Film 2023: Blithe Spirit


As promised a week ago.

That’s now three successive classic British film comedies in three weeks, all of them chracteristic of the times in which they were made. I found Genevieve to be dated, trapped in its time and no longer particularly funny, but The Importance of being Earnest, though dated even motre thoroughly when made, to still be universally funny. How does Blithe Spirit stand in comparison? Somewhere in between, I’m afraid to say.

As both a story and a film, Blithe Spirit has much more in common with Earnest than with Genevieve. Both rely in the main on fast, witty dialogue, with a strong bitter and cynical edge, as befits their origins as stage plays. Both were written by geniuses, in this case Noel Coward, master of the theatre as much as was Oscar Wilde. The biggest difference is their time period, with Blither Spirit being set contemporaneously but also being only four years old when adapted, not to mention starring two of its original stage stars in Margaret Rutherford, a wonderfully eccentric and quite dottily British force of nature as the medium Madama Arcati, and the wonderfully languid Kay Hammond as Elvira Condimine.

For the jejeune amongst our readers, who might not know the story, and especially any poor thing that might have been exposed to the 2020 remake, here’s the set-up. Charles Condimine (Rex Harrison), a successful writer, has arranged a seance at the home he shares with second wife Ruth (Constance Cummings), to obtain background for a proposed book he intends to write. The medium, Madame Arcati, is a very brisk eccentric, ful of schoolgirl dialogue and cliches, all jolly hockey-sticks. The Condimines and their guests basicaly look down on her as a fraud, despite her seeming to be completely sincere, demonstrating their good breeding by not laughing at her until she’s out of the room.

However, despite her dottiness, Arcati succeeds in summoning Charles’ first wife, Elvira, back from the dead, although Charles is the only one who can see or here her. Ruth refuses to believe this, choosing to regard it as a joke in frightfully poor taste, directed at her, only to become furious and aggressive when she is forced to see that it is real.

Elvira has to be sent back, though Arcati doesn’t at first know how. Elvira’s presence is straining: she is bored, catty, fun-loving and, in her own way holicidal. She’d like to go back only she wants Charles to go with her, but her plan backfires when Ruth takes the car and instead she is killed. And when Arcati does come up with a way to exorcise Elvira it backfires completely and brings Ruth back.

Charles, who has rather enjoyed the situation up to now, does not want two dead wives ghosts hanging around him, especially as the whole thing has cracked the veneer of their bright and brittle lives and loves to expose the rather sordid and poor taste currents beneath the cloak of good breeding. So, when Arcati finally gets rid of both women – or rather renders them invisible but not wholly intangible – he decides to flee the country to escape them, but not before giving them a piece of his mind. Only to crash his car, fatally, at the bridge at the bottom of the hill, and join them as a ghost eternally.

Wherein lies the dichotomy in this film. On the one hand, the situation is genuinely comic and it is carried through with great vigour, brio and pace by a well-cast cast, especially Rutherford (I don’t know if they had the expression OTT in 1941-45 but if they didn’t she could have been put forward as the definition of it), who make the most of the lines Coward feeds them in abundance. But on the other hand, if you once start looking at the film with latterday eyes, you very quickly find yourself unable to avoid noticing that Charles Condimine in particular is completely oblivious to any emotional effect his first wife’s return could possibly have on his current wife. And that as the plot develops and the dialogue whiplashes backwards and forwards, you cannot help realising that he and both his wives are actually deeply unpleasant people that you would move to the other end of the country to avoid meeting.

But then this is Noel Coward, isn’t it? I admit to knowing his work more by reputation than by experience, but Blithe Spirit, beyond its intrinsic funniness, incarnates that reputation to the traditional T. I used the word brittle, and I spoke of veneer. The Condimines are vastly concerned with ‘taste’ and whether something is in good or poor taste. They live their lives on the suurface, because they are sophisticated, and emotions are in poor taste, but once you see through that surface, the emotions they do have are, frankly, rather vile.

Ruth, whose second marrige this is too, her rather more elderly first husband having died, is the more immediately sympathetic character. Coward tries to head this off by introducing her as being more openly dismissive of the idea of love and romance in a second marriage but it is she who is put under threat by the reappearance of her predecessor, especially as Charles quickly gets over the shock/fear of Elvira’s reurn and comes to enjoy hiis position in a virtual menage a trois, failing to consider that his current wife might feel in the least it threatened by his first. I’d call it unempathetic if empathy had any meaniing here.

Ruth’s own insufferable position is quickly put out of consideration by her insufferable behaviour in response to it whilst Elvira is nothing but a lazy cow who can do no more than bitch. It’s more or less established that not only was hers and Charles’ marriage less of a blissful idyll than one might imagine but also riddled with infidelity.

None of which should matter, because it’s not what the film is about. But Coward does make the story about such things as the escalating nature of the dilemma goes hand in hand with the escalating deterioration of the characters’ relationships. The wit and the cynicism is built upon this very thing and whilst in the Forties, and in Coward’s upper class milieu, it might have been easy to divorce the two, from the moment it struck me that Charles was being pretty obtuse and heartless towards Ruth’s distress, I could do no such thing. The story wants to have its cake and eat it, to be bitchy and bitter and cynical whilst being simultaneously heartless, and that no longer works in 2023.

But it was still funny, and a classic of its kind.

One other thing. Blithe Spirit is a play, presented on stage in a single room. It’s theatricality was mostly left alone, indeed was pretty damned obvious, but for film it was opened out to a degree. I’m almost certain I have seen the play on stage, possibly in Amateur Dramatics. The additional scenes are few and well-chosen, and the final exterior shot, where Charles turns up as a ghost, droppin in between his two wives, is the perfect ending, but Coward loathed it and accused the film of ruining his best play. Ruining? Don’t be so damn silly, man.

4 thoughts on “Film 2023: Blithe Spirit

    1. That’s one way of looking at it. I think that living in the same country as the real life equivalents of them demands I see them differently.

      1. That makes a lot of sense, but even in fiction (lit., media) I take a certain perverse pleasure in antiheroes or outright villain protagonists. But that certainly does NOT include MAGAite Trump fans or white supremacists, so your point still stands.

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