Blithe Spirit, David Lean’s delightful film version of Noël Coward’s theater sensation (onstage, it broke London box-office records before hitting Broadway), stars Rex Harrison as a novelist who cheekily invites a medium (Margaret Rutherford) to his house to conduct a séance, hoping the experience will inspire a book he’s working on. Things go decidedly not as planned when she summons the spirit of his dead first wife (Kay Hammond), a severe inconvenience for his current one (Constance Cummings). Employing Oscar-winning special effects to spruce up Coward’s theatrical farce, Blithe Spirit is a sprightly supernatural comedy with winning performances.
Criterion has put together a 4-disc box set representing the collaborative work of playwright Noël Coward and director David Lean, calling it David Lean Directs Noël Coward. The third film in the set, Blithe Spirit, is presented here on a dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1.
In association with ITV Studios Global Entertainment and StudioCanal the BFI conducted a vigorous restoration of Lean’s first ten films, with funding from the David Lean Foundation. These restorations were used for all of the transfers in this set and were supplied to Criterion by ITV. All of them look exceptional.
Though the source materials were maybe a tad more problematic than what were used for This Happy Breed, the only other Technicolor film in the set, Blithe Spirit’s transfer delivers just as sharp a presentation as that one. Detail and clarity is again superb and film grain is naturally rendered, never looking like noise. Colours are again nicely saturated and pop but it still keeps its Technicolor look.
All issues I could spot are really in the print, which presents some pulsating and a few blemishes. There is some colour separation to be found as well but it’s not too bad. Again, like every other presentation in the Lean/Coward set, it’s a beautiful, smooth looking presentation.
Similar to the other discs in this set the lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono track delivers clear, articulate dialogue but still shows its age. It’s a bit flat, the music can get a little edgy and rough in places, and you can make out some minor noise. Still, in the end, it’s easy to hear and is perfectly fine for the film.
Each disc in the set contains its own set of supplements, with a few focusing specifically on the film contained on the disc. This review only concentrates on the supplements included on the disc of Blithe Spirit.
A common feature between all of the discs is an interview with Coward scholar Barry Day. This one is the shortest of the bunch, running about 11-minutes. In it Day defends the film but admits that there are many not fond of it and Coward was probably the biggest critic out of them all: he told Lean he had “fucked up” the best thing he ever did. Lean was not a fan of the play and Day admits that Lean pretty much just “filmed the play” and points out the weaknesses, the primary one probably being Lean’s sense of humour didn’t match that of the play’s. Day also talks about the original play’s ending, which differed a great deal from the film’s, which adds what I guess you could was a “happier ending”. Judging by all of the negative energy that sounds to have been on set I’m amazed this film even turned out at all (even Harrison hated the script and disliked working with Margaret Rutherford.) Like every other interview in the set with Day he is again very dry but manages to still keep his pieces entertaining and informative.
Next, Criterion includes a 1992 episode of The Southbanks Show about Noël Coward, complete with horrendous 90’s television effects. The 51-minute episode is a typical biography, gathering new and archival interviews with friends, peers, family, scholars, and more, who all cover Coward’s long career. Included are interviews with actors John Gielgud, John Mills, director David Lean, his partner Graham Payn, and many more. The piece also includes older interviews with Coward himself, including footage from the Attenborough interview that was only included as audio on Criterion’s In Which We Serve disc. The episode begins with his childhood, where his mother was preparing him already to become a showman of some sort (Coward says he was “trained to be a show off.”) And then it gets into some of his early acting roles and then his move to a playwright, where he of course wrote himself his own roles. It looks briefly at his music, despite the handicap of not being able to read or write music, and then his films during wartime, specifically In Which We Server and Brief Encounter. Despite the dated elements of the episode it’s a great addition offering a wonderful examination of the man’s life and work.
The supplements then conclude with the film’s theatrical trailer. The set also comes with a booklet with a number of essays, including one by Geoffrey O’Brien on Blithe Spirit.
In terms of supplements this disc is probably the weakest of the bunch in this category, but I again enjoyed the Day interview and was especially fond of the Coward biography.
The Lean/Coward set is a superb set overall and Blithe Spirit is another strong release within it. It has the weaker set of supplements but they’re still worth going through, but like the other titles in the set it again delivers a beautiful looking transfer.