Do the dead come back to visit the living? Part of the mystery of death, at least for mankind, is that we can only experience it once – or, so it would seem. What becomes of the soul once the body is recalled into the earth has intrigued theologians and scholars since the beginning of time. There are no shortage of theories; spiritually-based and otherwise. The fascination endures for the simple fact that no one really has the answer. To some, death is a rather terrifying prospect – a finite conclusion to all that has gone before it, but (and a very important ‘but’ at that) with the eternal promise of heavenly serenity or hellishly lament to follow. Pragmatically, death is merely part and parcel of the inevitable counterbalance to life. For better or worse eternal rest and eternal life are inextricably linked to the time-honored tradition of ghost stories; supernatural tales of restless spirits who, for one reason or another, never quite made this permanent migration from the tangible world into the ethereal next. Despite Biblical implications (you shouldn’t believe in ghosts if you believe in Christ, for example), public opinion and contemplation is overwhelmingly in favor of the possibility that those already having moved on can still return to influence the living at will.
This protoplasmic manipulation of time and space is at the crux of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); a ravishing melodrama. It really does cheapen the movie merely to label it as a ghost story; its tale of impossible love transferable into a more tangible expression only in the afterlife; between a lonely young widow and the crusty, but benign apparition of a sea captain lost long ago. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir unexpectedly develops as an arresting romance before our eyes; far more eloquent than the traditional ‘ghost story’. Death herein is both curse and salvation to the fated lovers never to consummate their affair in this lifetime. While fate is not on the side of either Lucy Muir (played with sustained grace and fortitude by Gene Tierney) or Capt. Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison in an impeccably masculine and lusty performance) time may serve their purpose. For the very much alive Mrs. Muir is destined to the inevitable that will allow her passage into the immortality presently occupied by Gregg. The film doesn’t really concern itself with any religious implications, but focuses instead on the unlikely friendship that steadily grows into an ever-maturing bond of love.
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. As a movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is an intelligent masterpiece. It forgoes the usual trappings of a spooky dark old house suspense/thriller or happily haunted comedy. Elements of these hybrids are in play throughout the story to be sure. But gradually these yield to a surprisingly adult-themed and sincere romance of contemplations; Gregg’s spirit recognizing his fallibility in developing feelings for this handsome creature of the flesh – yet, unable to fulfill or satisfy her tactile desires. Lucy Muir could go on like this, despite her sad-eyed inquiry of “What’s to become of us, Daniel?” made on a desolately foggy eve. But Harrison’s caustic captain isn’t about to let a vibrant lass such as this languish in the invisible hollow of his arms aching to hold her. In fact, it is Harrison’s rather sensitive portrait of sexual frustration that fuels the middle and third acts of the movie; his noble relinquishment of the woman he so obviously adores and would have made every valiant attempt to possess in life are herein made all the more agonizing by Harrison’s commanding presence.
In some ways the middle act of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a Median tragedy; the realization that any ‘understanding’ between the dead and the living can only go so far forces this couple – who so clearly belong to one another – to part for the duration of Lucy Muir’s life; Gregg setting aside his desire, allowing Lucy a life removed from his influences. It’s a heartrending decision; Gregg’s moonlit farewell to Lucy as she sleeps, his lips so close to her own as he whispers farewell, erasing all but the faintest whiff of remembrance of his visitation from her mind before decamping his ancestral home. This penultimate departure comes early in the third act; the bloom of Lucy’s youth encroached upon by the specters of time and age. Despite this benevolent chance at earthy happiness, Lucy Muir remains a creature apart and removed from the life she might have pursued; a devoted spinster enduring her isolation at Gull Cottage by day, only to awaken from more pleasant nocturnal escapisms renewed each morn.
Joseph Mankiewicz’s handling of Lucy Muir’s advancing years is dealt with concisely; Hollywood’s aversion to the aging process herein tempered with the gentlest of directorial hands, Dunne’s screenplay allowing our acceptance of graying hair and wrinkles to intrude upon the glacial beauty of our star and the inevitable relinquishment of her foolish fancies about Capt. Gregg. The captain does, in fact, return one stark and windswept night, hovering for just a moment or two, eyes blazing with renewed affection beyond his corruptible shell and burrowing deep into the heart of this woman who still completely captivates him.
