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DVD SAVANT

THE Ghost AND Mrs. Muir


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Fox Home Entertainment
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 104 min. / Street Date April 1, 2003 / $19.98
Starring Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, George Sanders, Edna Best, Vanessa Brown, Anna Lee, Robert Coote, Natalie Wood
Cinematography Charles Lang Jr.
Art Direction George Davis, Richard Day
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by Philip Dunne from the novel by R.A. Dick
Produced by Fred Kohlmar
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Ghosts weren't exactly the going thing in 1947. By then the second wave of gothic horror films had departed except for comedies and parodies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Intelligent & serious ghost stories (The Uninvited) tended to be one-shots and fantastic movies about romantic phantoms (Portrait of Jennie) were considered out of touch with the times. Ghosts were something for Danny Kaye or Bob Hope to make fun of.

Over at Fox were a couple of units that had been quietly turning out modest Gothic stories for several years: Dragonwyck, and a creditable version of Jane Eyre. Their B&W stylishness almost made them look English. For The Ghost and Mrs. Muir house talent Joe Mankeiwicz and Philip Dunne joined for a brooding and wistful romance from beyond the grave. It's a delicate "woman's film" with far too much class to be a soap. Its rich Gothic sensibility never strays toward serious horror territory, but there is definitely something mystical and macabre in its delicate contrast between romantic delirium and the tragedy of a life spent mostly alone.

Synopsis:

Widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) takes a house by the beach with just her maid Martha (Edna Best) and her young daughter, Anna. To her surprise, the house is haunted by the ghost of sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), a phantom who makes himself known to her and inspires her to write his memoirs in the form of racy fiction. Enthusiastically received by the publishers, Lucy's work becomes popular. She becomes attracted to handsome Miles Fairley (George Sanders), a writer of children's stories. In hopes of becoming Miles' bride she forgets the ghost of Captain Gregg, and he recedes. But Lucy has more to learn about her fiancée Fairley, and more to learn about loneliness.

In other hands, like perhaps Robert Aldrich, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir could have become a fevered tale of bleak regret. Treated naturalistically it would be the story of a madwoman who invents a romance to take the place of a dead husband and a worthless suitor, and who lives out an empty life of isolation with only a servant to keep her company ... the Miss Havisham story. That's where romance comes in with the adage that Love crosses all boundaries, as in Peter Ibbetson. The tale is simultaneously a film blanc and an amour fou. Lucy Muir's long life is simultaneously empty and fulfilled.

As a "woman's story" The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has some interesting things to say about what appeals to feminine ideals of romance. Lucy's husband is dead but she doesn't dream of him returning to life. Instead she dreams of a Gothic hero, a rough but gentlemanly Byronic rogue, a Flying Dutchman-like spirit of adventure and travel. The main evidence that Captain Daniel is real is Lucy's book, which the publishers and public adores because of its unvarnished authenticity. How could a lone spinster imagine all those events on the high seas? Well, she can invent the man, can't she? The psychological potential for Lucy to have researched her dream lover and his adventures gives the film a quiet ambiguity. The real subject at hand is not ghosts, but romance.

The combination of elements in Philip Dunne's script were perfect for the tastes of the conservative female public circa 1947. The possibilities of identification were enormous. The idea of being beautiful Gene Tierney, widowed but free to live on the edge of a beautiful ocean (all filmed on the Palos Verdes coastline) was probably irresistable - especially with a devoted maid to do all the work. No men telling one what to do or when supper needs to be served. Lucy Muir is attractive, she takes long walks on the beach, and she doesn't give a hoot about what her relatives or the real estate people think - that's as about as emancipated as one could get in 1900, or 1947, for that matter. As the maid gleefully remarks when Lucy breaks away from her grasping in-laws, "It's a revolution!"

Lucy also finds her own way financially thanks to the nicely managed but rather convenient subplot of instantaneous literary success. There the story owes a bit to Little Women, except Lucy becomes a famous author by indulging wild fantasies, not writing about a life she knows.

Most escapism of the time would instantly prescribe a man for what ails Lucy, or better, lots of men. That's where The Ghost and Mrs. Muir deviates from the norm. Captain Gregg is good company at the odd times when he's there, but he's not flesh and blood and both of them know that's what Lucy (or Lucia, as Gregg calls her) needs. There's a sadness about Lucy's life that stays hidden beneath the surface of the film. In less glamorous surroundings, this could be a tale of isolation and estrangement.

