Extremely spoilery about both Blithe Spirits and you’ll also have to simply accept that ghosts are real. (My review of the new Blithe Spirit film is here.)
To misquote Princess Di, “there were three people in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”.
None of the three in Blithe Spirit (1945) or Blithe Spirit (2020) – wife no.1 Elivra, wife no.2 Ruth, husband Charles – seems very nice, which makes watching either film quite a relaxing affair because we don’t care who “wins”. (Though I’ll admit that while watching the 1945 film, I felt a momentary desire to declare myself Team Elvira! in sympathy when the long-dead wife of Charles Condomine told her husband “I haven’t seen a movie for seven years!”)
That they all end up dead in some kind of self-made purgatory in that version feels like, to mix religions, karma. (The 2020 version goes heavier on frothy girl power, with the ghostly Ruth killing Charles by running him over on a Hollywood film set, then she and Elivra driving off like a sort of paranormal Thelma And Louise – fittingly, as Ruth had already been killed when her car went off a cliff.)
The films are based on Noel Coward’s successful 1941 play of the same name, though there are differences in the two films’ plots. Both cover the following ground though: well-to-do writer Charles Condomine’s first wife Elvira died seven years ago, and he’s now married to Ruth. Hiring a medium for the evening, he’s hoping for material to use in his current writing project – he, Ruth, and their friends the Bradmans think the whole thing is hilarious. The medium, named Madame Arcati, believes herself to be genuine at least; and she leaves after what appears to be an unsuccessful seance convinced something happened. Later in the evening, Charles sees the ghost of Elvira. She’s annoyed he has remarried, and eventually starts trying to kill him so they can be together, but accidentally kills Ruth instead when she cuts the brakes on the car. Ruth, who has been trying to get Mme Arcati to send Elvira back from where she came from, returns as another ghost. The wives kill Charles in a car crash, and he too is now a ghost.
The 1945 version is certainly the better film, though its stagey origins are very obvious. The remake, which I watched first, is lurid but disappointing; particularly galling as I was seeking some morbid comic relief after realising my previous three movie watches had involved two extinction level planetary events and a devastating family tragedy.
I’m not sure either Charles Condomine would have seen their wives’ demise as devastatingly tragic. Elvira ’45, recovering from pneumonia, died from a heart attack while watching a programme on the BBC, something I thought only happened to Daily Telegraph journalists.
Elvira ’20 was competing on her horse in terrible weather, coming off at the last fence and breaking her neck.
That doesn’t stop both Ruths being slightly jealous of their dead predecessors, though. In the eyes of a new wife, deceased previous wives can still maintain the capacity for judgement, even if all they’re doing is staring down from a fading photograph.
Ruth ’45 (a delightfully brittle Constance Cummings) turns out to have long been a little snippy about Elvira’s memory, and she’s not stopping now: “she died – comparatively young,” she tells local medium Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford). Elegant but unshowy, this Ruth is much more understated than her 2020 counterpart, played by Isla Fisher. (The original was actually filmed in 1944, a year before WW2 ended, and it didn’t do to be flash then, even if your clothes were expensive.)
Directed by David Lean, the first film’s verve and zing is driven by the characters’ interactions. Charles and Ruth’s conversation is a fast but elegant tennis match with an undercurrent of flinty bitterness even before Elvira’s appearance, as two cynical soulmates, past the first flush of youth, indulge in a game of verbal one-upmanship. They dress for dinner even when it’s only the two of them, and live in a wisteria-draped small country house where every room is filled with classic furniture.
This is Rebecca with actual ghosts, and jokes, and it all turns out to be the fault of a woman on the staff – Edith the maid, who accidentally brings Elvira back in the first place.
Charles ’45 (Rex Harrison) has zero empathy but is an entertainingly horrible wit, funny in the way rich white men often were, as no one told them off for being hideously rude. Always matter-of-fact, he rebukes the catty Elvira’s mocking of Ruth’s sewing project with “Ruth is perfectly aware the table centre is hideous, it’s a birthday gift for her mother”. Snapping right back into his role as Elvira’s husband, dead or not, he later goes into into Folkstone in the car with her as she wants to visit an old friend.
By contrast the new Blithe Spirit replaces that heartless, screwball vibe with whining and slapstick. It looks gorgeous, though its setting is not for the faint of heart. This Blithe Spirit is retina-burning bright, but with little underneath. The Condomines’ home is stunning, a white modernist 1930s house with rooms painted all the colours of the rainbow, furnished with of-the-moment art deco furniture. Only Charles’s study in an outbuilding has the messy, mixed-era aesthetic of a writer.
Unfortunately its other changes take sparkling fireworks and transform them into damp squibs. Neither Elvira (Leslie Mann) nor Ruth can do much with the limp material, though Mann makes a spirited attempt; she’s the best thing in the film. The main problem with it is Charles (Dan Stevens), who is now thoroughly wet and whiny when he should be knife-sharp and meanly funny.
The 1945 version (I can’t believe that’s 75 years ago) won an Oscar for best visual effects, and actually – as this is a comedy about fragile hearts beating beneath thin skins rather than ghosts – the 2021 remake doesn’t need to offer much more in the way of otherworldly shocks. In the first film, a chair moves through the air as if by itself; in the second, an invisible Elvira defaces a picture with red lipstick. 1945 Charles’s two dead, grey-green wives fade into the background and disappear when Edith the maid finally manages to make them de-materialise, which works perfectly well, though the still-living Ruth earlier walking through the dead Elvira on the stairs doesn’t.
Both movies boast national treasures as their Mme Arcati, who is convinced in each film that she has a genuine gift. Margaret Rutherford (1945) and Judi Dench (2020) offer poignant turns amid the movies’ icy jokes. Rutherford’s is mostly hidden beneath cheery what-ho bounce; Dench’s medium tends to the melancholy, pining for her husband who died decades before. Her Arcati takes refuge in glittery stereotype – with luxurious robes and exploding fires – while Rutherford’s is a brisk elderly spinster, solid of bosom, whinnying and snorting like a horse, her attempts at spell-casting involving throwing greenery over the ghosts.
Both films end with Charles’ death, though they arrive there by different paths. New Charles is caught out as an unwitting plagiarist, though it’s not entirely clear who the actual writer of his books was. A running joke is that Elvira was their true author, and his comeback screenplay is actually written with help from her ghost.
But after Ruth’s death, he’s collared by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper on-set with evidence that all his plots are stolen from a different writer entirely. It’s certainly a set-up arranged by Elvira, though whether she’s framing Charles with a faked writer and was herself the original author, or she did steal the storylines herself, isn’t entirely clear.
I like to think that Elvira – who had an affair with a Captain Bracegirdle on her gloomy Budleigh Salterton honeymoon – was a naughty wife in more ways than one. There’s something rather brilliant about a woman who claims men always take the credit for women’s work when she stole all that work from a man.
Charles ’45 is killed in a car crash, watched by both his ghostly wives – and ends up forced to spend eternity with both, which doesn’t sound much fun for any of them. Charles ’20 has a similar fate – a mid-credits scene has all three of them together in the afterlife.
Even the cutting witticisms (1945 version) and shrieks (2020 version) that they’re sure to swap endlessly can’t be shared with an appreciative world, unless one of them learns how to hijack some sad spiritualist’s automatic writing.
Blithe Spirit, a Sky Original, will be released in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 15 January. The film will also be available on streaming service NOW TV via the Sky Cinema Pass. You can read my review here.
The 1945 version is available from Amazon: