Blithe Spirit was one of four films that Noel Coward wrote/produced in conjunction with director David Lean. The others were the Wartime film In Which We Serve (1942), which Lean actually co-directed with Coward, the family saga This Happy Breed (1944) and the classic romantic drama Brief Encounter (1945). These were also the first four films made by David Lean who would go onto become one of the greats of the British film industry with epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984), as well as one quasi-science fiction film The Sound Barrier/Breaking the Sound Barrier (1952).
Blithe Spirit is one of Noel Cowards droll drawing room comedies. Like many of Cowards works, the dialogue is filled with sharp and witty asides, pokes fun at its characters very British eccentricities, leaves a light amusement and has no greater profundity than that. Noel Cowards plays have dated in the respect that they are very much rooted in the time and place they were written the British upper middle-classes of the 1930s and 40s, something that is fairly much a dying breed today. Blithe Spirit is certainly very likeable. It moves through several amusing if predictable reversals, all interspersed with Cowards pithy Oscar Wilde-esque one-liners.
The film is well cast and played by all involved. It is interesting, knowing Rex Harrison through roles like My Fair Lady (1964) and Doctor Dolittle (1967), where he was in his mid-50s, to see him playing a handsome, young leading man here. As the ghostly wife, Kay Hammond vamps it up archly her performance rarely consists of anything else. The film is fairly much stolen by that grand old dame of the British theatre, Margaret Rutherford, who sweeps the whole show up with her daffy presence in the role of the medium.
It is perhaps worth comparing Blithe Spirit to other light fantasy ghost stories of the era such as The Ghost Goes West (1936), Topper (1937) and sequels, and The Canterville Ghost (1944), which were much more openly knockabout and screwball in their comedy. More to the point, they were more overtly supernatural in their manifestations, whereas Blithe Spirit keeps to the convention of what the play must have done the ghost is a woman in white dress and with white greasepaint on her face who interacts with the other players who pretend not to see her. In this sense, David Lean appears to be faithful to the play, with the film clearly remaining stagebound and centred around a single setting.
One notable aspect is the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. Rather than the employment of any special or optical effects, Elviras ghostliness is an effect that has been created solely via the Technicolor photography, which is used to emphasize her in white against the rest of the colour surrounds. This is an effect that is surely lost on modern audiences but back in an era where film was still predominantly shot in black-and-white, the appearance of a woman all in white must have had striking effect.
The play has been remade several times, mostly for tv. Other adaptations are: an early American tv version in 1946; a British tv play version in 1964, which was part of a season of Noel Coward adaptations; an American tv version in 1966 starring Dirk Bogarde; and a German tv adaptation in 1966. Coward himself wrote, directed and played the role of the husband in one tv adaptation, Blithe Spirit (1956), alongside Lauren Bacall as the departed wife.