The Sunday Intertitle: Quite Wrong

I always misremember the start of BLITHE SPIRIT — I always imagine that the opening preamble is delivered as title cards, or as VO. In fact, it’s both. Which is a great idea. The title cards are replied to by the author himself, Noel Coward, who had one of the most distinctive voices in Britain. It’s like Cocteau’s handwriting, perfect for introducing one of his works.

“We are quite, QUITE wrong.”

Coward’s father was an unsuccessful piano salesman, so his fantastic posh voice, coming from somewhere behind his nose, was a concoction of his own.

I must find an excuse to introduce my students to him. The younger generation don’t generally know about him, and I’m pretty sure my nine Chinese students won’t have come across the works, let alone the persona.

Impressive that CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? managed to build a plot around his correspondence without having to shoehorn in unnecessary explanations of who he was, exactly. The Americans are good at smooth exposition, a lost art in Britain.

I wonder how Brits processed the Coward persona back in his day. He seems “obviously gay,” and I think this was probably recognized, but we just didn’t speak of it. You could be flamboyant yet discreet and it was sort of accepted. The acceptance was conditional on nobody being forced to acknowledge what they all knew. You can’t quite call it “tolerance.” Well, maybe tolerance of the unstated. As Wilde discovered to his cost — though he already knew it, too — if the love that dared not speak its name were forced to account for itself, the lover quickly found himself beyond the pale. “The don’t ask don’t tell” brigade demand to live in a state of low-key cognitive dissonance, and if their compartments break down they get very irate.

Noel’s skill at navigating these murky depths is evident in BLITHE SPIRIT’s script, which constantly escapes truly facing the scandalous implications of its concept. If there’s an afterlife, then widowers remarrying becomes bigamy. Sure, this movie is a fantasy, but pick at it and Heaven comes crashing down under the weight of its own contradictions. Or at any rate, we’re forced to revise our expectations of it to include the menage-a-trois and more. Or, I suppose, taking into account the “till death us do part” escape clause, we assume all vows are null up there, and a twice-widowed spouse could choose which, if any, of their former partners to remarry. Design for dying.

Interesting to see David Lean when he apparently had no interest in landscape. Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford, sublime) stands at the window and rhapsodises about the evening, but our director isn’t tempted to provide even a single illustrative cutaway.

5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Quite Wrong”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

  2. bensondonald Says:

    I have a CD of theater organ performances, including “If Love Were All”. For a long time the tune struck me as a sentimental ballad of the old school, pretty yet edging on maudlin. And Canadian, for reasons I can’t pin down. Then I finally heard a vocal and discovered it was a different affair entirely, still sentimental but world-weary and knowing. In the lyric Coward paints an elegant, very self aware character who’s trying to sound resigned (“Heigh ho …”), but isn’t.

  3. A really unique combination of talents there, which had no business cohabiting in the same individual. The supreme ironist and the romantic, the playwright and songwriter and actor, the comic and the tragic…

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

  5. I almost see Garland’s rendition of this song as something of a testament. “A talent to amuse….” indeed!!!!

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