Five Movies with Spirits

 DATELINE: Oldies but Goodies

Mrs. Muir & Ghost




Crusty Dead Sea Captain?

You may well wonder why five of the most influential and fascinating fantasy films about timeless ghostly encounters were made in a short span of the 1940s.

Some theories have centered on the fact it was the time that millions of women lost their husbands and boyfriends to casualties of World War II.

Our selected films do feature a romantic drama complicated by the fatalism of war. Two movies present men (one maimed, one an alleged suicide), and two depict dead women (yearning for unrealized love).

The women characters grow up and grow old in long sequences of time passing. Two of the men are actually one man: Rex Harrison.

If you have not guessed the movies, here they are:

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, wherein Gene Tierney meets a salty and dead sea captain at her new home, Gull Cottage (see photo above). In Blithe Spirit, a sophisticated writer finds his first dead wife jealously returned to claim her husband. (See photo below). It’s the only one in color, if that’s your preference.

Playful Blithe Spirit Rutherford as Madam Acardi

Between Two Worlds features a shipload of dead people learning their fate—and finding heaven and hell are the same destination and destiny.

Go to Hell?  Go to Heaven or Hell?

Life apparently is filled with apparitions and reincarnated souls, as told by these literary-styled tales.


Jennie, Dead Dream Girl  Jennie, Dead Dream Girl?

Portrait of Jennie featured a painter whose model seems to age a few years with every sitting—and who died before they met. In Enchanted Cottage, a location with magical qualities can help a disfigured war survivor and an ugly woman find themselves transformed into movie stars by an invisible benevolent force in the universe.

Enchantment Makeover  Enchanted Makeover?

If you are haunted by lost love, dead friends, and cheating fate, you may relate to these stunning films.

There are some fairly sophisticated quantum physics theories at work back in the 1940s. We hear about tears in the seams of time, or atmospheric conditions that give a place parallel universal magic, or we meet obese Examiners who measure your life like a haberdasher fitting a good suit.

In nearly every instance of these plots, you must ultimately give up the dead and continue your life until you may be returned to some dimension where death is ephemeral and an illusion.

Perhaps we love these movies because they tell the fortunes of a haunted landlord and his soulful tenant.

Our Cosmo Topper ties to a personal spirit parallel each of the story-lines of old celluloid ghosts. If there is a common thread for all these stories, it is a dimension called limbo. One day both parties will be reunited, if not reincarnated.

Our Man in Havana: Cuba Before Fall

DATELINE:  Greene for Thrills

ready for bed Guinness Doth Make Coward!

Would lightning strike twice? Throw in a Graham Greene novella, director Carol Reed, and a hotbed of political activity in the 1950s, and voila, you have an instant spy thriller, called Our Man in Havana.

The novella and screenplay were written by Greene himself, which may or may not be good, considering his lofty and singular opinion of what a good film should be. He respected Carol Reed enough to trust him again after The Third Man. And, with his lukewarm anti-American streak, the pre-Communist Castro lent his blessing to the project.

The result is a last-ditch look at the charm of old Havana before it underwent a lifetime of rot. To see it like this may sadden any self-respecting tourista.

Add in a delicious cast:  Alec Guinness as a would-be spy, Ernie Kovacs as a Cuban military leader, Maureen O’Hara as an officious colleague, Noel Coward as a Home Office Boy, with Ralph Richardson as his boss, and Burl Ives, hot off his Oscar, as a German expatriate, and something’s gotta give. The story concerns a British vacuum salesman who gives off airs of an obsequious secret agent who riles up the Cuban dictatorship before Castro. You mean there was no role for Errol Flynn who was there for the Cuban rebel girls?

At one point, Guinness notes that his daughter has an American accent for some reason. We suspect it has to do with the producer hiring his girlfriend, but we may be too harsh.

Burl Ives advises Guiness to take a job as a secret agent for Noel Coward and send it fake secret reports by fake secret agents. Alas, reality bites: everything he makes up is actually true.

The humor is so dry in this film that it almost seems arid. Greene rakes the James Bond ilk over the coals, with its bird-dropping invisible ink and codes taken out of a Dickensian book of Lamb to the slaughter sayings.

Kovacs and Guinness play a game of drinking checkers as a mental match.

Today’s audiences may be more befuddled by the intelligence of yore. Some of the actors are clearly in a straitjacket with not much ado. Yet, the overall effect is high-dudgeon Cold War spy thrills.

Our Man in Havana is simply amazing when not overwrought with super-suction.

Love, Cecil: Move Over, Truman, Noel, and Andy!

DATELINE: Save the Queen!

Bright young Beaton Bright Young Beaton!

It’s pronounced Seh-sill, not Sea-sill.

He rose from humble middle-class British life to starring role in every art scene of the 20th century. He was an inveterate snob.

