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.

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Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946)

Great Expectations 1946 8

I didn’t have time to update my blog yesterday and, realistically, my blogging might be a bit hit and miss now as Christmas arrives, but I will try to write new postings as frequently as possible, even if my Dickens in December season ends up stretching into January. Just a few thoughts today on one of the greatest of all Dickens films.

In every adaptation of Great Expectations that I’ve seen (and there have been many, including two in the past year alone, both of which were disappointing, to me anyway), the beginning is one of the best scenes. The sight of the convict looming from behind the tombstone always makes a powerful impression – and its sense of danger  is always there in the background behind everything that follows. However, the most unforgettable version of this opening on screen has to be the first scene of David Lean’s famous film, with young Pip (Anthony Wager) running across the windswept Kent marshes, and enduring his nightmare encounter with Magwitch (Finlay Currie).

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Brief Encounter (1945)

Although I’d never seen Brief Encounter in full, I thought I knew what it would be like. I’d seen various short clips, and gained an impression of the impossibly posh, clipped voices, the emotional repression and the strained nobility of behaviour. I’d also seen the scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys   which gently mocks the poignant final moments.

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard
Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

However, none of this gets anywhere near the experience of watching the film as a whole. This year I went on a visit to Carnforth in Lancashire, where the famous railway scenes were filmed. I  saw the opening scenes of the film on a large screen in the waiting room at the museum there, where it  seems to be shown on a loop – and, getting hooked on the story within minutes, quickly realised it was very different from the impression of it I’d acquired.  I now have the DVD (the region 2 version which sadly doesn’t have a commentary, though it does have a featurette going behind the scenes), have watched it in full a couple of times, and am full of admiration.

David Lean’s direction and Noel Coward’s script, adapted from his play Still Life, are both great, and the dark, austere scenes, always full of the wartime atmosphere though the war is never mentioned, linger in the memory long after watching.

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