A poignant, unique and romantically arresting tale spanning boundless eternity, Joseph L. Mankiewicz The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) is a tender love story wrapped in the enigma of an old fashioned ghost story. Philip Dunne's screenplay tweaks the plot points in R.A. Dick's novel ever so slightly, while sustaining the ethereal mood that made the book such a page turner.
The film is a curious choice for its two stars indeed, and perhaps even for Fox to consider producing, since tales of the supernatural usually evolve into one of two categories; the spooky old house vintage, or the happily haunted ghost/comedy. Yet The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is neither of these, though arguably, it has faint elements of both occasionally peppered in.
At the time the film went into production Gene Tierney was already a huge star at Fox. In fact, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir represents something of a last hurrah in her heady days as Fox's leading lady. In hindsight, the film is perhaps much more of a springboard for Rex Harrison's Hollywood tenure, having made a significant splash in Anna and the King of Siam the year before. In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir he plays the crusty old spirit who haunts Gull Cottage, his former home by the sea.
The casting may seem odd, yet the chemistry between Harrison and Tierney is undeniably genuine and palpable. Better still, Charles Lang's moody cinematography and Bernard Herrmann's evocative underscoring create an atmosphere of the supernatural, unexpectedly grounded in reality. We believe in the characters and therefore buy their romance, despite the problematic scenario that one of them has already been dead for many years.
Plot wise: stifled by chronic intervention from her late husband’s family, widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) moves into a remote cottage by the sea with her young daughter, Anna (Natalie Wood). To the family, mother-in-law Angelica (Isobel Elsom) and sister-in-law Eva (Victoria Horne), the move seems cruel and unnecessary. After all, they are wealthy and can afford Anna every possible luxury a child would wish for. But Lucy is perhaps more concerned over the moral influence the two old prudes might exude. So, together with devoted servant, Martha Huggins (Edna Best), Lucy and Anna retire to Gull Cottage to start their lives anew.
Besides, Lucy has become fascinated with the legend of Gull Cottage and its former owner, salty sea captain, Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). Realtor Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote) forewarns that Lucy's stay will not be a peaceful one. But she is resigned to make it so, and proves a woman of remarkably stubborn will, even after being visited by Capt. Gregg's ghost one dark and storm night.
Gregg’s first attempt to scare Lucy back into town is an abysmal failure. She is far too obstinate and sensible to be chased off the property so easily. Gregg is so captivated by her that the two quickly become close friends and his visitations thereafter become more friendly toward her. So too does Lucy come to look forward to Gregg's frequent surprise visits. Despite the barriers of time and fate, they are kindred spirits who enjoy each other's company. But as time passes, their friendship begins to blossom beyond mere understanding into an unlikely romance.
When Gregg learns that Lucy is about to be evicted from the cottage he helps her write his memoirs, then guides her into Mr. Sproule's (Whitford Kane) London publisher's office. The book is a success and its royalties secure Lucy's future at Gull Cottage. But the trip into London also introduces Lucy to fellow author, and ladies man, Mile Fairley (George Sanders).
Gregg realizes that his friendship is preventing Lucy from living her own mortal life, and decides to implant a thought into Lucy's brain while she sleeps: that he has been nothing more than a figment of her imagination.
Awakening from her slumber, Lucy decides to pursue a romance with Miles Fairley, one that abruptly ends when she learns that her lover already has a wife (Anna Lee). Retreating in embarrassment to the cottage, Lucy resigns herself to a celibate life, raising Anna and fostering a close friendship with the ever-loyal Martha. The years quietly pass. Anna grows up and leaves the cottage. Lucy grows old and careworn. But she has never entirely rid herself of 'the memories' of Capt. Gregg.
On a windswept and foggy eve Gregg returns to Gull Cottage, entering Lucy's bedroom while Martha is downstairs preparing her some tea. He awakens the aged dowager from her slumber with comforting words. But as Gregg takes Lucy by the hand the years melt away and she once more becomes the startlingly youthful girl as he always remembered in her prime.
The two regard one another with longing and affection, the barrier of time between them at long last removed. They are now both spirits free to love for all time, departing the cottage hand in glove even as Lucy's aged body remains behind for Martha to discover, the once forbidden recesses beyond heaven’s door opening to welcome them home.
Ethereal and riveting, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is top notch entertainment. As the captain, Rex Harrison is a formidable presence. Gene Tierney, often cast as the rather stilted American beauty, emerges herein a resplendent and glowing creature of flesh and blood. The rest of the cast are perfect compliments to these two great stars. A huge box office smash, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was remade for television in 1968 where it proved to be an abysmal flop.
Abysmal is a good word for Fox Home Video’s DVD transfer. Although the B&W image begins solidly, an excessive amount of edge enhancement and pixelization intrudes about midway through and thereafter thoroughly distracts. Several lengthy sequences are horribly marred by an even stranger anomaly; a sort of misregistration of the image that results in a highly unstable picture element that is depressingly out of focus. Scenes in the publisher’s office, those in which Lucy develops a romantic fascination with writer and cad, Miles Fairley (George Sanders), and the poignant parting of Gregg from Lucy’s bedside are all plagued by these digital shortcomings.
Truly, one wonders why Fox did not correct these issues before releasing the film as part of their studio classics collection. The audio has been re-channeled to stereo. The original mono is also included. Extras are limited to an insightful audio commentary and theatrical trailer. I really would like to recommend this film. Perhaps I still do. It is a beautifully told story. But the DVD is just terrible looking and not worthy of the price of admission! Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)