While classic movies are brimming over with dames, on average they parcel out one per film. The film of Noel Coward’s play, Blithe Spirit, happily eschews such miserly rationing. There are at least 3 dames, two of whom are some of my favorites. (More about that in a bit.)
Despite being worried that a comedy featuring ghosts might be found in bad taste in wartime England (his worries were well-founded), Coward wrote Blithe Spirit, and when it was finished he said, “disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.” Indeed, the play was a huge success, breaking length-of-run records until Mousetrap overtook it 3 decades later. The Guardian indicated, “London received Mr. Noel Coward’s ghoulish farce with loud, though not quite unanimous acclaim. There was a solitary boo – from an annoyed spiritualist, presumably.” (Iam of the opinion that the boo was not critical at all, but a pun on ghosts’ most-frequent exclamation.)
In 1945 David Lean and Coward made a film version which I LOVE. I always enjoy Noel Coward’s blend of wit, intelligence, and sexual sophistication, and that distinctly British brand of urbane manners up against the supernatural in Blithe Spirit really ups the comedy ante for me.
The plot, in a nutshell: To research his next book, married writer Rex Harrison invites spiritualist Madame Arcati over in “the spirit of ribaldry”. But the séance ends up accidentally summoning Rex’s first wife, Elvira. This bugs his current wife, Ruth, no end. Hilarity ensues.
To keep this short(er) and spoiler-free, I’ll just focus on how much I love the dame-iest members of the cast. Margaret Rutherford (I LOVE Margaret Rutherford!) originated Madame Arcati on stage, and plays her here in the movie with loveable life force and eccentric “I’m my own best friend” gusto. Watching it alone in my apartment I have to work to suppress applause every time she exits a scene. (I wonder if 1940s theater-goers restrained themselves?) Madame Arcati’s charming, cheery I-don’t-care-if-you think-I’m-weird-I-love-life-and-I’m-crushing-it vibe is as inspiring as it is entertaining. She is comfortable in her bike-riding, ghost-communicating, metaphor-spouting skin. She’s so freakin’ English if you cut her she’d bleed tea. She is DIY AF and her wardrobe is so on FLEEK. She rocks a Hedi Slimane Gucci wardrobe that would have any fashionista hitting pause more than once. And that AMAZE-ing red velvet dress with the lace collar and cuffs and puffed shoulders? Blithe bae. If Blithe Spirit’s afterlife is real, I look forward to hanging with Margaret one day, gossiping and telling any dead jerks who make snide remarks to fuck off. (Though other Madame Arcatis include super dame-y dames like Angela Lansbury, Beatrice Lillie, and Ruth Gordon, I remain loyal to MR.)
Now on to one of Rex’s two wives, the ethereal yet earthy Elvira (played by Kay Hammond). Being a spirit hasn’t tamped down any of Elvira’s not-so-spiritual louche petulance, disdain, or vixenry. Considering she’s been unexpectedly plucked from the dead — “Not dead, passed over. It’s considered very vulgar to say dead where I come from” – Elvira’s rather languid about everything. She’s devil-may-care and bored about her arrival back on this plane. She makes the kind of critical remarks that are deeply bitchy in real life but light and amusing in plays. Her husband remembered “her attractiveness which was enormous and her spiritual qualities which were nil.” That may not be what I look for in a ghost, or someone sitting next to me on a long flight, but as an otherworldly role model, she’ll do. Elvira is the most sophisticated ghost I’ve ever encountered, languorous and glamorous in her dressing gown. The juxtaposition of her coral lipstick against that green skin — stunning! Plus, her parting line is the kind of buoyant bitchiness one hopes one can summon even as one is evaporating.
Anyway, Elvira is a died-in-the-wool dame (see what I did there?). Madame Arcati is the kind of dame I strive to be: comfortable, confident and able to bike up a steep hill. And the very words “Blithe Spirit” describe a dame at her best. But I wouldn’t say the damery is the only reason to watch the movie. Though Margaret’s performance and Elvira’s chic green complexion are entrancing, I’d say go for the damery and stay for Noel Coward’s witty erudition. Watch it curled up with cocoa on a gray, rainy day; it will lift your spirit to a decidedly blithe-ier level.
P.S. One of my favorite lines in the play (and tragically true): “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” Sadly, this is all-too apparent when it comes to Trump’s base today.
P.P.S. In 1956, Noel Coward directed a live American television adaptation in which he also starred as the writer, with Claudette Colbert as present-wife Ruth, and Lauren Bacall as slinky Elvira. Dame-erific.