Although Noel Coward’s principal domain was the stage, and film versions of his plays have rarely proven satisfactory, the centenary of his birth has generated the triple whammy of retrospectives at the BAM Rose Cinemas, the Museum of Television and Radio, and MOMA. Coward was born into a lower-middle-class family whose genteel poverty was in marked contrast to the sophisticated aristocratic milieu so snootily celebrated in his theater pieces. After years on the boards as a child actor, he hit his stride as playwright, composer, and matinee idol in the late ’20s and ’30s. With the end of World War II, his High Tory world went out of fashion. He managed to reinvent himself as a brilliant nightclub performer and cabaret artist, and in the ’50s and ’60s made cameo appearances in a number of films, usually playing characters that drew on his prototypically prewar brittle charm. He died in 1973.
Hollywood could generally be relied on to make a mess of Coward’s bitchy, campy plays. Even the great Ernst Lubitsch came a cropper with a screen version of Design for Living (1933), based on a misguided Ben Hecht script that threw out most of the original dialogue and toned down the play’s ménage à trois element and gay subtext. Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade, made the same year, was quite an improvement. A panorama of three decades of Victorian and Edwardian English life, this is by far the most impressive American film based on the playwright’s work. In The Scoundrel (1935), a bizarre supernatural tale made in Astoria (written and directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), Coward appeared as an unscrupulous publisher in his first starring screen role.
Although they were all critical successes when released, the stiff-upper-lip dramatic films written by Coward in the ’40s—In Which We Serve (1942, co-directed by David Lean), This Happy Breed (Lean, ’43), and Brief Encounter (Lean, ’45)—have not stood the test of time. Blithe Spirit (Lean, ’45), adapted by the playwright from one of his liveliest stage comedies, has. This hilarious movie centers on the plight of a remarried novelist hunted by the mischievous ghost of his first wife. Here, as nowhere else, Coward’s inimitable wit reached the screen undimmed.