‘Blithe Spirit’ review

7 10 2010

Blithe Spirit: The Droll Marriage Of Death And Film

[written by screenwriter, Neal Romanek]

Blithe Spirit was David Lean’s third collaboration with actor / playwright / Renaissance Brit, Noel Coward. Lean adapted the Noel Coward’s hit stage play with Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan. Though many of Lean’s films do suggest powerful unseen forces at work behind our quotidien scramblings, Blithe Spirit is his only flat-out supernatural story. It’s also one of Lean’s only comedies.

The film tells the story of a cynical novelist, Charles Condomine – played by Rex Harrison – who invites a spirit medium to perform a séance at his home as research for his next book. The séance accidentally summons the spirit of Condomine’s deceased wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond). Condomine, newly remarried, is the only one who can see Elvira’s shade who is trapped on this side of the afterlife. Elvira becomes increasingly determined to bump off Condomine, so she can have him all to herself again.

Audiences love stories about dead spouses. There is something romantic, and funny – and frightening too – about the idea that a person we have been so closely linked to in life might be able to observe us, talk to us, even torment us after they have left this material plane. The idea is as old as myth and appears in a diverse array of films, from Ghost to The Man With Two Brains. Even Steven Spielberg tried the genre with Always – a movie which I enjoy far more than I will ever admit.

Blithe Spirit was first performed on stage during WWII. The play was a massive hit, and I can’t help but think that some of its appeal lay in the fantasy of the return of the dead loved ones, the hope that they may still walk among us. The fact that it was a comedy certainly helped too. In 1940’s Britain, everyone knew someone who perished in the war and I’m sure a serious ghost story would have been regarded with disdain at the time. But to make light of the departed, as Coward did in his original play – in fact, to depict the departed loved one as an irritating nuisance who needs banishing to the Other Side for all eternity – was probably a great tonic to the spectre of death faced by the average Londoner. In fact, Noel Coward began to write Blithe Spirit as a result of his London office being blown to bits by the Luftwaffe in a bombing raid. He escaped to the Welsh countryside and, it’s said, wrote the play, from beginning to end, in five days, in what was virtually a final draft.

The film stays fairly faithful to the play, but the movie’s memorable ending was entirely a case of David Lean trying to top Noel Coward.

(SPOILER ALERT)

Coward’s stage play ends with Condomine’s escape from the ghosts of his two former spouses, his new bride Ruth having been accidentally killed in Elvira’s failed attempt to murder her Condomine. But David Lean kills Condomine in a car crash (arranged by the two ghosts) and condemns him to spend eternity with the two. It’s a much better ending, I think. But Noel Coward didn’t agree. The movie wasn’t as big a success as the play and Coward was reputed to have said to Lean: “How the hell did you fuck up the best thing I ever did?”

The film won the Academy Award for best Special Effects however and it is unquestionably the definitive dead spouse ghost film comedy.

The English tradition of emotional repression and grim determination not to flinch in the face of distress, lends itself much more to a comedy treatment of the ghost story, than that American tradition of the individual struggling in a hostile land. Americans fear and hate their enemies, the English scoff at them. Who better than Rex Harrison – the epitome of English cool – to portray a man who ends up finding the supernatural world tedious and irritating. I like to imagine the British version of The Blair Witch Project, in which the lost hikers, far from being driven to terror-stricken hysteria, merely crouch under a tree, frowning, with their collars pulled up, to wait for death – and certain they must have brought it on themselves and what’s the point of it all anyway?

That the British refuse to take death as seriously as Americans has resulted in a distinctive cinematic vein of gold, which has created everything from Alfred Hitchcock to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. When an American dies in a war movie, for example, Barber’s Adagio for Strings must be played at full volume while the hero reaches heavenward crying “O Father, why hast thou forsaken Thy chosen son! O, I die! I die! O!” In Britain – well, the scene may be played exactly the same, but for very big laughs.

In the British cinema tradition, death is met with a mask of defiant amusement. In the American, it’s with heroics or histrionics. Come to think of it, it’s the same for marriage too.

Neal Romanek is a story architect for film, tv, and transmedia. He was born in Texas, lives in London, and wants to visit Antarctica.

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[Join us later today for a review of The Haunting by Sharon Kae Reamer]

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One response

8 10 2010
Cate Gardner

One of my all-time favourite movies. I need to watch it again now.

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