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.
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.
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.
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.
Madame 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.