Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945)

Margaret Rutherford on her bike

Margaret Rutherford on her bike

This posting is my contribution to the Funny Lady blogathon being organised by the Movies, Silently blog. Please do visit and read the postings on a host of actresses from different eras.

If there’s a film moment that sums up Margaret Rutherford’s screen personality, it is probably the opening glimpse of her in David Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s great comic play, Blithe Spirit. She is seen on her bicycle, doggedly riding up a hill as her cape billows out around her. Somehow the image is both hilarious and poignant, and it gives the essence of the character she plays in this movie, one she originally created on stage, eccentric medium Madame Arcati.

Rutherford does not get top billing in this film and isn’t given all that much screen time, even though she makes such a vivid impression. The star with his name above the title is Rex Harrison, who plays Charles Condomine, a crime author looking for a sensational new story idea. He invites the village mystic to his cosy Home Counties cottage, assuming that when she organises a séance the whole thing will be a con trick, and provide him with a generous helping of material.

Communing with spirits

Communing with spirits

However, the joke is on him, as Madame Arcati turns out to be absolutely genuine – and her clumsy but earnest efforts accidentally conjure up the spirit of his first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond). Second wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) at first assumes her husband’s sightings of the ghost are some kind of elaborate practical joke, and then fears he has gone mad. In the end she realises that Elvira is all too real, and working to destroy her marriage.

Noel Coward was keen to work with Lean on this film, as one in a series of collaborations between writer and director, and Coward even provided the dry voiceover at the start of the movie. But in the end he was disappointed with the finished result, and later tried to get more of the stage play on screen when he co-directed a TV remake in the 1950s. (He took the lead role of Charles himself, with Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert as the two wives – an amazing cast which makes me want to see that version too.)

I do feel the film falls off in the later scenes a little, and that the final plot twist perhaps comes as something of an anti-climax compared  to the original stage ending. But the film as a whole is entertaining, and keeps much of the brittle, witty dialogue which is Coward’s trademark. At the start, we are in the world of one of his drawing room comedies, as Charles, Ruth and their guests bicker, flirt and swap one-liners in the run-up to the evening’s entertainment. But then Madame Arcati arrives and breaks the mood, as she really does seem to be from another world – or, at least, another class.

Rutherford with Kay Hammond as Elvira

Rutherford with Kay Hammond as Elvira

Ironically, despite her spiritual calling, she is by far the most down-to-earth person at the party, as she enthusiastically accepts a couple of glasses of booze and eats a good meal before organising the séance (though she hesitates over the red meat, with blood showing, which suggests how things are going to turn nasty).  I loved the ironic touch that she begins her evening by singing a brief snatch of “Little Tommy Tucker/sings for his supper”, because that is in effect what she is doing herself, providing the floor show in return for her dinner invitation. Rutherford’s portrayal is wonderfully delicate – she is so funny just because she plays the role straight, making the clairvoyant someone who completely believes in her own work and doesn’t even realise others might be making fun of her.

As well as that bike ride at the start, she has some fine scenes later on, including a great moment in her little cottage when she is told that Charles has seen Elvira’s ghost and actually jumps for joy at her own success. A minute later she is sympathising with him and Ruth and trying to help, but she relishes her moment first. Rutherford was only 52 when she made this film, and not at all overweight as she was in some of her later films, like the famous Miss Marple mysteries. But her physical presence still dominates every scene she appears in, through her sheer enthusiasm.

The whole cast is excellent, including Jacqueline Clarke as the troubled young household maid, Edith, who has a small but vital role. However, the film’s showiest role is, of course, that of the ghost, Elvira, beautifully portrayed by Kay Hammond, who delivers her lines in a languid drawl. Amid the film’s Technicolor, she is picked out in a green light throughout. Hammond and Harrison have a good chemistry and easily suggest what a passionate but volatile relationship the couple had – very reminiscent at times of the divorced couple in Coward’s Private Lives.

Another still of Margaret Rutherford

Another still of Margaret Rutherford

As in that play, the first wife’s arrival also shows up the fact that the second marriage isn’t quite as blissful as it looked at first. And there are also differences of taste between the two women, with a sweetly spiteful Elvira criticising various alterations to the house, such as paintings and ornaments. Constance Cummings is also excellent as the increasingly furious younger second wife, fighting an enemy she can’t see. All this is witty, of course, but the comedy is dark and uneasy at times. Its bitter note reminds viewers that this whole theme of the ghost wife hit hard at the time when the film was released, at the end of the Second World War, when so many people were haunted by the memory of loved ones they had lost.

