I misjudged dates when I originally planned my 31 Days of Horror and thus I ended up scheduling I Walked With a Zombie before it airs on TCM so with some re-configuring you get Blithe Spirit today, and I Walked With a Zombie tomorrow (sorry about that).
Anyway, today’s film is a refreshing reprieve after the horrors of Black Sabbath in that Blithe Spirit is a sweet little film about ghosts and the upper-crust English; the screwball comedy as told by the British and Noel Coward! It blends the dark in a way that you laugh despite the fact that people are actually dying! I assumed this film would be a rehash of Topper but it’s entirely different and helped by a trio of actors who I’m really interested in seeing more from!
Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) is a writer who enlists the services of local medium Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) in order to gain inspiration for his new book. During a séance with Madame Arcati, some friends, and Charles’ second wife Ruth (Constance Cummings), the flighty medium actually brings forth Charles’ first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond). Ruth believes Charles is crazy at first only to become desperate to rid her husband and their house of the specter. Unfortunately, Elvira has some deadly plans up her sleeve.
I was confused on looking up information on this film because it’s been remade several times. By the way there’s a 1956 television version starring Lauren Bacall I’m officially interested in seeing. Sadly, I think modern audiences might remember this as the “inspiration” for the awful Eva Longoria film Over Her Dead Body. Why do I keep watching great films that have horrific modern remakes? Anyway, playwright Noël Coward said he hated this version despite it being directed and written by Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean! I shouldn’t admit this…but this was my second David Lean film and really I don’t remember enough of Brief Encounter for it to count. I should really stop admitting my failures on a public forum. Regardless, I loved this darkly comedic screwball comedy. One issue I had that I’ll mention here is how poor the Netflix Watch Instantly version is. It literally ends with no credits. The characters are reunited at the end and the film ends mid-sentence! I know there’s Criterion cut of this out, so why doesn’t Netflix use that? Maybe I should have seen if Hulu, who have teamed up with Criterion, had this? The audio on this copy was also incredibly muddy causing the opening minutes of rapid-fire dialogue to sail right over my head.
On to the movie proper! I picked this film for Halloween to balance the scary with the sweet. Ghosts seem to be the one element of Halloween that can translate to both chills and laughter and Blithe Spirit falls into the latter obviously. Again, I was concerned about this being a rehash of Topper which came out in 1937 but the English sensibility of this film removes any comparison. In Topper our main characters were selfish, airheaded rich people trying to change the life of one man who’d lost his love of that. There’s no morals or need to reform anyone in Blithe Spirit. Here, a group of boring English people open up the door to the other side and can’t put back what they’ve unleashed. In a way this film could have been a precursor to Poltergeist but the way Charles and Ruth try to be prim and proper about the whole makes the movie devolve into chuckles and other hilarity!
It’s apparent before Madame Arcati arrives that there’s some unresolved tension between the first and second Mrs. Condomine’s. Ruth asks Charles whether Elvira was pretty. All Charles seems to say is that Elvira possessed an “ethereal” quality and was doomed to die young. The miscommunicated “compliment” Charles gives his wife in the opening sets the tone for the humor that’s to follow. He tries to tell Ruth there’s no competition between the women because he knew Elvira’s ethereal-ness would make her die soon and with Ruth there’s no harm of that! He’s trying to be sweet but the way it comes out is that Ruth isn’t ethereal and will plague him till he dies! Once Elvira returns to “haunt” Charles, the film takes on the story of “another woman coming” to steal Ruth’s man! Charles continually tries to tell Ruth that Elvira’s there and at one point Ruth laughs and nonchalantly says “Elvira’s dead!” On the surface it looks like a cold and heartless statement but her frustration, helped by Constance Cumming’s prim acting and elegance, is evident.
The film blends that macabre sensibility with the tropes of a screwball comedy with finesse. The group of people Charles assembles for the opening séance have no interest in bringing anyone back, they simply want to make fun of Madame Arcati! Margaret Rutherford showcases her fantastic comedic timing and she’s not afraid to fall down and do other physical comedy! The way her shadows dance on the wall during the séance is simply beautiful and again, shows that balance between fear and whimsy the rest of the film contains. One can’t forget Madame Arcati talking in a little girl’s voice (summoning her “control,” a little girl named Daphne) to give the audience and the Condomine’s some unease. As Madame Arcati starts asking the group who they’d expect to come back you have to love how dense the Condomine’s are. They don’t think of Elvira coming through at all, maybe because they’re hoping against it or believe she’s not interested, but instead think of obscure neighbors and estranged cousins. The Condomine’s aren’t too far removed from the family of Bringing Up Baby or other similar idle rich who aren’t too bright.
