There are countless great movies, but so few are truly perfect. Some of the movies that I consider worthy of the “perfect” designation include Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), Mervyn LeRoy’s Random Harvest (1942) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). In these films, it’s easy to break down what makes them special: not a single moment is wasted. Every shot, scene, snippet of dialogue, musical accompaniment and actor’s glance is carefully constructed; the result of the intricate work of cinematic masters at the helm. In Notorious, Hitchcock centers his story around two of the most beautiful, talented actors (Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman) while masterfully weaving romance, sexuality, political intrigue and an empathetic view of a morally corrupt character. In The Best Years of Our Lives, Wyler authentically captures the complicated nature of veterans returning home and adjusting to civilian life—something that was all too real for Wyler and his fellow World War II veterans. And in The Apartment, Billy Wilder skillfully creates a humorous and heartbreaking glimpse of two lonely people finding love while caught up in the midst of sleazy corporate America.
But it’s not always so easy to pinpoint exactly what makes a film perfect. And sometimes it takes time and repeat viewings to truly appreciate a film. Since FilmStruck is currently featuring a collection of David Lean’s early directorial career, I’ve been revisiting many of these films. Recently, I wrote about the brilliant, gut-wrenching romance Brief Encounter(1945), starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. I recall liking the film when I first saw it, but with repeat viewings it has earned a coveted spot in my personal list of perfect films. This is also the case for Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945), an adaptation of playwright Noël Coward’s 1941 stage production of the same name. The story is delightfully simple, and Lean’s adaptation, while cinematic, preserves the stage play feel. When it was released, Coward was supposedly disappointed with the adaptation, and it wasn’t terribly successful amongst both audiences and critics. But like so many of the classics that failed to impress the first time around, and are beloved and highly revered today, Blithe Spirit has been reevaluated and considered one of Lean’s greatest films. And deservedly so. It’s a perfect film from start to finish.
What makes Blithe Spirit perfect? Well, for starters, the brilliant technicolor is stunning—breathtaking, really. It rivals the best of masters Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The vivid color showcases the fabulous dresses designed by Rahvis, as well as the green-hued apparition of the glamorous Elvira Condomine (Kay Hammond), the dearly departed first wife of the charmingly befuddled Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison). Also, in addition to working with Noël Coward, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, David Lean surrounded himself with superb talent, including cinematographer Ronald Neame, who also worked with Lean and Coward on In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944). Blithe Spirit marked Neame’s final film as a cinematographer. He then embarked on a long career as a director, with films such as Judy Garland’s final on-screen performance in I Could Go On Singing (1963), as well as Gambit (1966), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and the ultimate 1970s disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
But it’s the performances, in conjunction with the atmosphere created by Lean and Neame, that help make Blithe Spirit a special film. We’ve seen many films involving a séance gone terribly wrong, but rarely in such a comedic fashion. Rex Harrison is delightful as Charles Condomine, a writer seeking a firsthand supernatural experience with the departed, and in turn gets far more than he originally bargained for. Constance Cummings is Ruth Condomine, Charles’s second wife. She is a proper English woman, impeccably dressed and class conscious, and has little tolerance for Charles’s foolishness. Kay Hammond, reprising her stage role in the original production of Blithe Spirit as Charles’s deceased first wife, Elvira, is equal parts glamorous and mischievous. She playfully seduces and teases her husband, who is not only aware of her presence, but is the only person who can see her. Elvira taunts the unsuspecting Ruth, who is initially convinced that Charles’s account of Elvira’s ghostly presence is the result of his excessive drinking.
In an impressive and talented cast, the film belongs to the extraordinary character actress, Dame Margaret Rutherford. Like Kay Hammond, Rutherford was also in the original stage production, reprising her role as the kooky, eccentric medium with the sing-song voice, Madame Arcati. In the midst of such incredible talent, Rutherford manages to command every scene. Her presence is even felt when she is off-screen and Madame Arcati’s name is merely mentioned. Rutherford wasn’t a very attractive woman in terms of the so-called conventional beauty often found in cinema, but she was a writer’s dream and a true actor’s actor. Coward had Rutherford in mind when he created the character of Madame Arcati, and despite some excellent actresses playing the role in later productions (including a recent revival starring the great Angela Lansbury), Rutherford is still the only actress to perfectly embody Coward’s vision for the character. And while she received unfair and harsh criticism for her appearance, there were some critics who acknowledged that her looks served her well on the stage. Of Rutherford, British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once famously said “The unique thing about Margaret Rutherford is that she can act with her chin alone. Among its many moods I especially cherish the chin commanding, the chin in doubt and the chin at bay.” Tynan’s observations are spot on; Rutherford used every part of her body, especially her face, to convey the personality and behaviors of the characters she portrayed. And what’s truly remarkable about Rutherford, is that despite a horrific childhood dealing with severely mentally ill parents (including her father brutally murdering his father during a psychotic episode, and her mother’s suicide), and her own struggles with anxiety and depression, she was a masterful comedienne and delightful presence on both the stage and screen.
It is all of these components: the direction, story, technicolor cinematography and outstanding performances, that make Blithe Spirit so special. Despite Coward’s initial disappointment with Lean’s adaptation, as well as the dismissive reception by critics upon its release, Blithe Spirit is cinematic perfection. Whether the film is new to you or one you’re quite familiar with, give it another watch. I think you’ll agree with me. Or at the very least, it’s sure to make you smile.
This piece was originally published at StreamLine, the official blog of FilmStruck on May 20, 2017 and can be found archived here.
Any notion as to when it was restored in color? This is one of my favorite films and I e seen it dozens of times, but a recent search shows me HBO Max has it in freaking color!
Hi Suzanne, thanks for stopping by. David Lean and cinematographer Ronald Neame shot Blithe Spirit in 3-strip Technicolor, so the version you see on HBO Max is the correct version. It was never in black and white.