It almost is. Lucy's romance with the ghost clearly has no sex angle, just the thrill of being worshipped by a handsome lover. So the audience gets the soulful romance without the sex. It's just the kind of masochistic thrill that became popular in soapy 50s pictures.  1

But there are some interesting twists. In a terrific scene with the wonderful Anna Lee, Lucy finds herself the "other woman" in a faithless triangle. The sobering novelty of the moment places no satisfaction in adultery, the foundation of many a Hollywood potboiler. Muir's yearning for her married beau dissolves as soon as she finds out the truth. Refreshingly, the story places the blame with the wayward and deceitful man, and notes a sad but unspoken bond between the wronged women.

All of Lucy's real relationships are with other women, with her maid as the only lasting one. Her daughter Anna (initially a cute Natalie Wood) has her own life to lead and as such becomes as remote as the rest of the world that Lucy has turned her back against. Both the maid and Anna have vague memories of hearing and seeing Captain Gregg too, a nice touch.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is in some ways a female Vincent Price movie, an "Ellen Allan Poe" picture. Like a Poe character, Muir lives in isolation, indulges in delirious fantasies, has disastrous relationships in the outside world and obsesses over lost loves real and imagined. It's all from a distinctively female perspective, however. Time has a different meaning - Muir is less rushed and less desperate in her actions than a Poe protagonist. When the years make her gray and rot the wood down on the beach, there's a crushing dread involved, a feeling of loss and perhaps waste. But it's a natural feeling derived from life and not some supernatural curse of guilt or honor. The mature philosophy here is contrary to Poe's fated morbidity. People get old and lonely and they die, and life moves on. It's supposed to be that way.

Consistent and classy, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir ends on an exultant film blanc note that reverses the grim mood of the final reels. Love conquers time and tide to restore lovers who never actually met. Love works just as memory works - love someone for a long time and your interaction with that person can have the time-defeating effect of rejuvenation ... it's a fact. The film's transcendant conclusion is the rare instance of a "sappy romantic ending" that's thematically sound and in tune with reality.  2

Gene Tierney is radiant as Lucy and Harrison uses his voice to great effect as the ghost. Both are aided by the period setting and Philip Dunne's amusing dialogue. George Sanders is perfectly cast as a transparent cad, and Edna Best's housemaid-companion avoids the obvious pitfalls.

The overriding, unifying and tone-enforcing element that makes The Ghost and Mrs. Muir work is once again Bernard Herrmann's music. This is one of his two or three best scores - romantic and plaintive, it combines feelings of loneliness, loss and hope. It comes down hard and heavy on the theme of a ruthless Time that wipes out youth and dreams like driftwood on a beach. Herrmann could sometimes be a bit too much for some stories, but here the match is perfect.


Fox's DVD of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir confirms the label's arrival as a studio that cherishes its library and heritage. They've given the popular romance almost the same attention reserved for top titles like All About Eve. The print shows only tiny evidence of wear, such as an odd light scratching here and there, and some slight unsteadiness in the titles. The soundtrack is thunderously clear. Herrmann fans who hate romance movies will want to watch it as a concert film, with occasional dialogue to be ignored.

Extras include two commentaries by four film experts, a Biography bio on Rex Harrison, stills and a trailer. It's dubbed into French and Spanish on alternate tracks, with subtitles in English and Spanish.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentaries with Greg Kimble, Christopher Husted, Jeanine Bassinger and Kenneth Geist
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 26, 2003


Footnotes:

1. The fifties were full of romances unfulfilled, interracial (Love is a Many Splendored Thing) or impossible (Heaven Knows, Mister Allison) that were all sizzle and little steak. Those romance-magazine readers couldn't get enough of absurd situations where affairs could be cut short by dramatic events, sparing the lovers the dull problems of normal life.
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2. There's a Roman Polanski short subject included on Criterion's disc of Knife in the Water about a dowdy old scrubwoman who washes floors until she dies, alone and unloved. She's been dreaming all the while about the handsome soldier she knew as a young girl; when she breathes her last breath the film goes totally fantastic and the handsome phantom appears levitating through a skylight (shades of Dance of the Vampires) to carry her off at last. To me, it sounds like a full-on hommage to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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