Going by the cinema today all ghosts are trying to possess you, drive you mad, or drag you to hell if not all three. This was not always the case. In 1945 author Josephine Leslie under the pseudonym of R. A. Dick penned a beautiful story about a widow and a ghost and their bitter sweet relationship over the years, and even before it saw a North American distribution its film rights were optioned by 20th Century Fox.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir follows Mrs. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) a young widow and mother of daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) as she decides to strike out on her own, much to the consternation of her in-laws. Lucy Muir is a strong and independent woman who clearly hasn’t enjoyed her year of mourning in the house of her mother in law and sister in law so after a brief argument she, along with her daughter Anna and Martha their housekeeper (Edna Best), they leave for the lovely seaside town of Whitecliff.
Her only income is from shares from a gold mine owned by her late husband and as the dividends from these shares are not much she needs to find a very affordable place. Lucky for her rent on haunted cottages are low. The rental agent tries to dissuade her from seeing the place but she insists and when eerie laughter chases them both out it seems at first that he may have been right. Of course Mrs. Muir is made of sterner stuff than that and she quickly decides that Gull Cottage will suit her just fine. Ghost and all.
Now this is the first instance when I thought, “Don’t you have a daughter to think about?” You may be cool with roaring laughter out of the dark but what of your little girl? This leads to my one and only criticism of the film and that is in the character of Anna, though sweetly played by a young Natalie Wood she is constantly forgotten by the screenplay. Anna is more a roommate you hardly see than a daughter. When Mrs. Muir finally comes face to face with the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) they quickly come to an arrangement that he will refrain from haunting anywhere in the house but the master bedroom, where it just so happens she sleeps of course, and that Anna is too young to see ghosts so Captain Gregg will not contact her. Thus Anna vanishes from the bulk of the film.
Things seem great and Lucy finds herself becoming quite fond of the Captain despite his coarse language and penchant for watching her undress, but then storm clouds appear on the horizon in the form of the gold mine drying up. Her in-laws show up to take her back to London because she can no longer support herself or her daughter, but Captain Gregg implores Lucy to turn them down assuring her that he will think of something. She does and Captain Gregg throws the two busybodies out of the house.
Captain Gregg’s brilliant plan is that he will narrate to Lucy his life story and that it will be published as “The unvarnished life of a seaman.” Writing takes time so Lucy is forced to sell her jewels so that they can eat and Daniel vows to chase of any solicitors that try and kick them out for not paying rent. This is a definitely a brilliant plan. The only real hurdle now is getting a publisher to read it as women authors are looked down upon for the most part. Enter Miles Fairley (George Sanders).
Mr. Fairley is an author who writes children’s books under the pen name “Uncle Neddie” and he is immediately captivated by Mrs. Muir as one would because Gene Tierney is exotically beautiful and one can’t help but be entranced by her. He lets Lucy have his appointment with the publisher who is at first wants nothing to do with her manuscript but when he does eventually read it he falls in love with the book. It looks like smooth sailing.
Unfortunately Captain Gregg doesn’t like the cut of Fairley’s jib and tells Lucy that he is a “Perfumed parlor snake.” Now earlier Daniel told Lucy that there can be no relationship between a ghost and the living and that a woman as young and as beautiful as she should be out meeting people and falling in love, so this apparent jealousy over Miles Fairley has her confused. Eventually the tensions gets worse as Lucy and Miles become closer. Eventually a final argument between Daniel and Lucy over her dating habits leads to the ghost exiting her life. Captain Gregg stands over a sleeping Lucy and with whatever ghost mojo he has makes her believe that he has been nothing but a dream and that she in fact wrote the book on her own.
Not surprisingly Lucy shortly finds out that Miles is married with children and that he has done this sort of thing before. Heartbroken she retreats to Gull Cottage where she and Martha spend their years alone as Anna (remember her, the daughter?) has gone off to college and to eventually marries. Finally on a dark night, old and grey haired Lucy retires to her room with a glass of milk, provided by the ever faithful Martha, and she passes quietly away. Captain Gregg appears and lifts the youthful spirit of Lucy Muir out of her chair and the two walk off together into the afterlife.
I have seen this movie a half dozen times and I tear up at that ending every damn time. This is a story about two souls perfect for each other but who unfortunately meet when it’s too late for one of them. Gene Tierney’s Lucy Muir is a complex and interesting character; she is strong, willful and could easily be called an early feminist, but her Achilles heel is romance. She married her first husband after reading a romance novel and then one kiss in the garden later she was “In love.” Early in the film Captain Gregg calls her out on not ever being in love with her late husband and she can’t deny it. Then she falls for the oily charm of Miles Fairley when it’s clear that his romantic patter is just a game, one he has played before. It’s the acting skills of Gene Tierney that make us love Mrs. Muir despite her faults, so we just sit back waiting for the time when she can be with Daniel, her true soul mate.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was made during the heyday of the studio system and with the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz at the helm, as well as being scored by music master Bernard Herrmann it is no surprise this movie turned out as good as it did. The chemistry between Tierney and Harrison makes this one of my all-time favorite love stories, that it is about a ghost as well just makes it a bonus.