Without trick photography or clumsy/flashy edits, Mankiewicz (perhaps taking his cue from John Cromwell’s exceptionally underrated The Enchanted Cottage 1945) allows his actors this moment of transference; Gregg taking hold of Lucy Muir’s gnarled old finger tips, the camera suddenly cutting to a shot of the rapturous Gene Tierney restored to her youth. This subtle representation of the spirit restored and released from its earthly shell, Tierney rising with a tender gaze for this man never farther from her thoughts all these years, as the pair stroll toward a moonlit and vaporous path just beyond the front door, strikes an indelible chord and lingers steadfast and true; sending a curious chill down our collective spines even as it stirs and simultaneously warms the heart. Few movies of any genre have so completely plumbed such mixed emotions with so comprehensive a mercurial consummation of the senses.
Gene Tierney was one of Fox’s most bankable stars throughout the 1940’s. And yet The Ghost and Mrs. Muir marks something of a last hurrah to her heady days as a leading lady. Tierney, who had solidified her place in the cinema firmament just a scant few years earlier as one of its most stunning ice princesses in Laura (1944) and Leave Her To Heaven (1945) was to suffer much tragedy and heartbreak beyond the footlights. Such are the contradictions between life vs. art. Not long after The Ghost and Mrs. Muir Tierney began experiencing bouts of severe depression brought on by the tragedy of committing her daughter, born with severe retardation, to an institution. Even more disturbing to Tierney was her sudden lack of focus in her work, ultimately leading to a mental collapse and total implosion of her movie career; the peerless glamor girl at fitful odds with the emotionally fragile creature who arguably never found her place in the world at large again.
In hindsight there is something of a hint of this impending real-life doom intricately woven into the fabric of Tierney’s portrait: Lucy Muir - too soon a widow, scrutinized by her late husband’s family; scatterbrain/stern mother-in-law, Angelica (Isobel Elsom) and even more opinionated sister-in-law, Eva (Victoria Horne) and put upon by an unscrupulous new love on the horizon, Miles Fairley (George Sanders at his oily best). Tierney is at her best when sparing with Rex Harrison’s cantankerous spirit; no small feat given Harrison’s formidable talent and his penchant for scene stealing. By all accounts Harrison and Tierney got on famously throughout the shoot. So too, in retrospect, does the movie feel very much like a springboard for Harrison’s super stardom, having made a significant splash in Anna and the King of Siam only the year before. But Harrison’s fame would pale to his infamy after Carol Landis’ suicide in 1948. Fox’s solid second-string starlet had been ambitiously courting the married Harrison for some time when she took her own life. Popular opinion blamed Harrison, Fox dropping his studio contract shortly thereafter.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is blessed by a moody Bernard Herrman score. This preempts even the 2oth Century-Fox trademark and thereafter dominates the main title sequence, with California’s Baja coastline substituting for England’s white cliffs of Dover. From here we regress to inserts of the Fox back lot redressed in Victorian finery for our introduction to Lucy Muir. The recently widowed girl is being criticized by her late husband’s family, Angelica and Eva, for having made the decision to move away with her young daughter, Anna (Natalie Wood) and loyal housemaid, Martha Huggins (Edna Best). Not long after, Lucy engages the services of a rather bumbling realtor, Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote) in her search for the ideal place to rear her child. Lucy is attracted to Gull Cottage; a rather forlorn and modest abode situated near the sea and once owned by a sea captain, Daniel Gregg who was lost in a terrible storm. Coombe forewarns that the cottage is haunted by Gregg’s restless spirit but reluctantly agrees to show it to the persistent Lucy when her interest in the property remains unabated.
Gregg’s ghost feebly attempts to startle the pair as they explore the quiet, dusty but sunlit rooms. While Gregg’s hapless hauntings are enough to frighten Coombe back into town, Lucy finds the unsettled nature of the place ideal and moves right in, along with Martha and Anna without reservations. On a dark, windswept and rainy night Lucy is visited by Gregg in the kitchen. And although he initially startles her, the pragmatic Lucy quickly regains her composure, ensuring Gregg that she has no intention decamping the premises. She even makes a demand of Gregg; that he will not haunt her daughter or Anna. Gregg is fascinated by Lucy’s convictions and strength of character. No one has ever talked to him this way; certainly no woman he ever knew while still a man of the earth prone to dalliances with many.