Blithe Spirit 6Madame Arcati was one of Dame Margaret Rutherford’s best-known roles, and the words ‘A Blithe Spirit’ were written on her gravestone. But she also played many other great character roles, starting her career on stage at London’s Old Vic in the 1920s and carrying on right through to the 1960s. As well as portraying Agatha Christie’s sleuth Miss Jane Marple in four films, she played Miss Prism in Anthony Asquith’s version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) – after earlier taking the role of Lady Bracknell in a 1946 television version which seems to have disappeared. She was also among the casts for great British comedies like Ealing classic Passport to Pimlico and the Boulting brothers’ I’m All Right Jack. Rutherford had a lot of tragedy in her life, from her childhood onwards, as her father was mentally ill and killed his own father, while her mother committed suicide. She herself often had to stay in mental hospitals for treatment during long periods of depression. However, according to the imdb, she herself said: “You never have a comedian who hasn’t got a very deep strain of sadness within him or her. One thing is incidental on the other. Every great clown has been very near to tragedy.”

In the UK, Blithe Spirit is available on DVD as part of the David Lean Centenary Collection from ITV Studios, which has good picture quality but few special features on this particular disc (just a stills gallery and the trailer, where interestingly the ghost is never seen). It is also available in the US Criterion set David Lean Directs Noel Coward, as well as on stand-alone DVDs in both region 1 and 2, and it is showing on Film 4 in the UK this week, at 2.55pm on July 3, 2013.

Blithe Spirit 5

Advertisements

46 thoughts on “Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirit (David Lean, 1945)

  1. Pingback: UPDATE: Funny Lady Blogathon | Movies, Silently

  2. I just watched this from the blu ray David Lean Directs Noel Coward set and it looks fantastic!!! I’ve always been a fan of this movie. It’s why I bought the blu ray set!! I’m going to investigate the existence of the Noel Coward directed TV version.

    Like

    • Joe, glad to hear that the blu-ray of this film looks so good! Oops, just realised I’d put that Coward directed the 1956 TV version when he actually co-directed it, so have corrected my wording there… I believe that version does exist but sadly hasn’t had a DVD release and I haven’t seen it.

      Like

  3. Thanks for great review and lots of information. Makes me want to see this film again.
    Would love to see the version with Coward,Colbert and Bacall.
    I love Margaret as Miss Marple, and her wonderful performance in The VIP’S.

    Like

    • Thanks, Vienna! I’d really like to see that version too – just checked at the imdb and another great character actress, Mildred Natwick, took the Rutherford role in that one, so it would be interesting to see her take on it… though Dame Margaret must have been such a hard act to follow! I haven’t seen The VIPs, but must do so!

      Like

  4. “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
    “Up with your heart; down with your head and before you know it you’re over the top and skimming down the other side like a dragonfly.”

    Like

  5. There are a couple of auctions on eBay selling audio LPs of the the 1956 TV production; but, who owns an turntable anymore? Also, they are highly priced!!!

    Like

  6. Oh gosh! I have to watch this film. It’s been years since I seen it for the first time and that was when I was a wee little shaver and didn’t even know who Rex Harrison was ( obviously before I got a life ). I imagine actors dreaded it when they heard that Margaret Rutherford would be co-starring in a film with them, as she STEALS every scene she is in. What a compelling face she had! Rutherford was adorable in the Marple series as well and was such an excellent comedienne. Thank you for this great post! ( Glad you posted early too..it’ll wet my appetite for the blogathon tomorrow )

    Like

    • Thanks very much, Constance – I definitely agree that Rutherford dominates her scenes, and a compelling face is absolutely right. I haven’t seen any of the Marple films for a long time but would like to do so now.

      Like

  7. Writing in his diaries Noel Coward seems to have disapproved of Margaret Rutherford’s performance in this play, but I’ve always found her hilarious. She’s really much closer to a PG Wodehouse character, playing Arcati as a kind of girl’s field hockey coach, all bluff, hearty optimism and the will to win. I think that contrast between her calling as a medium and her style of playing is what makes Rutherford so funny here.

    Like

    • G.O.M., I love that description of her playing the character as a hockey coach. I do agree that her unexpected style as a medium is very funny – I did know Noel Coward was disappointed by this film, but am surprised to hear he didn’t like Margaret /Rutherford’s performance. Thanks so much for your comment!

      Like

  8. Pingback: It’s here! The Funny Lady Blogathon! | Movies, Silently

  9. Pingback: My Best Girl | Family Friendly Reviews

  10. What a great choice for the Funny Lady Blogathon! I love Rutherford but she probably never would have crossed my mind. I haven’t seen Blithe Spirit in awhile but a recent viewing of The Importance of Being Earnest reminded me how wonderful she was.

    Like

    • Yes, she was excellent as Miss Prism. I’m trying to watch more British films at the moment and have the David Lean box set, so that brought Rutherford to my mind. Thank you!

      Like

  11. Pingback: Funny Lady Blogathon | Movies, Silently

  12. Thank you so much for your affectionate tribute to Margaret Rutherford. She will always be Miss Prism to me. What a tragic life for someone who brought so much laughter and joy to movie audiences!

    Wonderful piece, thank you for contributing it!

    Like

    • Thanks so much for organising the blogathon, Fritzi! I hadn’t realised until preparing this piece just what a long list of films and stage productions Margaret Rutherford took part in – despite the tragedies in her life, she achieved so many great performances. I’m hoping to catch up with more of her work.