The arrival of Elvira sets the rest of the plot in motion and I thought Kay Hammond was in the same vein as Maureen O’Hara or a Myrna Loy in that she possesses a strong, independent spirit, and a sassy attitude. She has a hilarious sense of fun opposite Rex Harrison and while she doesn’t have many scenes opposite Cummings, Hammond is able to act like the other woman is fighting her to amazing effect. You truly believe as Elvira is running around screaming that she’s being attacked, an excellent demonstration of Hammond’s comedic skills! Another bit of physical humor has Charles trying to prove to Ruth that Elvira’s real by having his ghostly wife bring something to Ruth. It’s all well and good when Ruth is invisibly handed flowers but things take a turn when Elvira tries to throw a chair at the second wife. When Hammond isn’t running around she works wonders with the script and dialogue. A favorite line of mine is in response to Charles telling her she’s dead. Elvira coolly replies “It’s very vulgar to say ‘dead’ where I come from.”
It should be apparent that Elvira’s got a mean streak in her and her intentions aren’t entirely honorable. She’s not a benevolent spirit by a long shot. Her goal is to have Charles dead like her and I don’t know any film that could make being dead so funny. By the end you desire all of these characters to be dead together and live happily ever after! Sure when Elvira “accidentally” kills Ruth via automobile it’s bad. I mean Elvira seems broken up about it (and by that I mean she stands around and mockingly cries “Oh, oh”). The film though explores that death isn’t necessarily something to fear and one should be able to find something to laugh at about it. Just look at how Elvira died the first time. It’s such an English dead in that she came down with pneumonia was watching a BBC show, laughed “and died of a heart attack!” At the end when Ruth, Charles, and Elvira are finally stuck together you’re not sad that they’re dead, you’re wondering how the hell these three are going to spend an eternity together! Topper this film isn’t!
I did ask on Twitter about the coloring process for this film as I originally believed it was black and white and the version I was watching was an atrocious colorized version. Sadly, that’s not the case apparently. My issue was that the way they make-up Kay Hammond to be a ghost makes her look incredibly sick! She’s a bizarre gray color that at times looks green especially contrasted with the garish red lipstick and nail polish. I’m not sure if that was the original intent when this ran in theaters but it looks incredibly bad here, almost laughable at times. I would have preferred going the Topper route of making Elvira look see-through or even corporeal and just have things go through her. Ruth does end up walking through Elvira at one point and while it’s obvious how the technique is achieved it’s still a fun trick that is included within the film.
I mentioned loving Kay Hammond and Constance Cummings. They’re two strong leading ladies that balance each other out, Hammond with her zany selfishness and Cummings with her prim frustration and need for a logical explanation. Rex Harrison is the one caught in the middle and he grew on me as the story progressed. I will say I’m not a fan of his but I enjoyed him here. His attempts at a happy solution where everyone wins is futile and yet he doesn’t see it. He tells Ruth that she should be nicer to Elvira so that they can all have a “jolly time” together. For him, the best of both worlds (literally!) is right in front of him and he has no idea why Ruth is so resistant. By the same token he’s completely disinterested in anything that doesn’t help him like when Ruth theorizes that him seeing Elvira is the result of a brain tumor. She goes on a story about how her uncle had one only to have Charles butt in and ask if the uncle say things. When Ruth says no Charles becomes irritated and asks why they’re talking about him! He’s the one doomed to have two women nagging him for all eternity and it serves him right!
Blithe Spirit is all that it’s title implies; a joyous film about lovable ghosts! It’s English formality opens up the door on the screwball comedy conventions and the leading actors, particularly Kay Hammond are great. The effects are a tad dated especially the makeup on Hammond but that’s all easy to get past. If you’re looking for something light and comedic this Halloween, you’d do well to watch this!
Type of Horror: Comedic, Classic
Fright Meter: 1
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.