Blithe Spirit is funny and withering in equal measure, but don’t be fooled. The real mischief lies beneath its snappy charm.
Gentleman novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) hosts a sophisticated dinner party – with a séance thrown in. He says it’s research for a book, but the guests accidentally summon his ex-wife from beyond the grave. And she wants Charles back …
David Lean’s classic comedy oozes charm, biting put downs and ghostly dread. In fact, it’s one of several adaptations of Noel Coward’s 1941 play, Blithe Spirit.
Coward even produced Lean’s film and does the opening narration (though reportedly hated the final scene).
The title is from To a Skylark, an 1820 poem by romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
The poem is about the search for happiness, but the concept feels ironic in Coward’s story given its cynical view of marriage.
5 ways India appears as a motif in Blithe Spirit
Notions of India and Indianness crop up repeatedly in David Lean’s adaptation of Blithe Spirit.
- The film’s opening scenes paint Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) as a bonkers spiritualist, running around the moors in Indian robes.
- Arcati has spent time in India – the implication being the country is home to the dark arts.
- According to Arcati, however, Indians are unreliable when summoning spirits (i.e., the English are better masters of such things).
- Arcati offers Ruth a cup of China tea saying “I never touch Indian. It upsets my vibrations!”
- Mr Condomine keeps a painting of an Indian woman above the mantelpiece.
So there’s a narrative echo running through the story. But what does it signify?
How India is short-hand for the exotic
The British have a long, colonial history with India – one involving slavery, theft and genocide. Unsurprisingly, they don’t always recognise it as this, sometimes still choosing to see the relationship as one of benevolence and divine right.
Colonial relationships are deeply moored in racism and hierarchical thinking but in 1941, few Brits would have questioned it. At the same time, they were also familiar with the romanticised tropes of Empire: stories of uncivilised natives brimming with eroticism and exoticism, and the comedy of difference.
This kind of Othering has a long history in ghost stories. We rely on dread of the unknown to feel frightened. What’s more, it’s shaped by a shared, cultural network. We learn to fear what lies beyond cultural norms.
Consider Hitchcock’s Psycho, which implies a man in woman’s clothes is more terrifying than a serial killer (one based on the deeply disturbing Ed Gein, no less). Similarly, films use mental illness, disability and race to frighten middle-of-the-road audiences – a tactic that can unfairly make victims or villains of those who fall beyond boundaries of the acceptable or the majority.
Hence hearing about Madame Arcati in her Indian robes signifies something dark and eerie. It paints her as an unhinged witch, and is confirmed up by her eccentricity, jerky movements and captivating facial gurning.
Arcati mentions India and Indians as a cultural breadcrumb: it points to fears of blackness and primitiveness. It’s something not Christian, and therefore as good as hellish. Perhaps colonialism is also bound with repressed guilt, and therefore the fear of retaliation (see also Alien: Covenant).
And, of course, the way the Indians do things differently is meant to be … well, funny.
The spectre of India in the film connotes other things, too. It implies Mr Condomine is well travelled, well read, and a man of the world [wink, finger gun]. And it introduces and normalises the other hierarchies that the film relies on.
Otherness and invisibility
If Madame Arcati really does see and speak to the dead, it’s often pure fluke. She says as much of the case that first made her famous, a scenario that repeats during her séance with the Condomines.
Maid Edith has the real psychic ability. She accidentally (or not?) summons Elvira and Ruth from the dead, and is the only one who can send them back. Edith is hiding in plain sight throughout the film. So why don’t we see her?
Well, the roles – and comedy – of Edith and Madame Arcati come from their roles as working women.
Rutherford brings Arcati to life with her mannerisms and astonishing facial tics. The Condomines find her to be ridiculous and laughable – because she’s outside their class circle. She’s hale and hearty, rather than delicate and retiring. She works for a living. And like the servants in The Nanny and The Others, she’s old and unmarried.
Similarly, Edith is a plain, dumpy housemaid. She scampers rather than walking with grace. She’s at the bottom of the social chain – and so she’s invisible.
Just as the film’s eerie comedy relies on racial Othering, its comedy is bolted to social Otherness.
Sidebar: a standout scene
Did you spot the mirror scene halfway through the movie? Charles Condomine spends the night catching up with first wife Elvira. As the camera pans away from we catch sight of the pair reflected in the hall mirror.
This may not be a mirror reflection, but rather a cleverly constructed window (you can just make out the cameraman’s reflection). We may even be looking at the same room with the furniture moved around.
Blithe spirit, dull marriage
Charles and Ruth (Constance Cummings) have a very practical marriage. They love each other, but they don’t need fireworks. “We’re not adolescents”, Ruth says.
They sleep in separate beds, too – though this likely has more to do with production codes of the time, which dictated that couples couldn’t be shown to share a bed.
It’s an almost parental, platonic relationship (one where Ruth is the mother figure). Vampish Elvira (Kay Hammond), in contrast, is hugely disruptive – she’s far sexier and playful, and isn’t afraid to flirt.
In this sense, Blithe Spirit is a sex comedy based on a very common theme: two girls, one cup. I mean, husband. Charles Condomine is married, and yet here he is flirting with his wife, while hoping his other wife doesn’t find out. It’s classic farce, albeit moored in a now rather dated kind of misogyny.
Ultimately, Blithe Spirit’s message is funny in a camp, catty kind of way. Marriage is dull and staid – so much so that death seems more joyous in comparison. And so it has to be to make the comedy work.
For the same reason, none of the characters are truly likeable. Keep in mind, too, that it was released during World War II, when laughter and distraction were important on-screen. It’s a comedy about death and dying and, as Noel Coward said:
“you can’t sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story.”
The film reflects the societal flaws of the day, yet it remains alluring, funny and caustic. It’s helped in this because its hierarchies are ultimately shown to be fragile and sometimes silly things.
While Coward’s play ends with Condomine leaving (alone), Lean has him saddled with two wives.
This seems fittingly disruptive. Rather than marital bliss being the end of the story, as is usually the case with comedies, Lean introduces an eternal punishment. Till death us do part? Only if you’re lucky.
Blithe Spirit (1945), directed by David Lean
What to read or watch next
- Brief Encounter (Lean & Coward)
- Blithe Spirit (2020 remake)
- A Haunting in Venice (psychics and séances)
- Rebecca (the ghost of a dead wife)
- Ghost (the ghost of a dead husband)
- Move Over Darling, Sommersby, Cast Away (a supposedly dead partner returns)
- Séance on a Wet Afternoon (psychics)
Picture credit: Soragrit Wongsa