Cecil Beaton was a force to be reckoned with in life—usurping the gay flighty worlds of Warhol and Truman Capote. Though he loathed Noel Coward, he matched them every step of the way down the gay runway.

Billed as the tastemaker of the 20th century, his vast collection of films, photos, designs, and assorted images, make up the compendium. He also gave many interviews. Yet, he still comes across as a social climber and proto-gay libber.

Beaton was always impressed with royalty, being one of those commoners from England. When he came to America, he instigated controversy everywhere: comparing British women to American.

However, he nearly destroyed his career with a careless and stupid anti-Semitic design in Vogue. He claimed to have been careless and thoughtless, as was his entire youth. Deep down, he was shallow.

The other key event in his life was becoming a war photographer during World War II. It redeemed his reputation.

His Hollywood ties include an infatuation with Garbo—asking her to join him in one of those arranged “friendship” marriages, as he preferred boys and she, girls.

By the 1950s and 1960s, he was taking pictures of all the most famous people: Marilyn, Warhol, Mick Jagger, and on and on. He was slight, epicene, and queenly, before it was considered stylish. If anything fit better, he was the natural heir to Oscar Wilde and Serge Diaghilev.

He also played a prominent role in Scotty Bowers’ documentary, Secret History of Hollywood. This Zircon is narrated by Rupert Everett.


Noël Coward No Surprise in Surprise Package

DATELINE: Art Buchwald Satire

 Mitzi & Noel Mitzi & Noël sing and dance!

Sir Noël, showman and epitome of the English gentleman, made a plethora of movies from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. He only turned down playing Dr. No in the James Bond spy movie.

From Our Man in Havana to the Italian Job, he lent his delectable presence in costarring roles. In 1960 he went opposite Yul Brynner in the Stanley Donen comedy called Surprise Package.

The big surprise is that it was written by satirist Art Buchwald, though you would never know it. Our favorite humorist seems lost in this adapted script.

Apart from the delicious scenes between mobster Nico March (Yul) and the deposed and exiled King Pavel the Patient (Noël), the movie is not really funny or smart. However, every time you find Brynner and Coward in matchup mode, there is something extraordinary going on.

You almost have the sense that the film was meant for someone else: perhaps James Cagney, to shoot dialogue like a machine gun. Mitzi Gaynor seems to be playing Judy Holiday. Brynner is on top of it, impressive as always.

No one else in movies could have played the deadpan, throwaway lines like Noël Coward. He’s in his own movie world, like Mae West. The rest of the cast is along for the ride.

Coward steals every moment on camera, like the master showman he always was. He could depose Burton and Taylor in Boom, and so going up against Yul Brynner shortly before the Magnificent Seven might have amused Noël.

It’s a soufflé, for sure, and perhaps the success of Donen brought Coward in for the Greek isle locations shooting.

Yul had just finished another comedy with Donen, and likely enjoyed the change of pace from epical heroes and villains.

Surprise Package would be a bad TV movie nowadays with execrable actors. However, when the legends at the top of their game deign to appear in silly roles, you must pay attention.





Coward’s Italian Job, Mad Dogs & Englishmen

 DATELINE:  Sir Noël

Caine & Coward Caine & Coward Comedy!

Noël Coward and Benny Hill? In the same movie?

Our attention has been caught big-time in this 1969 crime caper movie, a genre all the rage in the 1960s, with epitome The Italian Job. Forget the recent remake.

As if pairing those Benny and Noël was enough, you add in Rossano Brazzi and Raf Vallone as the genuine Italians—and Michael Caine as the British mastermind of a robbery in Turin, Italy, of gold bullion being driven through its narrow streets.

The film is lusciously produced with all those magnificent scenes of the historic Italian city and the gorgeous Italian Alps with its twisty roads. You can figure on car chases that will outdo all those hills in San Francisco.

As with classics like this, the actual production is less impressive. The stars seem self-contained in their roles. Indeed, there are no scenes with Brazzi and his fellow stars at all. The closest Benny Hill comes to Noël Coward is standing 50 feet away on a mole hill at a funeral.

The glue is a boyish and charming Michael Caine, so young that when he meets Noël Coward in a lavatory, you almost feel it is salacious.

Waspy Coward is a mob kingpin, believe it or don’t, who has bribed enough people to move in and out of his British prison cell with aplomb you’d expect from a sophisticated star. He runs everything with an iron fist in a dainty velvet glove.

Technology, alas, is ancient here. Good heavens, Benny Hill plays a computer nerd running around with a ten-inch reel of programming. Communication is also primitive with 16mm film as the preferred mode to send text messages. Yet, the charm is delightful and timeless.

Once the cars start piling up, you have a traffic jam for the pre-Euro-dollar ages.


