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Written in five or six days in 1941, in a seaside hotel where he had gone to get away from the Blitz, and by all accounts scarcely revised before being mounted some six weeks later, Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit became London’s great stage hit of the war years. It also turned out to be the high point of his charmed career as a playwright, which despite his unflappable productivity would ebb in the postwar period. When in his diary Coward described the work in progress as “superficial,” he may have been describing a crucial reason for its enormous success. The adjective could be applied, of course, to most of his plays—at his best, he was the poet laureate of shallowness, able to give a semblance of real existence to an atmosphere no more substantial than the after-fumes of a particularly giddy cocktail party, to weave little symphonies out of bursts of jaded lust or malicious wit.
But Blithe Spirit brought superficiality to another level of ambition: what audacity to write a comedy about death in the midst of bombing that would claim tens of thousands of civilian lives, a comedy in which the memory of a lost love became material for a punch line and mortality served as simply a piquant sauce for the same sexual dilemmas that were the staple of Coward’s brand of drawing room comedy. Blithe Spirit may be defined as a very British sort of resistance literature, encouraging resistance to encroaching catastrophe by blithely ignoring it.
Coward employs the supernatural in the play only as a convenient comic device, with relish but without a trace of any J. M. Barrie–like propensity for fantasy. Remove the paraphernalia of trances, table tapping, and hauntings, and we have a familiar Cowardian portrait of a “hag-ridden” male filled with scarcely merited self-regard and essentially incapable of love. Caught between two women, Charles (Rex Harrison) yearns to be free of both. His passionless and just barely affectionate marriage to Ruth (Constance Cummings) is clearly sketched in their early exchanges, and when Charles’s first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), comes back from the beyond, it is only to reveal the severe limitations of that prior marriage. As always with Coward, if we were to take everything seriously, we would very quickly be in Ibsen or Strindberg territory. As it is, the marital insults hover just on the edge of the wittily tolerable: “You invite mockery, Charles. Something to do with your personality, I think—a certain seedy grandeur.” We always seem to be one martini away from an incursion of resentment or despair that would break up the party forever. Coward’s surfaces are fiercely resilient because his characters so desperately need them. Blithe Spirit provides the ultimate test of his comedy: not even death can disturb that exquisitely maintained veneer.
Given the play’s triumph in both London and New York, a film version was almost inevitable. Coward, understandably let down by what Hollywood had done to his plays, was leery of entrusting it to Americans. In Private Lives (1931), the director Sidney Franklin had taken his most perfectly constructed farce and managed, with the lackluster help of Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery, to fudge that finely tuned convergence of erotic banter and egotistical needling without which the play loses its reason for being. Ernst Lubitsch had made something far more admirable out of Design for Living in 1933, but Coward could hardly have been expected to cheer, since most of his play had been thrown out in the process. Blithe Spirit, entrusted to David Lean, with whom Coward had worked happily on In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944), was supposed to be different. But when he saw the rough cut, the playwright famously remarked: “My dear, you’ve just fucked up the best thing I ever wrote.” In a later interview, Harrison chimed in along similar lines: “When you’re on a comedy like Blithe Spirit, it is awfully hard working for a director who has no sense of humor.”
In fact, there has never been a film that captures the theatrical qualities of Coward at his peak, for the simple reason that live performance is a minimum requirement for fully bringing out those qualities. Coward’s great comedies do not hinge on plot, and their much-vaunted wit is mostly a matter of tone and rhythm. Their structures primarily create occasions for setting actors against one another on a stage; ideally, the audience watching a Coward play should feel that they have been granted entry to an exclusive party where even the nastiest quarrels and the most sullen insults become magically entertaining. The very title of Present Laughter—the exercise in farcical self-portraiture that preceded Blithe Spirit—suggests that necessary ingredient of physical presence. This is not to say that Lean’s film of Blithe Spirit is a failure but that Lean clearly recognized the limitations of Coward’s preliminary instruction: “Just photograph it, dear boy.”
