1946: Margaret Rutherford in "Blithe Spirit" - Blog - The Film Experience
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1946: Margaret Rutherford in "Blithe Spirit"

Each month before the Supporting Actress Smackdown, Nick Taylor suggests alternatives to the actual Oscar nomination ballot.

by Nick Taylor

For me, Dame Margaret Rutherford sits alongside the likes of Judi Dench and Edith Evans and (insert your favorite British actress/Mark Rylance here) as quintessential examples of British thespians transitioning to remarkably rewarding screen careers later in life, long after establishing their bonafides onstage. What’s recognizable about their screen presences is seemingly integral to every role, though they’re rangier in affect and character-building than one might give them credit for. They almost always deliver, and even when they don't, there's still enough happening in their work for a desperate viewer to latch onto. It takes talent for Rutherford to be compelling enough in The VIPs that you wonder if her performance deserves to be in a better film instead of scraped with the rest of the heap.

It’s also worth noting for the context of Blithe Spirit that Noël Coward wrote the role of Madame Arcati specifically with Rutherford in mind...

She was reviewed as a smashing success when the play premiered in 1941. Blithe Spirit is the story of a bougie Enligsh couple who are haunted by the husband's first wife after a seancé at their house., Rutherford plays the addled medium who let that spirit loose. She, along with Kay Hammond as the mesmerizing first wife, was transported into David Lean’s film adaptation in 1945. It didn’t hit US soils until the next year, winning a well-deserved Oscar for its special effects for its troubles. Still, in a year where the Academy was already celebrating another slightly delayed Lean-Coward production, left out on behalf of a Supporting Actress lineup that has . . . . aged, it’s an odd surprise to find Rutherford sitting out on the sidelines.

There’s a good bit of buildup to Rutherford’s Madame Arcati in the going minutes of Blithe Spirit. Writer Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison, better than his other starring role this year) has invited the world-renowned medium to his home as covert research for a book he’s writing about an occultist. The character in his story is an utter fraud, and though Arcati believes the invitation is sincere, Condomine hasn’t shared that he’s casting her in the role of a stooge. The party is hosted by Condomine and his second wife Ruth (Constance Cummings) and further attended by their friends George and Violet (Hugh Wakefield and Joyce Carey), all of whom plan to watch and snicker behind her back. Our one glimpse of her in the nearly uninterrupted eight minutes devoted to speculating on her authenticity - with only a conversation between the Condomines about Charles’ long-dead first wife Elvira (Hammond, yet to make her entrance) - is the sight of her gliding on her bikes towards the Condomine’s house, in a heavy textile coat, a red velvet dress with white floral frills at the cuffs, and gloves that look like those one would wear when using gardening shears.

In short, the buildup for Madame Arcati suggests that we’re in for a certain kind of comic scene-stealer, deathly unaware of how daffy she is despite her obvious, bumbling ridiculousness. The cutaway of Arcati riding her bike is certainly striking, but it’s mostly derived from costuming and scoring. Who is she, and how will Rutherford play her?

As it turns out, Rutherford’s take on Madame Arcati inhabits a voluptuous liminal space between eccentric curiosity and unabashed conviction, pushing the comedy of Blithe Spirit in a broader direction than most of the cast attempts without upending it into farce or disrupting the other actors. This is all the more impressive given how much of Rutherford’s humor relies on both a greater degree of expressiveness than her co-stars as well as a strong amount of physical comedy, going against the prim Englishness of her hosts with gusts of energy. She’s always moving, bobbing her head in conversation or scrunching her face at a bad joke or making gestures to further illustrate some point she’s making. Sometimes she does all three at once. When she’s absolutely still, as when she gazes upon an upsettingly rare cut of meat, her deadpan disgust is funnier than if she’d made a production of it. I have no idea how much of her gestures and line readings are directly transposed from her stage performance, but it's a great feat of theatrical acting that's perfectly attuned to the demands of the camera. 