Noel Coward’s Ghosts Come to Life

DATELINE: Spirit Network, Pre-Cable

castst:Blithe Spirit

Natwick, Bacall, Colbert, Hover Over Coward

With the passing of Lauren Bacall not a few weeks ago, and with the recent live television event of Peter Pan, we were moved to a degree of nostalgia.

We went on a scavenger hunt to find one of the few performances by Miss Bacall that we had missed along the way: her live television role as Elvira in Blithe Spirit, a 1956 production with Claudette Colbert and Noel Coward, starring and directing his most clever and brilliant light comedy.

Video Collectors of California actually had a black & white edition, rare and seldom seen, but worth every moment. To think that audiences at home decades ago had live television plays with major stars shames today’s world of hundreds of cable channels with shoddy repeats.

Colbert and Bacall play the two wives of Charles Condomine, a second-rate writer who wants to do a book on charlatan mediums. Mildred Natwick reprises her 1940s Broadway stage role here as dotty, cliché ridden Madame Acarti.

The result is magical. With special effects done live, and well before computer generated efforts, we have understated and perfectly fitting ghostly shenanigans. You see, Mr. Condomine’s first wife (Bacall) is dead—and returns unceremoniously to haunt his second wife (Colbert).

Crossed between the full-blown movie version and stage depictions, the television version is remarkable for its medium range. It has the best of both worlds, spiritual and physical, as well as film and primitive video.

Directed by the author and with his debonair send-up style, Noel Coward provides a delicious concoction. And, the television production is true to the play’s ending.

If you want an unusual treat, it would pay to look for this DVD version of the Emmy-winning show from the Golden Age of Television.

Wonderful and wondrous, we enjoyed every second.



My Fair Ghost: Blithe Spirit & Henry Higgins


blithe spirit


If you want timeless classics, you cannot find anything remotely close to a rare David Lean directed comedy, written and produced by Noel Coward. The delightful Blithe Spirit transcended its time of 1945 with lively repartee and shockingly modern sensibilities.

Novelist Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) has invited a daffy cliché-ridden medium named Madame Acarti (Margaret Rutherford) to his home to study her for “tricks of the trade” for his new book.

One séance leads to another. Charles’s overly minx-like dead first wife named Elvira shows up to complicate his life and present marriage to staid Ruth.

It’s one of those ironic British tales where the ultra-rich shut off lights to save electricity, but they dress four times per day for each meal with increasing foppery. Saving the best for last, Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings are dressed to the nines for dinner, just themselves of course. What a quaint era.

As Elvira in ghastly grey and green makeup to make her fade into a faded color movie, Kay Hammond is utterly wonderful as the acerbic Elvira—making off-hand comments on the medium and guests with aplomb.

As Madame Arcati, Margaret Rutherford made an impression on movie audiences, though her big success was still a decade away. The old gal simply steals every moment of film she shares with anyone else in the cast.

That is no mean feat with Rex Harrison in his most classic glib demeanor. It’s Henry Higgins with Ruth as Colonel Pickering and Elvira as Eliza. Every moment is a classic, and David Lean deftly shows he could handle even the soufflés that Noel Coward half-baked.

Short, sweet, and with a light touch on special effects, the charm is just right.

No Private Lives for Taylor and Burton



The Battling Burtons as depicted by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West

The second TV movie of the year hit the small screen with all the impact of a million dollar star of yesteryear shrunk appropriately.

After the Lindsay Lohan version of a woman who had a true sense of literature, who knew what film acting entailed, and had a theatrical sense about life, we now have the Helena Bonham Carter version of Elizabeth Taylor at 50.

This one focuses upon her grand passion: Richard Burton (Dominic West). The stars are at a more mature point in life and were to do Noel Coward’s Private Lives. He had recommended it to them, but Taylor didn’t come up with the idea again until 1983. Coward really did have them in mind and told Taylor and Burton it was written for them in 1930 without ever having met them.

Carter and West seem like they are playing a real life version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And, in reality that movie epitomized them—and so art imitated art imitating the Battling Burtons. Carter feared she would look like a female impersonator in Taylor costumes, but her fears were unfounded.

This version makes us nostalgic again for their larger than life talents and movies. We saw them on stage in Private Lives all those many years ago, and they were magnificent—though critics disparaged them.

Burton died shortly thereafter, and they never filmed a movie version of the play. This little motion picture comes about as close as one can. We almost wished that Carter and West simply had put on Private Lives as Burton and Taylor.

The movie took us back in time and made us sentimental for the old days. It may not have that effect on younger audiences, but this is the second biographical movie we have anticipated this year (Behind the Candelabra is the other).

View it as a pale shadow of the real thing and think wistfully of how the titans of that age are now gone. Burton and Taylor was a lovely trip down memory lane.