BLITHE SPIRIT (David Lean, 1945)

Noel Coward’s play was a wartime lark—perhaps a skylark (note the title)—in which the institution of marriage and the death of wives are treated most casually, as though neither really matters. David Lean’s light, frothy film version added to the wifely ghosts their spouse, Charles, played chipperly by Rex Harrison, whose first wife, Elvira, died of pneumonia, and whose second wife, Ruth, is killed by the first, who monkeys with the car, causing a road accident meant for Charles so they can reunite eternally in the supernatural realm. Another auto accident also turns Charles into a bluish ghost, with a wife’s ghost now on either side of him—the film’s invention, and a delicious one. The threesome, we are left to surmise, will bring a touch of perpetual hell to paradise.
     The film, which won an Oscar for its wonderful special effects, is most famous for Margaret Rutherford’s hilarious performance as Madame Arcati, the daffy though earthy medium whose séances and trances appear to be stirring up the spirit world. One of the great comical roles of the twentieth century, Arcati was originated on stage by Rutherford and has also been played by Mildred Natwick, Ruth Gordon, Beatrice Lillie and Geraldine Page, among others. Currently Angela Lansbury is rehearsing it for a Broadway revival scheduled to open February 2009.
     A little arch, a tad too airy-fairy when Rutherford isn’t about, the film is nonetheless astutely directed by Lean, who opens up the one-set play to include both Madame Arcati’s home and the open road. Only Charles can see and hear Elvira’s ghost, and the deft cutting between their conversing and the thin, silent air that Ruth sees where Elvira “is” assigns the ghost to reality while point-of-view shots express Ruth’s limited, faulty perception.

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