Blithe Spirit

Charming, witty, clever – so many ways to characterize this 1945 film version of the 1941 Noel Coward play.  It was mentioned in the Movie Palace Mysteries series, and we realized we’d never seen the movie.  So of course, it was on our list immediately!  Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings have the starring roles (well, at least hypothetically) of Charles and Ruth Condomine, but the true stars are Kay Hammond as Elvira and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati.   An important minor character is Edith the hapless maid who we see in several key scenes throughout the movie.   For anyone who’s never seen the play or a movie version thereof, the story is this:  Charles and Ruth invite a medium to their home to gain some background knowledge for a book he’s writing.  Enter the eccentric medium Madame Arcati who conducts a séance with the Condomines and their guests.  While there is much activity and chants in the ceremony there is no apparent success and Madame departs.   Well, of course this is not the end of the matter – we soon are introduced to Elvira, Charles’ first wife who died in an automobile accident and has arrived back to their house as a spirit.   Only Charles is able to see Elvira, which is problematic as Ruth soon believes Charles is going mad.  Only a brief demonstration by Elvira convinces Ruth that the first Mrs. Condomine is in fact in residence.  Ruth seeks the help of Madame Arcati to transport Elvira back to the ether, but Madame is unable to complete the task.  In fact, we find that Elvira plans to be reunited with Charles by causing a fatal accident.  Not a good plan – Ruth dies instead and naturally comes back as a spirit.  Charles now has two wives to aggravate him, neither of whom want to be earthbound.  He is desperate to rid himself of Elvira and Ruth. and goes to Madame Arcati for help.  After many failed attempts, we learn that it was not in fact Madame Arcati who summoned the spirit of Elvira, but rather it was Edith.   No help there, so Charles takes off to get away from the house on vacation, has a fatal accident (that curve at the end of the drive is literally a killer), and joins both wives.   Relative to the production, while some reviewers at the time said that the movie was a “photograph of the play”, in fact there were several changes, including the addition of exterior scenes beautifully shot at elegant homes.  There are also Oscar-winning special effects that give Elvira then Ruth then Charles a sort of ectoplasmic glow, and some prop movement by the ghost that facilitate the story. The most substantive change is that movie had a different ending, which caused Noel Coward to say that the production “ruined the best play I ever wrote”.   We don’t agree.  A few years ago, we saw a Broadway revival with Angela Lansbury as the inimitable Madame Arcati and it was simply wonderful.  We were therefore concerned that Rutherford would be a disappointment but of course she was not.  Both legendary actresses portrayed lovable and spirited (pun intended) eccentricity with grace and charm.   The movie is as charming as the play and is definitely a period piece relative to setting.  It is also a timeless fun filled froth and assuredly Worth the Search.

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