‘Blithe Spirit’: An Unsung Halloween Classic for Fans of Screwball Comedy

If you are looking for a break from hockey masks and guts and in need of some Halloween light relief look no further than Blithe Spirit (1945). The film is directed by David Lear and is based on the 1941 Noël Coward play. Novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) invites medium Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to summon up some otherworldly beings as part of research for his next book — a mystery about a homicidal medium. Unknowingly the dinner party guests summon Charles’ first wife Elvira (Kay Hammond) back from the ethereal planes. The trouble is that Charles is the only one who can see his dearly departed. Much to the annoyance of his current wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) Elvira decides to stick around in the idyllic Condomine’s martial home. Relations quickly sour as Elvira’s true intentions are discovered by Ruth and the couple enlist Madame Arcati to send Elvira back to the grave. 

This is a typically English affair with stellar performances by all players, especially Margaret Rutherford who relishes the batty role of Madame Arcati. The pairing of Kay Hammond and Constance Cummings is pretty perfect. You can see both actresses are really hamming it up and in particular excelling in the physical comedy in the later half of the film. Following Coward’s signature style, the onscreen dialogue is whip smart and laden with quick witted jokes. The film is frivolous and unashamedly dances round the subjects of unexpected death, remarriage and infidelity in relationships — quite taboo really for a post-war British film. Later in the film we learn that Elvira dies young from a sudden heart attack following a laughing fit at a BBC musical programme on the radio. Initially Charles relishes the idea of living with both his current and departed wife. In fact he appears blissfully unaware of the torment Elvira’s presence is causing Ruth. He seems to enjoy her jealousy. Ruth foils Elvira’s plans to kill Charles but in doing so she herself falls victim to Elvira’s morbid plot and dies in a car crash. Things don’t go quite to plan and Ruth is summoned from her early grave to join Elvira in the ghostly green limbo. Remarkably Charles doesn’t so much as blink an eyelid when he finds out about Ruth’s untimely death and naturally heads to his study for a cigar and stiff drink. 

Elvira Condomine is one of my most beloved on-screen spooks. We are first introduced to her as she glides eerily onscreen, head to toe an unearthly insipid shade of pale green with flashes of fashionable coral lipstick and an enviable ruby red manicure. A woman after my own heart she obviously thought to hell with the saying, ‘red and green should never be seen’. Lighting is used throughout Elvira’s screens to further enhance her supernatural appearance. The visual effects of wind, from gusts of air to powerful gales mark Elvira’s entrance into Charles and Ruth’s home to great effect. The diaphanous bishop sleeved gown (green of course) designed by British designer Rahvis dramatically dances with each tantrum Elvira pulls. Her appearance as a ghost is nothing short of glamour ghoul – the audience is not expected to be scared of this spook, this is a screwball dark comedy after all.

 

by Casci Ritchie

Casci Ritchie is an independent dress historian specialising in fashion, film and consumer cultures. Her true great loves – film and fashion – began when she watched her first film noir, The Big Sleep, as a teenager and fell in love Bacall and Bogie hook line and sinker. Some of her favourite films include Whatever Happened to Baby JaneBeetlejuiceDouble Indemnity and Cry Baby. You can find her over on Twitter at @CasciTRitchie & her blog www.casciritchie.com.

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