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.
After watching a great production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I at the Globe Theatre in London this autumn (sadly I didn’t make it to Part II), I was keen to see Orson Welles’ take on Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight. This film is less well-known than Welles’ other Shakespearean movies, and, for complicated reasons of copyright, until this month was only available on Spanish and Brazilian DVDs. I watched it on a Spanish DVD which I borrowed from a friend, with subtitles, which can easily be removed, and a good-quality picture. I have now heard that it has just been issued on a UK DVD as an exclusive from the HMV stores and website – I haven’t as yet heard from anyone who has bought this release and do not know what the quality is like, but a couple of people have suggested it is best to be cautious.
It’s a shame this film is so little-known, because it is excellent, with a towering performance by Welles as Falstaff dominating throughout. Just under two hours long, it brings together Falstaff’s main scenes from both the Henry IV plays, and the account of his death from Henry V. This works extremely well – I didn’t spot the joins and as far as I could tell most of the greatest scenes and speeches from Part I seemed to be intact, although it would have been nice to have a bit more of Henry Percy (Norman Rodway). I have a feeling that rather more of Part II has been cut, but it doesn’t feel rushed. And all the dialogue is taken from Shakespeare’s text, with just a couple of brief pieces of bridging narration by Ralph Richardson.