Between all of the dashing around living rooms and hosting her seancé, she’s simply happy to be there. Her enthusiasm when discussing her trade is palpable, and she comes across as responding fully and earnestly to her hosts’ questions, rather than sucking all the oxygen out of the room and pontificating about her craft. Both the character and the actress are remarkably communicative with everyone else, leaving plenty of room for the other actors to actually respond to her instead of leaving them gawking at some impenetrable sideshow act or leaving them to keep up with her brilliance. Everyone's in sync with each other. In fact, it's a pretty strong cast, even as Rutherford and Hammond clearly take MVP honors.

Rutherford is not just a dish with her line readings but an uncannily fun reactor, and she supplies plenty of intriguing notes in delineating when Madame Arcati has decided to speak out about a perceived insult or when she chooses not to vocalize it, even if her opinion is plainly legible on her face. She gets a great entrance, bursting through the back entrance after everyone hears the doorbell ring rushes to the front of the house. The first thing she does when she enters the Condomine’s home is tells Charles she was late because she felt a tire on her bike was going to break and she went home to get a spare. Fortunately, the tire was fine! Charles consolingly tells her that it might pop on the way back, and Arcati looks at him like she’s trying to guess if he’s an idiot or just rude. If she never catches on to why she’s been invited, she certainly picks up on when George is being a bit too priggish for her liking. She's very quick to give offense once she sense she's been insulted, responding in a vaguely patronizing way when she's only slightly bothered and getting very cross when her occupation is openly mocked. When she says her goodbyes to George, you get the sense she's trying very hard and mostly failing not to seem as cross as she is.

During the seancé, Rutherford warns Charles against being flippant, and this, I think, is the key to Rutherford’s interpretation of the role. There’s no irony to Madame Arcati - you get the sense she always means precisely what she’s saying, endowing her with a level of sincerity and credibility that makes Blithe Spirit work far better than if it was about a quack learning she had powers. Thank goodness she forgoes imposing some story arc onto Madame Arcati. Instead, she justifies Blithe Spirit as a comedy while contributing a rounded, appealing characterization for the film to pivot around every so often. It’s not that the sight of Rutherford dancing through the Condomine’s house or setting up elaborate tableaux that might cast out Elvira isn’t a bit silly on its face, but she conducts her business in such a way that making fun of her seems beside the point. Either you believe in her or you don’t, and looking dignified in conducting such business is clearly secondary to doing the work.


It’s a frankly fantastic mad scientist performance, all rooted in the giddiness of an expert and colored with the sensibilities and style of a robust, active gardener. When Ruth visits her to relay that she and Charles have been haunted by Elvira, Madame Arcati is so excited she barely knows what to do with her arms, raising them in celebration before holding them behind her back and sort of running around her living room. She’s so delighted to learn she successfully summoned a ghost that she forgets Ruth is there asking for help. Later, when Ruth blames Madame Arcati for Elvira’s arrival and reveals that Charles invited her to the party to mock her, Rutherford’s puffs out her chest and holds her body like she’s trying to overcompensate for how wounded she is, even as it’s obvious in her ever-rising voice how offended she is. And even after this insult, she needs no persuasion when Charles comes calling for help in exorcizing his first wife. She’s too excited to meet Elvira to carry that chip on her shoulder, and too thrilled at the challenge of returning her to the other side not to accept his request. The ensuing montage of failed attempts earns its laughs, but it's unexpectedly gratifying to watch Madame Arcati solve the mystery of how to perform the exorcism. And when she tells Charles to get out of dodge for a bit, you know he should listen.

In short, if you’re walking away from this year’s supporting actress roster (or, y’know, my other alternatives) and would like to continue your research with a pretty good comedy, look no further! Blithe Spirit is a hoot, and nails what I would consider the two most necessary elements for the film to work. Everything about Elvira, from all the visual effects and costuming and makeup used to conjure her ethereal presence to Kay Hammond’s winning, self-amused performance, holds up beautifully. And Rutherford is a treasure, earning the scene-stealer status the role has accrued over the years without once looking like she’s trying to purloin the whole film.

