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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

David Lean | Blithe Spirit


between wives
by douglas messerli
 
David Lean, Ronald Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allan (screenplay, based on the play by Noël Coward), David Lean (director) Blithe Spirit / 1945
 
blithe8I have watched David Lean’s cinematic remake of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit numerous times over the years (we own a copy of the film), and, admittedly, have enjoyed it. Coward’s wit, particularly in some of his songs, has always impressed me, even if I’ve primarily felt that his plays, dramas, comedies, and musicals lacked great depth of meaning. Like the absurd “plot” of this sometimes silly “ghost story,” Coward’s best work exists on the surface, in the witty chit-chat of his mostly housebound figures. Even when his actors traveled the ocean as in Sail Away! they unwillingly wandered and wondered, as did his hero Mimi Paragon (played by Elaine Stritch), “Why do the wrong people, travel, travel, travel?” Dressed in silk bathrobe, a cigarette dangling from a long silver holder, both Coward and his characters, creatures, indentured to domesticity like the temporarily roving housewife of  Brief Encounter, who were intended to stay put.
      Perhaps that explains, in part, Coward’s dislike of Lean’s film rendition of his stage play. Lean dared to take the camera out of the Condomine’s comfy mansion, showing the car careening around dangerous corners through the Folkestone streets, for little purpose, one must admit, except to let the characters, for short periods, out of the house, as if walking the dogs. Cinematically, it has little effect; only Madame Arcati’s (Margaret Rutherford) boisterous bicycle ride seems to be a truly energizing event.
blithe1        Although critics praised the film’s Technicolor cinematography and Visual Effects specialist Tom Howard won an Academy Award, for me the specially “lit” appearance of the always green-skinned former wife and current poltergeist Elvira Condomine (Kay Hammond) slightly sickens my stomach every time I see it. If her husband Charles (Rex Harrison), the only one that can see her, describes her to his current wife, Ruth (Consntance Cummings) as having been good-looking, it’s hard to see why the troublesome house guest was brought into manifestation by more-than-eccentric Arcati for any purpose but to be a wise-cracking ghoul, who slithers up to the unsuspecting living only to blow air into their ears or to examine their “bad taste” in close-up disdain. Elvira may, at times, be quite hilarious in her observations—for example, when her odd-behaving husband seemingly begins to talk himself, Ruth demanding that he come up to bed, Elvira responds “The way that woman harps on bed.”—but, after a while, she becomes more of a bore.
        Not that Charles minds it much. Clearly, he (like Harrison in real life if blith36we are to believe to tell-all autobiographies and the tabloids) saw women less as serious companions than as entertaining diversions, amusing distractions to have around the house. Somewhat similarly to Coward’s play Design for Living, at times Blithe Spirit suggests that if one lover is fun, two are even better—if only the two of them could get on better. Much of the fun of Coward’s play, accordingly, comes from the double-talking of Charles as he abusively responds to his invisible wife, language misinterpreted as being directed at Ruth. Of course, he has also been abusing her, we soon perceive, living in a world in which he has been doted on by women throughout most of his life (again not so very different, if we are to believe Lilli Palmer, from the actor’s legendary relationships with the opposite sex, two of whose wives committed suicide). It is predictable, finally, that the two women—once Ruth is accidentally killed off in a car accident Elvira has intended for Charles—should join forces to find a way to “leave” their husband or, finally, to oust him from his own house
      The sleep-inducing incantations by Madame Arcati to exorcise these spirits from human-like manifestations are not as significant to the play as the fact that they give an opportunity to show Margaret Rutherford huffing, puffing, skipping, jumping, and exercising her marvelously rubber-like face. In fact, this movie—which originally did not do well on either side of the Atlantic—is nearly entirely dependent on the shenanigans of Arcati, who transforms eccentric behavior in an absolute art form. At the ripe age of 53 Rutherford seems far more spry than her wonderfully dotty later performances as Miss Prism and Jane Marple. She is the one and only reason one has to see this film!
      Lean, meanwhile, seems not to comprehend Charles’ absolute delight that he now has the chance, at the end of this misogynistic and spiritually empty tale to rid himself of both his now malicious ex’s. In the original play, Charles—on the advice of Madame Arcati—speedily leaves his home on his way to lone and long ocean voyage with his favorite sailing partner.
blithe2     To be fair to Charles, neither if his wives has proven to be a very loving woman: Ruth, unable to deal with her husband’s perplexity, turns spiteful and mean, displaying her selfishness most openly in her impatient dismissal of Madame Arcati. Elvira gradually reveals an unsavory past with other men that, given the period, might, one imagines, have led the film to be cut by the English censors (Charles’ line “If you’re trying to compile an inventory of my sex life, I feel it only fair to warn you that you’ve omitted several episodes. I shall consult my diary and give you a complete list after lunch,” did meet with the British censor’s threats). The couple’s evidently torrid sexual past may have been seen as somewhat predictable for gay relationships, such as those experienced by Coward, but would have been quite shocking for heterosexual couples in its day; one need only recall how reprehensible Maxim de Winter finds his wife Rebecca to be after her confession in Hitchcock’s film of only five years earlier, that she had been sexually active before their marriage: his reaction almost justifies her “murder.”     Accordingly, to have Charles’ wives seek their comeuppance, as Lean does, by killing  him off so that he might eternally be forced to sit between their incriminating cackles, quite misses the point of Coward’s somewhat metaphorical depiction of divorce, with the women (presumably in bilitis-like harmony) keeping the house, while the male is released into the rainy night! I suppose, what with Lean’s and Harrison’s propensity to marry—each had six marriages before they died—both director and actor sought an alternative ending wherein they could continue to be the center of female obeisance.

Los Angeles, June 25, 2014

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