      Like

  13. Margaret Rutherford was an amazing actress and Arcati is simply adorable. When parts of the film start you looking for the remote, that’s when the joy brought by Ms. Rutherford’s performance shows its mettle. Wonderful selection for the blogathon and interesting post.

    Like

  14. I loved her as Miss Marple. Unfortunately, I have never heard of this classic movie, Blithe Spirit. After reading your wonderful movie review I will add it to my list of “must see films”.

    Like

  15. I feel like such a fool because BLITHE SPIRIT has been on my watchlist for ages, but I never realized Rutherford was in it or that it was directed by one of my favorite directors David Lean! Rutherford is great as MIss Marple, as you mention, but my favorite thing I’ve seen her in is PASSPORT TO PIMLICO starring Stanley Holloway – have you seen it? It’s very good.
    http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/2013/06/when-comedy-was-queen-funny-lady.html

    Like

    • Margaret, I know just what you mean because there are a lot of films I’ve been meaning to watch for ages… we need a few more hours in the day. I’ve seen ‘Passport to Pimlico’ a couple of times but many years ago, so I don’t remember the individual performances all that well… will watch out for it next time it comes up on TV. David Lean is a director I love too and I’m aiming to watch more of the titles in his box set soon. Thanks very much!

      Like

    • ‘Summertime’ is one I definitely want to see, though it isn’t in the Lean box set. Thanks, Margaret.

      Like

  16. Comedy was never Lean’s forte, and the criticism of this film has always been that it’s a stage play caught by the camera. But in another sense it’s unfair as many stage works have made it to the screen not for expected expansion by to preserve the work for posterity. The color is beautiful and the great Coward lines are as you note Judy, delivered to perfection by an outstanding cast. Your discussion of the dynamic Margaret Rutherford is fantastic! No wonder this film is etched on her gravestone, and yes I have read about her difficult life. I love her as Miss Marple as well and in the Ealings, in EARNEST and in her Oscar winning role in the V.I.P.’s. I also agree that this is not remotely a perfect film, but Rutherford’s boundless energy and spirit and as you astutely assert her dominating physical presence carries the day. Yes Hammond is marvelous too!

    Terrific review Judy!

    Like

    • I suppose the critics had a point to some extent, because it does still feel like a stage play, despite the addition of some outside scenes like that opening cycle ride. But, as you say, many stage works have been put on the screen to preserve rather than change them, and I tend to enjoy productions which get described as ‘stagy’! Thanks so much for the kind comment, Sam, and I must agree that Hammond is also excellent.

      Like

    • Judy — so do I! People are always calling the film version of “My Fair Lady” stagey, and I always want to reply, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” :-D

      Like

  17. Pingback: Yankee Doodle Dandy, 20 Feet From Stardom, Ozu Festival and Danny’s Graduation on Monday Morning Diary (July 1) | Wonders in the Dark

  18. Terrific write up, I was unfamiliar with her sad back story.
    I enjoy her in this to be sure but for me nothing tops her delightful daffiness in that fancy dress trash wallow The V.I.P.S. Not only does she walk off with any scene she’s in you get the very young Maggie Smith, who gives a lovely performance, paired with the handsome and robust Rod Taylor. Plus Orson Welles in full blown hambone mode as well as Liz & Dick right after Cleopatra.

    Another pair of delightful performances from her are in the film Miranda and its sequel Mad About Men with the bewitching Glynis Johns as a mermaid. Of course she was also an ideal Miss Marple.

    Like

    • Thanks, Joel – that’s certainly quite a cast for ‘The V.I.P.s!’ I’ll watch out for that one as well as ‘Miranda’ and sequel.

      Like

    • Oh wow! I’m no Liz & Dick fan (well, I kind of like him), but if it’s got Rutherford, Smith, and Welles, I’m going to have to check it out! :-)

      Like

  19. Wow, the 1950 TV movie sound like a must-see!
    Thanks for this post, I learned a lot with it, and now I really want to watch Blithe Spirit, thar puts together two great guys: David and Rex.
    Kisses!

    Like

  20. Rutherford was fabulous. I had no idea she had been involved in so many films and stage productions, an incredible feat considering the tragedies in her life. Thanks so much for this post, it was very enlightening!

    Like

    • She certainly had an amazing career and I’m hoping to catch up with more of her work. Thanks for the comment!

      Like

  21. Pingback: I’m So Excited, Despicable Me 2 and Rosemary’s Baby on Monday Morning Diary (July 8) | Wonders in the Dark

  22. Blithe Spirit is one of my all time favorite movies. Mme Arcati IS Margaret Rutherford and when you seem anyone else do it in the stage version it looks – wrong.

    Like

    • Neve, so sorry to be slow in replying to this comment but both it and your other comment for some reason went into my spam filter! Definitely agree that Rutherford is perfect for the role and that it’s hard not to think about her when seeing someone else play Madame Arcati. Thanks for commenting!

      Like

  23. Pingback: » Rex Harrison (31 August SUTS)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s