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Reader Comments (13)

Wasn’t there a remake with Judi Dench?

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Yes, yes, yes! We have our winner here! Another film to check out is Passport to Pimlico, where Rutherford plays an archeologist who finds a forgotten treaty in which England gave Pimlico to Burgundy in the Middle Ages, and the residents of Pimlico are just British enough to fight for their right to be Burgundians. She's also brilliant in The Importance of Being Ernest, where she and Edith Evans are allowed to go toe-to-toe. It's priceless.

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Camus

This is our dear David Lean(insert your favorite movie of him), director of dramas and epics directing this universal classic comeu, adapting an eternal stage hit. Margaret Rutherford could/should have won his deserved Oscar here. Wonderful reading.

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

comeu(???)= comedy. 😉

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterGwen

I adore anything with this Dame in.

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I saw this film a few years ago and man, she fucking kicked ass in that film.

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Yet another case of "She won the Oscar for ___________ but should've won for ____________"

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

Margaret Rutherford lived an unconventional life, filled with great highs and lows. She was worried about mental illness throughout her life.

One month after his marriage to the woman who would years later birth Margaret, Rutherford’s father was placed in an asylum. He had bludgeoned his father, a minister, to death. Seven years later he was discharged and reunited with his bride. Margaret was born, and the young family immigrated to India to begin a new life.

The new life didn’t last long. Margaret returned to England at age three to reside with her aunt. In India Margaret’s mother had committed suicide while pregnant. Margaret was told her father died too, but he was readmitted to the asylum where he resided till his death.

Margaret’s aunt proved to a devoted, caring mother. She encouraged her niece’s theatrical ambitions and paid for her studies. Margaret made her professional debut as a stage actress at age 33. She was celebrated as a striking character actress.

At age 53, Margaret married fellow actor Stringer Davis after a 15 year courtship. Davis’s mother objected to the marriage, so the couple simply waited for her demise. By all accounts, Davis was devoted to his wife. He cared for her during battles with depression, including admissions to mental hospitals and electric shock treatments. They remained married till her death.

Early in their marriage they adopted an adult male writer and funded his sex change operation. She later wrote a biography of Margaret who was buried with a headstone inscribed “a blithe spirit.”

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJamesmes

I’m so happy to see this! Margaret Rutherford was a comic genius and I love seeing her appreciated. BTW there is an early 50s British comedy w Margaret and Alistair Sim called The Happiest Days if Your Life that used to occasionally be shown on TCM that is hysterically funny. Required viewing for any M Rutherford fan

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterScottGS

British actors and actresses are always the best!

June 19, 2021 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

@Me - Yes! With Dan Stevens and Leslie Mann and another woman. From what I’ve heard it doesn’t really hold a candle to the original, but I can’t remember reading any opinions on the actors.

@Amy Camus and ScottGS - I need to see those! I’ve heard lots of good things about Earnest but I’d never even heard of Passport or Happiest Days, both of which sound hilarious. Will definitely seek those out in the future.

@Gwen - Thank you! Watching so many of Lean’s ‘40s films for the Smackdown have really given me a new appreciation for him. And she really should have been nominated for this - I’d take her over the lineup we got.

@markgordonuk - She’s such a singular screen presence. I love her face.

@thevoid99 - She kicks so much ass. And so does Hammond! Such great performances.

@NewMoonSun - Probably not the most egregious case of this, but certainly a notable one.

@Jamesmes - I had no idea how storied her life was! That’s incredible. Thank you for sharing all of that - I look forward to seeing more of her films and learning more about her.

@brandz - Between this and Brief Encounter, 1946 was a good year for British actresses.

June 20, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterNick Taylor

This reads like an Almost There article, and I'm all for it!

June 21, 2021 | Unregistered Commenterajnrules

Is it there anyone who knows and doesn't LOVE Rutheford? Passport to Pimlico, is still my fave film with her...

... and one of my all times faves. As geographer, historian and development expert is still an amazing screenplay, in 2021... and a delight.

June 22, 2021 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso
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