Everything about Lean’s film makes Coward’s material heavier and more palpable. We have Coward’s comedy, but we have it as if under glass, available for analysis in a way that a play in performance never is. Lean does not push things toward buoyancy or whimsicality, but the suggestion of straight-ahead seriousness in his direction makes things funnier than any hint of high-comic exaggeration could have done. Lean takes great pains to break up Coward’s theatrical scenes into smaller episodes, often changing locations and times, so that, for instance, a single long exchange between Charles and Ruth becomes a series of separate confrontations over the course of a day. In one instance, he invents a nice visual gag—the policeman astonished by Charles’s talking to empty air as he drives by—but overall, this opening up anchors the narrative in a more literally imagined world. Ronald Neame’s luxuriously textured Technicolor cinematography and Richard Addinsell’s equally luxurious score help set us down in an environment as apt for a thriller or a heartrending romance as for light comedy—a good deal more apt, in fact. This materiality undercuts the lighter-than-air properties of Coward’s dialogue and can make the relentless quips seem like defensive tactics by characters attempting to keep at bay some darker drama.
Brilliant comedian though he is, Harrison cannot dominate the film the way he might a stage production, enlisting the audience’s sympathy through sheer force of personality. On film, he becomes a photographic object, and we cannot help but examine him, in all his petulant vanity and waspish ill humor, with a more detached eye. By the same token, Cummings, as the hapless Ruth, becomes much more of a character in her own right, rather than a foil for her husband’s deflating sarcasm; indeed, the strength of Cummings’s performance throws things a bit off balance, since she more than holds her own against the whining seductiveness of Hammond, as the revenant Elvira.
Lean’s film becomes almost by default a supernatural fantasy in a way the play is not. Onstage, Elvira is very much there, even when Ruth cannot see her; in Lean’s editing, Elvira goes in and out of visibility, depending on point of view, automatically creating a multilayered sense of space. The séance scene is filmed as if it were a genuinely ominous affair, effectively enough that, for a moment, it becomes so. This has an interesting effect on our perception of Margaret Rutherford, as the medium Madame Arcati. Rutherford’s inspired performance is one of the great comic turns on-screen, as it apparently was onstage, but here she projects something that seems to go a bit beyond the part as written.
In Madame Arcati, Coward had created, as he well knew, his best comic role, a sublime compound of dotty eccentricity, fierce pride, and businesslike enthusiasm who lifts the whole play into the sort of magic that the rest of the characters, even the dead ones, can only dimly apprehend. Disapprovingly addressing an offscreen cuckoo (“Good night, you foolish bird”) or fondly recalling her first ectoplasmic vision, at the age of four, she brings to the play a richer range than anyone else in the piece can muster; for once, Coward had written lines of dialogue specific to a character, rather than barbs easily transferred from one sophisticate to another. Whatever else may have evaporated in the filming, Rutherford’s performance is, if anything, magnified and deepened. The uncanny fusion of her facial expressions, body language, and line readings produces a natural phenomenon as otherworldly as any ghostly visitation. Rutherford would go on to many other wonderful performances, but here she can be savored at something like full strength.
The film’s conclusion differs radically from the play’s, in a way that defines the difference between them. Onstage, Charles finally escapes from both of his now dead wives; while the unseen ghosts hurl vases and sofa cushions, he makes a grand declaration of independence and stalks out of the haunted house toward freedom: “I expect we are bound to meet again one day, but until we do I’m going to enjoy myself as I’ve never enjoyed myself before.” It is a curiously sour and ineffective ending, relying on the assumption that we have been rooting for Charles all along and want to see him permitted simply to walk away from the wreckage of an unresolved play. The film’s solution is far more elegant: rather than fecklessly skipping out, Charles will find himself sharing his wives’ company for an endless cycle of comic suffering, in a distinctly British variant of Sartre’s oddly analogous wartime play No Exit. Not only is this funnier than Coward’s original ending, it is more deeply satisfying. The smugly self-adoring Charles has earned not escape but an eternity of spirit-life in which to work out the limits of his own egotism.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image Planet, The Browser’s Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, and The Fall of the House of Walworth. He is editor in chief of the Library of America.