Friday, January 4, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: BLITHE SPIRIT (1945)

While Noel Coward's 1941 play remains a community theater favorite, the 1945 film adaptation offers viewers a chance to see the story performed by professionals under the direction the brilliant David Lean, best remembered today for his work on such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Unlike these sweeping dramas, Blithe Spirit is a comedy set within the domestic sphere, which gives it more in common with Lean's 1954 film, Hobson's Choice. However, the type of comedy depicted in Blithe Spirit is decidedly black, and viewers looking for a gentle fantasy are in for quite for a shock.

Rex Harrison stars as Charles Condomine, a novelist who decides to invite a medium into his home in order to provide material for his work. Charles assumes that the medium will prove a fake, but Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) turns out to be the real thing, and her seance conjures up the spirit of Charles' dead first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond). Charles' second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), bitterly resents the presence of her predecessor, and the entire household is soon in an uproar due to Elvira's ghostly intrusion.

That certainly sounds like the stuff of comedy, but Blithe Spirit takes a sudden detour into a much darker kind of humor when Elvira attempts to murder Charles and ends up killing Ruth instead. It turns out that Charles would be all too happy to be rid of both of his wives, and the nature of the story becomes uncomfortably misogynistic, with the pestering ghostly wives flying around the household as the liberated Charles makes plans to escape from them once and for all. There is at least some comeuppance in the film's final scene, although Coward allowed his protagonist to make a clean getaway in the original play.

Harrison's performance is elegantly heartless; he's playing a blackguard with a sly comic touch, but his air of narcissism might be too natural to be entirely pleasant to watch. Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford both reprise their roles from the original stage production; of the two, Rutherford is the most fun, a hale, strapping woman of robust middle age, not at all the airy, disembodied type one might expect. Hammond looks great but can be hard to follow; she often throws away her lines so that they fail to have the proper effect on the audience. On the plus side, Lean's camera work with cinematographer Ronald Neame is great fun; they evoke a delightful sense of the movement of unseen beings through the house, with a great many interesting special effects scenes as the invisible ghosts interact with visible objects.

For supernatural fantasies with a gentler tone, try Heaven Can Wait (1943) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), the latter of which also stars Rex Harrison. For something more melodramatic, see Portrait of Jennie (1948). Rex Harrison is best remembered today for starring roles in big productions like Cleopatra (1963), My Fair Lady (1964), and Doctor Doolittle (1967), but if you like his character in Blithe Spirit you will also probably enjoy him in Unfaithfully Yours (1948). Margaret Rutherford went on to play Miss Marple in a number of films in the 1960s, and you'll also find her as the wonderfully dotty Miss Prism in Anthony Asquith's 1952 film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest. Her comic talent is probably the best thing going on in Blithe Spirit, and you'll almost certainly want to see more of her.

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.