solidly calm and British even though his dead wife is haunting him and the current one believes he’s an alcoholic. Hammond is effectively devious (and irritating) as the scheming spirit and Rutherford gives an enthusiastic performance as the merry medium, a woman who was probably the ultimate tomboy when she was a kid. Cummings’s part is not nearly as thankful, though.

Almost everything Lean touched turned to gold. Considering the films he is the most famous for, it is easy to forget a film like this, a lighthearted comedy. He couldn’t have done it without the playwright; his spirit influences everything in the film. But the director is traditionally the one who keeps it all together and knows which parts of a project should be emphasized for maximum impact. Perhaps because of his previous career as an editor, Lean knew how to do that.

Blithe Spirit 1945-Britain. 96 min. Color. Produced by Noël Coward. Directed by David Lean. Screenplay: David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan. Play: Noël Coward. Cinematography: Ronald Neame. Visual Effects: Tom Howard. Cast: Rex Harrison (Charles Condomine), Constance Cummings (Ruth Condomine), Kay Hammond (Elvira Condomine), Margaret Rutherford, Hugh Wakefield, Joyce Carey. Narrated by Noël Coward.

Trivia: Remade as Blithe Spirit (2021). 

Oscar: Best Special Effects.



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