Blithe Spirit (1945): David Lean’s Screen Version of Noel Coward Play, Starring Rex Harrison

In Blithe Spirit, the sophisticatedly witty, occasionally hilarious screen version of Noel Coward’s famous play, adapted to the screen by him and David Lean, Rex Harrison plays a novelist, who conjures up his late first wife, who then causes trouble in his second marriage.

The screenplay of this fantasy-comedy, penned by Lean, cinematographer Ronald Neame and associate producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, is based on producer Noël Coward’s 1941 play of the same name. Its title derives from the line “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert” in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “To a Skylark.”

Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford reprised in the film the roles that they had created in the original production, along with Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings in the lead parts of Charles and Ruth Condomine.

Margaret Rutherford steals every scene she is in as the inept, adorable medium, aptly named Madame Arcati.

Thematically, but not stylistically, “Blithe Spirit” is similar to the Hollywood chestnut, MGM’s screwball comedy “Topper” (1937), starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, which spawned a number of sequels.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Synopsis)

Seeking material for his new mystery novel, Charles Condomine invites eccentric medium Madame Arcati to his home in Lympne, Kent, to conduct a séance. As Charles, his wife Ruth and their guests, George and Violet Bradman restrain themselves from laughing, Madame Arcati performs peculiar rituals and finally goes into a trance.

Charles then hears the voice of his dead first wife Elvira, but when the others cannot hear her, he makes it a joke. When Arcati recovers, she is certain that something extraordinary has occurred, but everyone denies it.

After Madame Arcati and the Bradmans leave, Charles is unable to convince Ruth that he was not joking. Ruth retires for the night, and Elvira becomes visible–only to Charles–who becomes dismayed and amused by the situation. Ruth is upset, until he persuades Elvira to act as poltergeist and transport a vase and chair in front of his current wife.

Ruth seeks Madame Arcati’s help in sending Elvira back, but the medium does not know how. Ruth warns her disbelieving husband that Elvira wishes to be reunited with him by his demise. However, the spirit miscalculates, and Ruth, not Charles, drives off in the car she has tampered with and ends up dead. A vengeful Ruth, now in spirit form, begins to harass Elvira.

Charles, desperate, seeks Madame Arcati’s help. Various incantations fail, until Arcati realizes it was the Condomines’ maid Edith who summoned Elvira. Arcati wants to send the spirits away, but it becomes clear that both have remained.

Spoiler Alert

Charles then sets out on a vacation, but he has a fatal accident while driving, and he joins Elvira and Ruth as a spirit.

Oscar Alert

“Blithe Spirit” won the Special Effects Oscar for Thomas Howard. Rex Harrison was nominated for Best Actor in 1963 for “Cleopatra,” and won the Oscar the following year for “My Fair Lady.”

While not very successful at the time and disliked by Coward himself, it’s now mostly notable for its Technicolor photography and Oscar-winning visual effects.

Rex Harrison as Charles Condomine
Constance Cummings as Ruth Condomine
Kay Hammond as Elvira Condomine
Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati
Hugh Wakefield as Doctor George Bradman
Joyce Carey as Violet Bradman
Jacqueline Clarke as Edith
Marie Ault as Cook (uncredited)
Johnnie Schofield as Man directing traffic (uncredited)
Noël Coward as narrator (uncredited)


Produced by Noel Coward.
Directed by David Lean and Noel Coward.
Screenplay: Coward, Lean, and Anthony Havelock-Allan, based on Coward’s play
Camera: Ronald Neame.
Editing: Jack Harris
Music: Richard Addinselli
Art Direction: C.P. Norman