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Fantasia Obscura: ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you can come to a deeper understanding, even with the most disagreeable of spirits…

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Not every story with ghosts ends up with the characters screaming in fright as they’re menacingly chased around. At times, the encounters with spirits ends up more meet-cute than blood-curdling.

We’ve had characters trying to hook-up with phantasms long before David Foster Wallace claimed, “Every love story is a ghost story.” As far back as Orpheus and Eurydice, we’ve had tales where love just won’t allow something as inconvenient as death to get in the way.

And one of those tales happens to be an outstanding classic:

We open according to the chyron in London in the early 1900s, where a discussion is going on in the parlor. It’s at this moment as we come in that Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney), widow of Edwin, has announced to her in-laws that she is moving out of their home. It’s been a year since her husband has passed, and it’s time to get out and stop being a burden on them.

Her mother-in-law Angelica (Isobel Elsom) and sister-in-law Eva (Victoria Horne) seem miffed that Lucy wants to go, calling her “ungrateful” for being under her roof. The two never discuss the fact that Lucy is well provided for by income from Edwin’s gold mine, which of course leaves the house along with Lucy, so it’s easy to see why they might react this way…

Lucy heads to the seaside along with her maid Martha (Edna Best) and young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) to rent a cottage. The real estate agent Coombe (Robert Coote) gives her a hard sell through for most of the available rentals, but tries very hard to dissuade her from taking up residence in Gull Cottage.

Coombe tries to keep her from renting the place because of the cottage’s ghost problem. The former owner, Captain Daniel Gregg, died there in a suicide, and his spirit haunts the place and torments anyone entering his home. He’s had four renters take up the property, all of whom left in a fright after just a single night in the place. In fact, during the inspection, both of them hear voices and haunting laughing out of nowhere and windows opening and closing by themselves.

Despite the clear evidence of the ghost, Lucy takes the cottage, steadfast in setting her own course despite what anyone might.  Sure, she can stand up to disparaging in-laws with no morals and realtors with no backbone, but does she have what she needs to handle an actual malevolent spirit?

Actually, yes, she does…

She calls out the ghost of Gregg to stop relying on cheap tricks and appear to her, which he does in the form of Rex Harrison. In the flesh- um, apparitional state, he’s cantankerous and snarly, the usual default stage for a sea captain who’s been around the world a few times. He’s particular aggrieved when she shows sympathy towards him for his taking his own life; he angrily states that his death was in fact an accident, one of the many misconceptions about him that he’s had to deal with.

Ultimately, after a few rounds of shouting, the two of them do come to hammer out a deal: He won’t bother her or anyone else in the house and stay in the main bedroom, so long as she hangs his portrait in that room. In return, she has to reconcile that she’s sharing the main bedroom with a man, and a particularly salty one at that…

The situation is becalmed for a short time before a new squall arises off the port: Angelica and Eva show up for a visit. It’s not a social call, as they inform Lucy that Edwin’s gold mine has petered out, so her income is now gone. They invite her to come back to live with them in London, which Lucy refuses, not wanting to go through that again. (It’s not stated if there are other assets Edwin left her that they’re trying to grab for themselves, but it’s not an unsafe assumption…)

Gregg does her the favor of scaring those two out of Lucy’s life, and then comes to the rescue with a plan: He offers to dictate his life story to her, which she will turn into a bestseller to raise the funds to buy the cottage outright-

Yeah, yeah, I know, but if you’re down with a story with ghosts in it, you can probably give them a little more leeway about people actually making money by writing…

And as the book comes together, the working relationship between Lucy and Daniel (who’s calling her “Lucia” as a pet name) starts to change as they become something beyond collaborators-cum-roomies:

This being a fantasy, the book finds a very enthusiastic publisher almost immediately. As this unfolds, Lucy runs into Miles Farley (George Sanders), a fellow writer who does children’s books under the pen name “Uncle Neddy.”

He’s everything Daniel isn’t, in particular, suave, polite, and most important, alive. He makes Lucy want to leave widowhood and take up with him, which Daniel tried to push her towards earlier for her own sake.

With reservations about Farley and regrets of his own, Daniel decides to convince her that he’s not real. He places a suggestion in her mind before he ghosts her (#sorrynotsorry) in what he feels is in her best interest:

But is his sacrifice what she really needs? And what’s to happen if it turns out his gallant move was a mistake…?

There were certainly no mistakes in this film. The entire movie is built around Lucy and Daniel’s back-and-forth and give-and-take, and Tierney and Harrison fill their roles like nor’easters. The two leads are so perfectly matched, both with each other and the material. It’s hard to imagine anyone else taking on this story.

Which Fox, to some extent, had trouble understanding, as the TV series based on the film would get cancelled by not one, but two networks…

Both stars in the film were ably helped all around. In particular, the script by Phillip Dunne, based on the novel of the same name by Josephine Leslie, writing under the pen name “R. A. Dick”, is a strong story with meaty material in every line, loaded with good zingers to be wielded and compassionate responses to comfort with. In addition, Bernard Herrmann would claim in later years that this was his favorite piece of music he’d done for film, and listening to the score, it’s hard to dispute that.

We’re left with indisputable masterpiece, not just a classic ghost story, but a classic romance to boot. It’s a spirited, moving film that will haunt you long after you’ve finished watching it.

With this cast as well supported as they are, what’s not to love…?

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