Dir. David Lean. Starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond
In Reds, Gene O’Neill makes a comment critical of Louise Bryant’s performance in some rehearsals for a play he’s written which she’s performing in. “You’re supposed to be searching for your soul, not an ashtray,” he sneers at her. Blithe Spirit has much the same problem. Though it’s not long – just a touch over ninety minutes – the movie has that interesting problem of not knowing how to end itself. The movie sure as heckfire knows how it starts. A novelist named Charles (Harrison) trying to do some firsthand research of a seance for a novel he wants to write invites a medium, Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) over to his house. His second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), is in attendance and even more skeptical about the spirit world than her husband. A local doctor and his wife show up as well not because the Condomines like them very much, but because they get the sense that it would be awkward to be alone with the medium. Of course, something interesting has to happen, and for a while that’s a positively unhinged performance from Rutherford. She is here, there, and everywhere, full of energy, bicycling madly to the Condomine home, flapping her arms up and down, communing with the dead girl “Daphne,” whose mortality has not stopped her from getting a terrible head cold. The upshot is that Madame Arcati really does manage to bring a spirit back to the world of the living (and which, we will discover soon enough, she has no idea how to send back), a spirit which wants to speak to Charles and can only be seen and heard by him: Elvira (Hammond), his first wife.
It’s a spectacular first half-hour in a number of different ways. David Lean’s direction is, as usual, more or less perfect. He frames scenes to set up oppositions, or, in one case, to add a little creepiness to the seance which is largely being played for laughs. It’s very much a real seance and a surprisingly effective one at that. Lean gives Harrison and Cummings ample room to fire one-liners around the room, but by no means does he allow that to cramp Rutherford’s style. The lights dim impressively when the fireplace is seen as the last source of light in the room, and the shadows proliferate accordingly on walls and faces. The table shakes once for yes, twice (or more) for no while Madame Arcati talks to Daphne.
Technically, this movie reaches its highest heights in its first salvos. From the reveal of Elvira, which isn’t frightening but is very sudden, to Ronald Neame’s colorful cinematography, to the comprehensive wardrobe and makeup for Hammond, there’s very little that doesn’t work. Brief Encounter, Lean’s other Noel Coward adaptation from 1945, couldn’t have been in color; alternately, Blithe Spirit had to be in the pastels of Technicolor. The effect of Elvira’s minty green mien would have been totally lost in black and white; there could be no way to emphasize the weirdness of her. Sometimes she appears more ethereal than solid, although in some scenes there’s very obviously a woman there in the studio. For much the same reasons I doubt that Blithe Spirit would be as fun with today’s CGI capabilities. It’s very obvious that Elvira is just Kay Hammond with green face paint and a matching dress, but that’s a significant lump of the movie’s charm. It’s weird, with all of the connotations of that word in play. In the darkness or in interior light, where she appears for most of the early going, it’s possible for us to imagine Elvira as an honest-to-goodness spook. This is especially true when she doesn’t speak, letting her flouncing hair and bright red lips speak for her. (The dead have as much use for lipstick as for head colds, I would imagine, but there’s something pleasantly absurd about how ghosts look in this movie; Blithe Spirit, in the way it giggles at the afterlife, is in the same genre as that Bit of Fry and Laurie sketch where Hugh Laurie says, “Heaven? Isn’t that where the Joneses went?”)
Her voice does not match the look in the slightest, which adds to our sense of double vision. Hammond speaks as if she’s put the better part of a pack of gum into her mouth all at once and is just starting to settle in with her chaw. Nor does she carry her otherworldliness with her in the daytime, where it really just looks like Rex Harrison is driving a green woman around with him in the car. In those scenes, the idea that Ruth has to field off an unwelcome intruder to her previously sedate marriage is brought to the forefront by the obvious interloper. Aside from the sight gag, there’s the issue of Elvira’s “physical” presence. In one scene, Charles and Elvira are driving and they pick up Ruth. I wondered how they were going to deal with the intangible person riding shotgun, and they answer it in the best way they know how. Ruth opens the door, but Charles crisply tells her that Elvira is sitting there. It’s one of the last funny moments of this presumed comedy, and leans fully into the ethos that a thousand sitcom episodes have been born of: an old girlfriend shows up and neither husband nor wife really knows how to act. Blithe Spirit may not want to be about a couple failing to reconcile the romance and influence of the past on their present relationship, but it must be.
Charles and Elvira flirt a little while before the two of them remark on the affairs they had while Elvira was still alive. Elvira loses the sheen of death as we figure out how shallow she is. Charles is snippy throughout, and at some point it can’t merely be because he’s a Coward character but because he’s just contentious. Our sympathy should lie with Ruth, but she’s nearly as shrill as Charles and spend a little too long doubting him when he claims Elvira has returned from the Other Place. This is the movie’s fault as much as Ruth’s; it values the spree of sardonic accusations and paper-cut slashes more than moving the plot along. It’s not necessarily that I mind the insults, but they don’t feel all that personal. The only really individual person in this story is Madame Arcati, whose bombast is so unique that she might stand out in any movie. Charles and Ruth (and Elvira) are essentially any old George and Martha (and…other Martha). The excitement factor is in Rex Harrison, not in Charles as a person.The film might have chosen to explore Charles a little further, or to explore the imminent collapse of Charles’ marriage because of the unexpected resurrection of the first. But the movie goes full wonky instead, and that’s how we end up here:
The film’s final act is concerned with how Elvira and now Ruth, who is the victim of a car-related hit that Elvira meant to put on Charles (but which no one is upset about, for reasons that are unclear to me) will be returned to the afterlife. Both of them seem perfectly willing to get out of England; Charles seems perfectly happy to send his wives on their way. Watching the movie, you can feel its anxiety about how it’s going to get to “The End,” and it runs through a number of different possibilities. It has the only scenes with Margaret Rutherford where she is not either thoughtful or hysterical; she turns into a prop. It has a scene where many different objects move about the room without anyone seeing the movers, which is impressive but not compelling. Most troubling at all is that the movie, in this final act, doesn’t quite know how it feels about this improbable Schrodinger’s menage a trois. Everyone is in an awful hurry to finish the story, but no one seems willing to stop for a moment to get a handle on how anyone feels about wives disappearing into the ether, perhaps for good. In its quest to be witty in every moment, Blithe Spirit loses opportunities to be really memorable; the quotes fade away rather quickly, but how much more lasting it would be if we had some reason to feel for the wives as they die again.