Blithe Spirit Reviews
David Lean is one of those "all the pros are really in love with this guy" directors whose films I rarely seem to get round to watching. This confuses me somewhat, because when I do watch a Lean film, I find it immensely enjoyable; I've only seen two so far, but Lawrence of Arabia, as of this writing, is sitting at #121 on my all-time top 1000 list, and Blithe Spirit entered the list at #541. Both are phenomenal pictures. A stage performance of Blithe Spirit had just closed its run right across the street from where I work a couple of weeks before I sat down to watch the movie; by the time it was over, I was kicking myself for not having gone to see the play. That strikes me as the best recommendation I can give the silly, wonderful thing.
Charles Condomine (My Fair Lady's Rex Harrison) and his new wife Ruth (The Criminal Code's Constance Cummings) have moved back into the old pile after the honeymoon. The only problem is, the ghost of Charles' late first wife, Elvira (Two on a Doorstep's Kay Hammond), is still very much around and causing mischief for the happy couple. Charles, distressed by the goings-on, hires the medium Madame Arcati (the wondrous comic actress Margaret Rutherford) to get to the bottom of things-which just makes Elvira all the more determined to pursue her ulterior agenda...
As you can tell by the first paragraph, I am shockingly unfamiliar with the work of David Lean. But between this and Lawrence, which are such entirely different pieces of work, I find it hard to believe the man could have done anything wrong. Lawrence is a massive four-hour (admittedly quite doctored) biopic, epic in every way, dramatic and sweeping and saturated with those brilliant, brilliant colors. This movie is its polar opposite in every way-lean, slapstick, looking almost colorized, intimate and packed with impeccable comic timing. The ending is a bit of a downer-no, wait, that's the wrong word for it. Compared to the rest of the movie, quality-wise, the ending is a bit of a downer; it's the one place where Lean steps over the line from brilliant slapstick into cheesiness (it's Jerry Lewis as opposed to the Preston Sturges of the rest of the film). But that doesn't matter much, because the rest of it is so good. Well worth your time. *** 1/2
In the 1940's, Britain was well into World War II, Noel Coward was easily one of Britain's top playwrights, and David Lean was still mainly known for his mad editing skills. With Britain in a less than happy state (to put it very mildly), Noel Coward decided to put on the screen a film about the British Navy and boost morale. Coward felt confident in directing the players for his film "In Which We Serve," but was unsure about how to handle the major action scenes. He tapped David Lean on the shoulder to give him a hand. "In Which We Serve" marks the first of four collaborations of Lean and Coward and it is obviously the beginning of a beautiful friendship made clear by Coward's trademark wit and questioning of Britishness evident in most of Lean's movies.
"In Which We Serve" is a film about a ship, the HMS Torrin, commanded by Captain Kinross, played by Coward himself. The movie does have a tendency to beat you over the head with its blunt patriotism; however, there is far more depth to it. What makes this film truly engaging, other than the well-done action sequences, is the focus on the individual members of the ship and their struggles before and after the war. We see family men, newlyweds, and bachelors all in their pre-war lives. Coward's direction and acting reveals these characters in appropriate detail in brief, effective vignettes. These are later punctuated by Lean's excellent action sequences as we see the ship get attacked by the Germans. While the film asserts the Brits as the typical "stiff-upper lipped," courageous face of the war effort, it also displays the sensitive side of these same people, putting a relatable face to those serving. (90%)
Coward and Lean's second collaboration, "This Happy Breed" marks Lean's first directorial effort. The movie follows the Gibbons family during the interwar period, from just after the first world war until the start of World War II. Coward guides us through the lives of this middle class as they deal with the problems of that affect Britain at the time. It does a decent job at conveying the rise of Socialism in England, the General Strike of 1926, the rise of fascism and Hitler, the death of a son, and the death of a king. Lean and Coward formulate a decent human drama that touches on the important issues and the progression from the prosperity of peace, leading up to the hardships of war. (80%)
After two great dramas, Lean and Coward lighten things up with the comedy "Blithe Spirit." A novelist and his new second wife move into his house.The subject of his next novel is the paranormal and calls in a medium to study. The medium, Madame Arcati, and Charles, his wife, and friends conduct a seance. They appeared to have failed, but Charles eventually finds out that he has brought forth the spirit of his first wife. However, only Charles can see her. What ensues is a hilarious deconstruction of his current marriage and great encounters between Charles and his ex-wife Elvira. This is one of Rex Harrison's first movies and he is excellent as Charles and the ending is quite appropriate and funny. A very underrated comedy. (90%)
I highly recommend checking out this set. Be sure to watch out for some of the earliest roles of great British actors such as Sir Richard Attenborough (In Which We Serve), Celia Howard (This Happy Breed), and Rex Harrison (Blithe Spirit). These films mark the height of Noel Cowards career and the start of a great career in David Lean's. Definitely try to check these out if you get the chance (and can afford it =|).