Gregg agrees to Lucy’s terms and the two begin what will ultimately evolve from a very reluctant détente into a meaningful friendship with perks. Gregg delights in terrorizing Coombe who infrequently pays visits to Gull Cottage. He also wreaks havoc on Martha and Eva after they have come to inform Lucy that she will be given no more money from her late husband’s estate unless she agrees to return to the fold and move back into town. Lucy is despondent. But Gregg inspires her to write his memoirs, teeming with lurid details that utterly delight London publisher, Mr. Sproule (Whitford Kane), who agrees to publish it. Royalties accrued from the book’s success secure Lucy's future at Gull Cottage. But the trip back to the cottage leads to an unexpected introduction made by children’s author, Miles Fairley (George Sanders). Unbeknownst to Lucy, Miles is also a notorious lady’s man. Gregg is initially jealous of this new man in Lucy’s life. But he also begins to realize that his own steadily growing affections for Lucy have negatively impacted her ability to live a mortal life according to her own heart.
Determined that Lucy should not ‘waste’ her life on him Gregg decides to implant a thought into her mind while she sleeps: that he has been nothing more than an ambitious figment of her own fertile imagination. Awakening from her slumber, Lucy decides to pursue her romance with Miles. But Lucy’s daydreams of happiness abruptly end when she learns her lover already has a wife (Anna Lee). Retreating with great embarrassment to the cottage Lucy resigns herself to a celibate life, raising Anna alone and fostering her closest ties with Martha. Although she intuitively senses a presence at her side, Lucy is unable to quantify it in any concrete terms. The years quietly pass. Anna grows up, marries and leaves Gull Cottage. Lucy ages, her spirit unbowed, her body transformed through the inevitable ravages of time. Yet, Lucy has never entirely forgotten 'the memory' of Capt. Gregg.
On a windswept, foggy eve Gregg returns to Gull Cottage, entering Lucy's bedroom while Martha is downstairs preparing her some tea. He stirs the aged dowager from her slumber with comforting words. But as Gregg takes Lucy by the hand the years suddenly melt away. Lucy Muir is once again a startlingly youthful girl and we suddenly realize Gregg’s return is meant to coincide with Lucy Muir’s death; his spirit having patiently waited for hers to return to him. The barriers between life and death removed, Gregg and Lucy depart Gull Cottage for a glowing fog bank just beyond, the once forbidden recesses of heaven’s porthole now opening up to welcome them home.
Ethereal and riveting, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is top notch entertainment. Rex Harrison is a formidable presence. When he grumbles the earth seems to tremble beneath everyone else’s feet. But when he captivates our stoic Mrs. Muir he utterly beguiles as an intuitive, zesty vapor with manly resolve and a great winter passion for the living. Gene Tierney, often cast as a rather stilted portrait of feminine beauty, emerges herein a resplendent and luminous creature of flesh and blood. Her Lucy Muir is a strange concoction of pert and pleasantness. Where a lesser actress might have played to the obviousness of a girl visited by ghosts, Tierney instead faces the prospect with as common and staunch fortitude befitting anyone facing a more earthly challenge. Our Mrs. Muir has guts and brains and balances both with her Patrician good looks. Tierney wows us with her stunning features; but she remains utterly sensational for the way she handles the part. The rest of the cast are perfect compliments to these two great stars. But the show undeniably belongs to Harrison and Tierney. And Joseph Mankiewicz has achieved the extraordinary; a ghost story that is neither frightening nor silly, but eloquently expressed as one of the most gratifying love stories ever put on film.
One of Fox’s most enduring and treasured movies, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was reissued several times before being remade as a half-hour television sitcom in 1968 where it promptly and painfully expired. Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray rectifies the fantastic sins of its abysmal DVD from 2001. The DVD was marred by severe edge effects and pixelization, whole portions of the image in constant flux with disturbing halos. The Blu-ray eradicates these misfires and what we’re left with is an utterly gorgeous 1080p transfer that is brighter and infinitely more refined. Wow! Fox has really done their homework on this title. You are going to fall in love with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir all over again! The gray scale has been rendered with superb contrast. By far, this is one of the finest hi-def offerings of the Christmas season and a very fine film besides. Fox gives us two DTS audio tracks to consider; the original mono (preferred) and a faux stereo remix done for the DVD but sounding far more robust herein. Fox hasn’t given us anything new as extras: two independent audio commentaries; one featuring Greg Kimble and Christopher Husted, the other with historians Jeanine Basinger and Kenneth Geist providing alternative information and history on the making of the film. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)