The Ghost and Mrs. Muir a Delightful Little Ghostly Romance
By Kristin Battestella
I really dislike modern repetitive romantic comedies with that hint of tearful seriousness and sap sap sap. However, classic romances with fun and paranormal do wonders- and I can’t help myself, I’m watching the 1947 treat The Ghost and Mrs. Muir yet again!
Widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) - along with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and beloved maid Martha (Edna Best) - leaves her in-laws and takes a cottage on the Whitecliff coast. Unfortunately, Mrs. Muir soon discovers the late owner Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) already inhabits the seaside escape. Captain Gregg agrees to keep his hauntings to a minimum for Anna’s sake and soon helps Lucy financially by collaborating on his memoirs with her. Could it be there is something more between them? Unfortunately, artist Miles Fairley (George Sanders) also romances the Widow Muir, and he is a ‘real’ man after all, much more able to return Lucy’s affection than the ghostly Daniel. But which does she really love?
Though played a little spooky to start- a widow moving in to a mysterious cliff side house all alone- director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Cleopatra, Guys and Dolls) and writer Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley, The Robe) keep Josephine Leslie’s source tale progressive and fun. Instead of wasting time on major ghostly special effects or uber kinky relationships as today’s films might, time is taken to know the characters and enjoy the mix of the living and the dead while the romance blooms. Even as much as I love creepy fair, it’s simply wonderful that The Ghost and Mrs. Muir remains simple, innocent, and not totally spooky. Yes, the corporeal barriers and introductory scares might be enough to get a viewer in the door- but the interplay of the cast carries the film. The focus on two shot debates and fore blocking camerawork shows that these two people can hotly interact, inhabit the same space, even coexist and fall in love, but sadly not actually be together-especially when that two shot becomes a jealous three way scene. The lovely dilemma and heart of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is allowed to play itself out onscreen instead of being squashed by ghostly glitters or Meg Ryan’s lips. And what an ending!
Tragically, Gene Tierney (Laura, Leave Her to Heaven) didn’t make very many films and is more well known today for her health issues and off screen romances if at all. Fortunately, she did indeed leave us with a set of classics! The turn of the century costumes on Tierney look great, adding period flavor, grace, and an element of change as Lucy herself sways between men over the years. Tierney really is just lovely inside and out- even if the presentation is a little too post-Victorian by way of forties for some viewers. However, there’s also a fine modern contrast, for Lucy-being a single mother disbelieving in such paranormal ‘fiddlesticks’- is in many ways ahead of her onscreen time. She defiantly calls out the ghostly instead of being the little widow in black and blossoms as a woman because of it. Although I’m not sure about Tierney’s accent amid all the really English folks, her tone is still proper and classy nonetheless. Not many actresses today can handle material like this- not without it getting cliché like those aforementioned run of the mill contemporary romances. I also confess, penning a book to save the finances of one’s house is perhaps the dream of every down on his luck writer, and it’s just another fun, personal and endearing element I love in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Oh, that crusty and delightful Rex Harrison! Though initially seemingly a silhouetted menace with a great bellowing voice, Captain Gregg is built up carefully and creepily toward a sweet and stormy reveal. We expect Daniel to be so upper class and debonair ala My Fair Lady, but Harrison’s rough around the edges opposite to Lucy and near swashbuckling style is wonderful. His dialogue, delivery, and no holds barred attitude are somehow also suave; Gregg compliments Lucy on her figure and quotes poetry! The way the grizzly ghost mellows is utterly bittersweet, and it’s all done without losing any charm or gruff. Of course, George Sanders (Rebecca, All About Eve) is also his usually slick and exceptional self. We might not find either man uber attractive or Team This and Team That in today’s standards, but the juicy choices and whirlwind escapades both men offer is just that- an onscreen delight. Sanders just as easily sweeps the viewer away by painting scandalous portraits of Lucy in a bathing suit as we are also charmed by Harrison’s dreamy soliloquies. Edna Best (The Man Who Knew Too Much) is a little annoying as the stereotypical English maid who always talks so sassy, knows what’s what, and makes no Cockney about it! However, she earns her stripes as the film progresses. Little Natalie Wood (The Searchers, West Side Story) is also a somewhat goofy, but her fans will enjoy seeing her 10-year-old charm.
The black and white photography of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir hampers the visuals a bit, but the silver screen layers also add plenty of atmosphere. The ghostly lighting, candles, gas lamps, creepy paintings, and the shadows created work beautifully. The fake long shot stills are obvious, yes, but understandable. Besides, the sweet cottage interiors are more Victorian mansion than cottage as we would think of it, and the seaside locations are dynamite. The great ghost laughter, the usual glory of storms and wind, and Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, The Devil and Daniel Webster) crescendos add the audio icing. The paranormal hints and hijinks still work, and I love how the darkness surprises us into never knowing quite where the Harrison appearing and disappearing tricks are. Turn of the century cars, glorious feathers, furs, hats, and gloves! Sigh, but those bathing suits! Those are a definite no.
Yes, I’m sure a lot of this can be merely quaint or hokey to some, but fans of the cast or classics in general surely already know and love The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Fortunately, there’s also nothing so ghostly or romantic to dissuade younger viewers, and recent audiences of contemporary paranormal or standard romance should most definitely try this treat ASAP.