This early David Lean effort — adapted from the Noel Coward play by Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan — was a gigantic hit in post-War Britain, and one of the few films with a British pedigree to attain popularity in the U.S. during that era. Until James Bond and the Beatles, the phrase “It’s a British picture” was almost certain to keep American viewers — and quite a few British ones — at bay. It’s not hard to see why this — as were most subsequent Lean films — was an exception.
Produced by Coward himself (whose uncredited, but distinctive, voice affords the film its narration), Blithe Spirit is the last word in witty repartee of the most civilized kind — the sort of thing Coward was known for, and nobody did better. “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 references. I shall consult my diary and give you a complete list after lunch,” Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) remarks at one point. At another, he has but to hear the voice of medium Madame Arcatti’s (Margaret Rutherford) spirit guide (a little girl) to note that the dead child ought to have had her adenoids removed.
It’s also the sort of material that nobody delivered better than Rex Harrison — ably abetted by Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond and, most especially, Margaret Rutherford in this case.
The storyline is a bit different than the usual for Coward — centering around Madame Arcatti conjuring up the ghost of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Hammond), who is visible only to Charles and who will not go away. This leads to a very unusual battle of the sexes, since Elvira, dead though she undeniably may be, is determined to cause a rift between Charles and his second wife, Ruth (Cummings).
The supernatural aspect — and the fact that it’s essentially a black comedy centering on death — is really all that sets it apart from the bulk of Coward’s work in the romantic comedy form. In fact, it ends up with a situation that’s not far removed from an otherworldly variant on Design for Living. Lean’s handling of the material is just right — he manages to keep it light, but doesn’t overlook the material’s darker qualities. All in all, it’s quite a perfect film of its type — and 90-odd minutes of pure pleasure.
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of Blithe Spirit on Sunday, July 10 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson St. Follow to Lake Point Landing entrance and park in lot at left.)]
— reviewed by Ken Hanke