The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
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Even though Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1947 romantic fantasy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir wasn't filmed anywhere near the coast of England - its exteriors, shot in Palos Verdes and near Big Sur, are pure California - you can almost smell the briny air in every scene, getting a ghostly whiff of turn-of-the-century seaside Britain. Gene Tierney plays the Mrs. Muir of the title, a beautiful, headstrong young widow who, with her young daughter and maid, moves into a broken-down cottage in a coastal village, only to learn that her new home is haunted by a rakish, irascible ghost. Rex Harrison, standing tall and straight as a reed and wearing an elegant-yet-practical black turtleneck, plays former sea captain Daniel Gregg, a spirit who no longer has the advantage - or the limitations -- of being able to walk around in a man's body. The spirit version of Captain Gregg has no desire to leave his house - he was really hoping it would be used as a home for retired seamen -- and so he begins making his presence known to Lucy Muir, at first only to aggravate her. But before long, the two find themselves sparring, flirting, and falling in love, a doomed proposition from the start. But what makes their relationship rather unusual is that they also become work partners: When Lucy's source of income collapses, Gregg suggests she "ghost-write" a book for him, a racy seagoing memoir that will save her from financial ruin.
There's nothing particularly realistic about the movie's depiction of seaside life in turn-of-the-century England. And this is, after all, a story about a woman who falls in love with a man who is quite possibly a figment of her imagination. (The screenplay, by Philip Dunne, was adapted from a 1945 novel by Josephine Leslie, writing under the name R.A. Dick.) Yet Mankiewicz and his actors, along with cinematographer Charles Lang and composer Bernard Herrmann, conspire to create a surprisingly believable illusion, a world in which the handsome ghost of a sea captain might actually be man enough for one woman. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was Mankiewicz's fifth film, one of several he made at 20th Century Fox early in his career. (His hope was to eventually be able to write and direct his own films: He would co-write and direct the 1950 noir drama No Way Out, but found even greater success later that year with All About Eve.) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir may hit some structural bumps, but scene by scene, it's beautifully crafted - Mankiewicz shows a deft touch with his actors, and Lang's lush, suitably salty black-and-white cinematography earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Gene Tierney had already played a scheming temptress in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and her own ghostly version of a dream girl in Laura (1944). Lucy Muir was a different kind of role: Her character is self-determined, principled, and, compared with her ethereal seafaring love interest, very, very real. Tierney is strikingly beautiful here - all those fitted-and-fluted period skirts suit her well. And it's always a pleasure to make note of her one glorious flaw - that charming overbite! The critic for the New York Times wrote, "Gene Tierney plays Mrs. Muir in what by now may be called her customary inexpressive style. She is a pretty girl, but has no depth of feeling as an actress." Mostly, he's right, but Tierney is one of those actresses whose value can't be measured in terms of what we generally call talent: Merely basking in her radiance is the whole point.
Harrison is appealing in his irascibility, but he's also surprisingly seductive, especially for a ghost. The scenes in which Captain Gregg and Mrs. Muir write their book together are among the most appealing in the movie: As film historian Jeanine Basinger points out in her book A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960, Captain Gregg may represent many things to Lucy - a strong, able man who won't die as her husband did, a reassuring presence as she faces life alone - but mostly, he represents her desire for some sort of independence, financial and otherwise. "He is more or less her 'male' side, or that part of her that is brave and independent, fierce and creative," Basinger writes. "He urges her to value herself." No wonder there aren't any real men - least of all the scoundrel played by George Sanders - who measure up to him in Lucy's eyes.
The very young - and very adorable -- Natalie Wood also makes an appearance in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, as Lucy's daughter, Anna. This was only Wood's third movie, but she was already a pro, and when she was brought in for an interview with Mankiewicz, she charmed him immediately. As Wood's biographer Gavin Lambert writes, Mankiewicz asked her if she'd read "'the whole script or just your part.' She looked very surprised, then told him: 'The whole script.'"
But one of the most beautiful and striking elements of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is Herrmann's sweeping yet strangely calming score. Herrmann half-jokingly called it his "Max Steiner score," alluding to some of its more melodramatic qualities. But according to Herrmann scholar Steven C. Smith, the composer considered it "his finest film score: poetic, unique, highly personal. It contains the essence of his romantic ideology--his fascination with death, romantic ecstasy, and the beautiful loneliness of solitude." All of those notes are present in Herrmann's score, and you can hear something else in it, too: The sound of the sea, and the hold it has on people, both dead and alive.
By Sean Axmaker
The New York Times
Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, University of California Press, 2002
Jeanine Basinger, A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960, Wesleyan University Press, 1995
Gavin Lambert, Natalie Wood: A Life, Knopf, 2004
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Philip Dunne; novel by R. A. Dick
Cinematography: Charles Lang
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Cast: Gene Tierney (Lucy Muir), Rex Harrison (Daniel Gregg), George Sanders (Miles Fairley), Edna Best (Martha Huggins), Natalie Wood (Anna Muir as a child), Vanessa Brown (Anna Muir as an adult)