There are some films which really cry for remastering. This film was in Technicolor, but it's so faded that it looks colorized. On the other hand, I shudder to think how dreadful the ghost makeup would look in the original Technicolor scheme. Graham walked into the room midway through and demanded to know why there was a corpse in the room. The filmmakers decided that the way to have a ghost in the room was to paint the actress green with red lipstick and nail polish. It was decided that this was a better way to do it than double-exposing the film. I believe they felt it gave the ghost more range to interact with the other characters, which I suppose is true. But I have to say that I wouldn't have gone green for it. Grey, I think, would have been a far better choice.
Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) is one of those drawing-room comedy types, a man who is quite well off despite having no discernible means of support. He is married to Ruth (Constance Cummings), but seven years previous, he was married to Elvira (Kay Hammond). (This is pronounced El-VEE-rah, and not like the Mistress of the Dark.) One night, he and some friends--Doctor (Hugh Wakefield) and Mrs. (Joyce Carey) Bradman--have in Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford), a local medium of the Dotty Old Bat variety. During their sťance, she summons the spirit of Elvira, who proceeds to harass Charles. At first, of course, he must convince Ruth that Elvira is even there, because of course he's the only one who can see her, and in fine old Ghost Comedy fashion, everyone thinks he's nuts when he talks to her.
I don't know if this is how NoŽl Coward saw love, but I find it appalling. It's perfectly right and healthy that Charles remarries, if he feels he's no longer mourning for Elvira. It's also understandable for Ruth to worry about how his past with Elvira might influence his relationship with her. There is nothing wrong with that. It's even reasonable, I think, for a returned Elvira to be upset that Charles has moved on and married someone else. All of this I can get behind with no complaints. But the way these people handle all of their feelings is extremely distasteful. Elvira seems to think that it's Ruth's fault that Charles didn't spend his whole life grieving, that he remarried two years after becoming a widower. She's also a little eager to reclaim Charles, especially given what getting him back would entail. Neither woman much worries about his feelings one way or the other.
Another problem with the movie is that it simply has too many endings. It's only a little over an hour and a half long, but the last twenty minutes or so really seem to drag. It's almost as though Coward wasn't sure how he wanted it to end. And then when we do get through the various possibilities, it's perfectly predictable and yet contradictory of what we believe just happened. We might as well have cut the bit where maid Edith (Jacqueline Clark) is brought in to resolve the situation for some reason that I did not at all understand. It didn't make sense, and it really gets in the way of how the movie does end. And that ending frankly brings about a few more unpleasant connotations which I think we're supposed to brush off as lighthearted and wacky. Not, you know, sordid and bitter.
All in all, I am torn by this movie. It is amusing in places, and of course Rex Harrison excels at this sort of character. It's one of the reasons he was such an excellent Henry Higgins, even though he was starring in a musical without in so many words being able to sing. The medium becomes pretty entertaining as well, and I was glad she was a more major character than the completely innocuous doctor and his wife. However, taken as a whole, the movie didn't really do anything for me. I remember having seen this a long time ago, and I remember having quite liked it. Alas, these things do not always stay. After watching a few minutes of it, Graham suggested that it was something like a gender-reversed [i]Ghost and Mrs. Muir[/i]. This isn't quite true. For one, there isn't the complication of the daughter, and the second wife knows about the first wife going in. There are some other issues as well. On the other hand, I think I ought to have just watched [i]The Ghost and Mrs. Muir[/i] again.