Noël Coward on Screen: Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945)

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British playwriter Noël Coward was considered one of the most prolific figures of the theatre world. Not only did he wrote plays, but also directed, acted (both on stage and in films), composed, and sang. Known for his unique fancy style and his originality, Noël Coward surely became an undeniable British icon. Several of his plays have been adapted on stage, including three movie versions that were directed by David Lean: The Happy Breed, Brief Encounter, and Blithe Spirit. It’s the latest one that we’ll focus on today as this post is part of Genre Guesstimation, a monthly blogging event hosted by MovieRob. Each month, he asks a blogger to choose a theme. He has kindly asked me to choose for July and I’ve decided to go with films based on a play. That explains why I’m presently discussing Blithe Spirit.

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Blithe Spirit came has a complete surprise to me as I more often associated David Lean to epic pictures like Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai. Nonetheless, Lean directed “smaller” but as memorable films and Blithe Spirit is one of them. The fantasy-comedy based on the 1941’s play by Coward takes place in Lympne, Kent. Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison), a writer, has invited an eccentric medium (Margaret Rutherford) for a scéance. He doesn’t believe in that kind of gibberish but he needs inspiration for his book where the main character happens to be one of those fake mediums. Charles has lost his first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), seven years prior and has now been married to Ruth (Constance Cummings) for five years. She is present at the scéance (trying as best she can not to laugh, highly amused by Madame Arcati’s theatricality), as well as Dr. Bradman (Hugh Wakefield) and his wife, Violet (Joyce Carey).

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However, the session doesn’t turn out as expected for Charles Condomine. Somehow, his dead wife spirit is called and begins to speak to him in the dark living room. But only he can hear her. So, when he tells the others he has heard a voice, they don’t believe him. So, judging unnecessary to go forward, he simply pretends it was a joke. But this is far from being one. Later in the evening, Elvira’s ghost materialized to his great surprise. Once again, he’s the only one who can see her and Ruth doesn’t believe him. When he manages to prove her that she is there indeed, Ruth has for objective to get rid of that ghost who represents a dangerous competition!

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Noël Coward was the producer of this on-screen adaptation of Blithe Spirit. We also hear his distinctive voice when he introduces the film in a short but memorable narration. Unfortunately, Coward wasn’t too happy with the final product due to the many changes that were done by Lean. The British playwriter had refused to sell the rights of his play to Americans, unhappy with the Americanized stage versions. Cineguld bought the rights and Lean was chosen to direct. Noël Coward, who judged this was one of his best play, advised Lean to leave it as it was but, despite that, many modifications were done to Coward’s great despair. Is it at bad thing? Well, maybe it was for Noel Coward. I think authors generally don’t like when a film adaptation is too different from their original work. However, overall, I don’t necessarily think it’s completely negative. To the films where added exterior scenes as well as a road trip and a different ending. Most of Coward’s play takes place in a single room which, of course, is the kind of setting that works very well on-stage. I think that the modifications that Lean made could have only made the film more dynamic and suitable for the screen. Yes, we’ve seen films that took place in a single room and it worked well (Dial M for Murder, 12 Angry Men) but risking something different and going out of the limits can work as well.

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The original stage production

Despite Coward’s being unhappy with the on-screen adaptation of his successful play, the film is remembered for its dialogues and stunning Technicolor Cinematography. Blithe Spirit was released on Criterion and that’s the version I have seen and it’s simply STUNNING. The colours are bright, impressive, a real spectacle for our eyes. The film won the Oscar for Best Visual effects but only in 1947 due to a late released in the United States. The colourful film is also supported by stunning vintage costumes as well as lovely exterior settings (proving that the exterior scenes weren’t such a bad idea!).

As for the dialogue, they are mostly what you would expect from a British comedy. Spontaneous, elegantly fun and witty. As indicated on IMDB, the following line had to be deleted from the US version because it was considered too risquée (blame the Production Code): ” 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.” Luckily, it is on the Criterion version. And yes, this is probably among the most memorable lines of the film. Noël Coward, David Lean, Ronald Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allan all contributed to the screenplay. Despite the numerous changes, I believe it remains a well-constructed story and takes us to a fantasy world in a subtle way.

Other memorable lines would be the following ones:

1- Charles Condomine: Anything interesting in The Times

Ruth Condomine: Don’t be silly, dear.

2Ruth Condomine [Talking about Elvira] : Was she more physically attractive than I am?

Charles Condomine: That’s a very tiresome question, darling. It fully deserves a wrong answer.

 

3- Charles Condomine: Try to see my point of view, dear. I’ve been married to Ruth for five years and you’ve been dead for seven.

Elvira Condomine: Not dead, Charles. Passed over. Its considered very vulgar to say dead where I come from.

4- Madame Arcati: Now, what have we here? Brahms. Oh, dear me. No. Rachmaninoff. Too florid. Where’s the dance music?

5- Charles Condomine: Are you a – ghost?

Elvira Condomine: I suppose I must be. Its all very confusing.

6 –Charles Condomine: I know I wasn’t drunk. If I’d been all that drunk, I should have a dreadful hangover, shouldn’t I?

Ruth Condomine: I’m not at all sure that you haven’t.

Charles Condomine: Well, I haven’t the trace of a headache. My tongues not coated. Look at it.

Ruth Condomine: I haven’t the least desire to look at your tongue. Kindly put it in again.

7 – Madame Arcati: You’re just in time for a cup of tea. That’s if you don’t mind China?

Ruth Condomine: Not at all.

Madame Arcati: I never touch Indian. It upsets my vibrations.

8- Madame Arcati: Fascinating. Very interesting. I smell ectoplasm strongly.

9- Elvira Condomine: Well, why shouldn’t I have fun. I died young, didn’t I?

Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford were both parts of the original West End production of Coward’s play and reprised their respective role in Lean’s adaptation. For their eccentricity and colourfulness, they might be the most memorable performers of the film. I mean, Kay Hammond is just iconic as Elvira! She has both the charm and the proper humour to embody such a role. On her side, Margaret Rutherford also gave all her beautiful energy for a role like no other. I used not to be a huge fan of Rex Harrison, but, in this film, he gave me quite a good impression and I think he’s very believable as Charles Condomine, just like it is the case for Constance Cummings as Ruth.

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Blithe Spirit was David Lean’s first attempt to direct comedy and, if that’s our type of humour, we can definitely say he succeeded at it. The film received positive reviews on its release and was a financial success in Britain. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a box office hit in the United States but this didn’t prevent it to be considered a classic today.

Of course, as much as I like the film, I’d be very interested to see the original work, as it was written by Noel Coward for the stage!

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