"blithe spirit"

Published November 2, 1941


Clifton Webb, Mildred Natwick, Leonora Corbett, Peggy Wood IN Blithe Spirit, NYT 11/2/41



Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit was the playwright’s gift to a war-torn nation. In April 1941, his flat in Gerald Road was bombed. “The spectacle at the corner of Ebery Street was horrifying,” he wrote. “Houses were blazing, the road was a mass of rubble.” Goldenhurst, his country retreat, had been commandeered by the army. In May, during a visit to North Wales with Joyce Carey, Noël wrote Blithe Spirit in six days. “Disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew it would be a success.”

After a tour beginning in Manchester in June, Blithe Spirit opened in London in July. The cast included Cecil Parker as Charles Condomine and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati. Noël directed.

"The audience, socially impeccable from the journalistic point of view and mostly in uniform," wrote Coward of the first night, "had to walk across planks laid over the rubble caused by a recent air raid to see a light comedy about death. They enjoyed it, I am glad to say, and it ran from that sunny summer evening through the remainder of the war and out the other side." Blithe Spirit set a record for non-musical plays in the West End that was not surpassed until The Mousetrap.

The Broadway production opened to rave reviews in November 1941. Directed by John C. Wilson, the cast included Clifton Webb as Charles and Mildred Natwick as Madame Arcati. New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson called the play “a completely insane play that is also uproarious. It hardly touches the stage as it rides a demented broomstick to hilarity.”

New York Herald Tribune critic Richard Watts Jr. saw both London and New York productions. He much preferred the New York production, calling Cecil Parker competent, but that he lacked Clifton Webb’s suavity, referring to Webb’s “bright, deft, and artful style.” Watts also preferred Mildred Natwick to Margaret Rutherford, writing that Rutherford “lacks the perky, unconquerably cheerful manner that made Mildred Natwick so brilliant.”

In considering his good friend Clifton Webb for the lead in the Broadway premiere, Coward said “He is a beautiful comedian and the slight hint of preciousness won’t matter. I think he will give it distinction.”

In late 1943 Blithe Spirit opened in Los Angeles. Otto Preminger saw the play and was fascinated with Webb. Preminger felt that Webb would be perfect for the part of Waldo Lydecker in the film Laura. He wanted Webb to do two scenes from the Laura script as a screen test. Webb said that was impossible because he had an evening performance and a matinee the next day but that he could do two scenes from Blithe Spirit. Although Preminger agreed, studio head Darryl Zanuck said he did not want the Blithe Spirit scenes. “I’m not filming the damn play. I want him to do this from the script.”

Preminger took a great risk and allowed Webb to do the Blithe Spirit scenes. Zanuck liked the test. He said: “You son-of-a-bitch, I told you I don’t want to see the play, but O.K.” And that’s how Noël’s casting of Clifton Webb in Blithe Spirit led to the creation of one of the most memorable film noir characters and an Oscar nomination for Webb.

The cast of the Broadway production was not untouched by the war. In September 1942 Jacqueline Clarke, who played Edith the maid, traveled home to England to get married. The Birmingham Mail newspaper reported that the ship on which she sailed was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic. She spent eight days in an open boat. Sadly, her husband, actor-turned-R.A.F. bomber-pilot Anthony Compton, was killed when his plane crashed in 1944.

In March 2020 a revival of Blithe Spirit starring Jennifer Saunders opened in London after a successful tour. It closed after twelve performances, along with the rest of West End theater. The play that survived the Blitz could not survive Covid.

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