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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Uninvited, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Blithe Spirit, and Topper (review)

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Ghosts don’t have to be scary, right? Real life is too frightening right now, what with killer hurricanes and hideous Supreme Court nominees and the terrifying pit that ER has fallen into — I don’t think I could deal with traditional spooks at the moment. So instead I’m finding Halloween refuge in pleasant specters, the kind you wouldn’t mind hanging out with and trading witty banter, the kind . I mean, an emphatic yes to Alan Rickman in Truly Madly Deeply, but he’d have been even better if he was in black-and-white, right?

I thought it was mistake, at first, to start with 1944’s The Uninvited, because there’s some genuinely spooky stuff here, the wailing sobs that wrack the seaside house on the gloomy cliff and all. See, Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland: The Lost Weekend) and his sister, Pamela (Ruth Hussey) fall in love with the great old empty house in Cornwall or one of those windswept English counties that looked even more wonderfully, bleakly romantic before Technicolor, so they buy the place. Even though their cute little dog refused to go upstairs. Even though there’s that mysteriously locked door at the top of the stairs. Even though the scary-sweet granddaughter of the old man who owns the house, Stella (Gail Russell), insists its not for sale. Even though the old man lets it go for a song. How many more warning signs do ya need, kids?
Sure enough, first night in the house comes a moaning and a crying echoing through the rafters. Or the basement. Or everywhere. It’s one of the more creepy things I’ve seen on film, or heard on film, actually… but thankfully for my state of mind at the moment, when we finally see the spook, it ain’t so creepy, and by that time the ghost has rather been defanged. The film too, if in a pleasant way: Roderick has been falling for Stella, taking her sailing and writing songs for her (he’s a composer; the tune “Stella by Starlight” originated here), and the ghost gets placated. Though I bet the dog never ever goes upstairs even after that.

A suspiciously bargain-basement real-estate deal is at the heart of 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, too — here it’s Gene Tierney’s Lucy Muir, a recent widow with a young child, snapping up a seaside cottage at an irresistibly low rent. It’s furnished and everything, complete with the shade of the sea captain who died there, Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison: My Fair Lady). But there’s no affrightening going on: Lucy is a woman with her head on straight, and she’s rather charmed by the Captain, for all that he’s real a pain in the ass.

Down-to-earth Lucy and the gruffly acerbic of Daniel set this flick apart — this is perhaps the least spectral ghost story I’ve ever seen, a charming tale of two lost and lonely souls, one of which just happens to be dead, who take some grudging comfort in each other’s presence. (Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, working from a novel by R.A. Dick, was no stranger to sensible, even snarky matter-of-factness: see his All About Eve.) While theirs is hardly a grand passion, their relationship is most agreeable… which is just fine when you don’t wanna be afraid of no ghost.

Rex Harrison is one of the corporeal characters in 1945’s Blithe Spirit, a deliciously cheeky Noel Coward concoction by way of director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai). When an evening’s entertainment of a senace goes wrong — or right, actually — his Charles Condomine has to face a tricky dilemma: the ghost of his dead wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), appears, and sharpens her snarky verbal claws against Charles’s new wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings), of whom she most definitely does not approve. It’s a romantic triangle — there’s one in Mrs. Muir, too — in which one of the sides is undead. But nobody’s perfect, right?

The best aspects of Spirit is its lightheartedness, which makes it perfect for an easygoing Halloween — it takes place in an alternate England, for one, where there appears to be no war raging. Harrison evinces a far more carefree panache than in many of his other screen appearances, and it’s a tie between Hammond and the adorably pie-faced Jacqueline Clarke, who plays the Condomines’ maid, Edith, for the second-place steal-the-movie slot. First place goes to Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati, the hilariously tweedy medium who seances Elvira back into the world.

I would love to live in the Noel Coward’s universe, where everyone’s droll and dresses for dinner, even the dead. Topper, from 1937, isn’t one of Coward’s — it’s based on a novel by Thorne Smith — but it’s the same spirit. Look, its heroes, the undead Marion and George Kerby (Constance Bennett and Cary Grant), killed themselves by driving drunk and crashing into a tree, and then get to spend the rest of the movie in their evening clothes. There are worse ways to spend eternity, I guess… but the point is, the charming and witty darlings who get to spend eternity wandering around in their evening clothes and haunting their stick-in-the-mud friend Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) died because they were driving drunk. This simply wouldn’t happen in a movie today, bad example for the children and all that.

It’s fine for us all-too-spooked grownups, though. Hell, the movie’s in black-and-white — the kids won’t want to watch it anyway.

The Uninvited
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated

Blithe Spirit
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated

viewed at home on a small screen
not rated

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