I’ve always found Rex Harrison to be slightly terrifying.
Ever since that deliciously sinister moment in Midnight Lace when he … never mind. Spoilers. Suffice to say, it put Rex on my permanent shit list. Which is actually a huge compliment to his acting ability to have been so effective. (Also, it’s probably the reason I don’t buy him as Doctor Doolittle for a hot second. “Gawk and squeak and squawk with the animals” my foot. More like ‘kill and maim and torture’ the animals.) Anyway, this is precisely the reason that Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1947 The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is hands down my favorite of Harrison’s films. He already fits the bill of a foul mouthed, scraggly seaman, but throw in the bit about him being a cantankerous old ghost and you’ve got pitch perfect casting. What’s even more remarkable is that he is more than likable– he is a fine romantic leading man in what is one of the most sensitive and thoughtful love stories ever filmed.
If you’re not familiar with this uniquely delicate film, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a quiet romance about an otherworldly relationship between a beautiful young widow and the ghost who haunts her seaside home. Following her husband’s death, Lucy (Gene Tierney) moves with her young daughter (a 10-year-old Natalie Wood) and feisty housemaid to a home on the English seaside (“Gull Cottage”) that even the real estate agent doesn’t want to sell her. Rumors of it being haunted have long swept the village, but Tierney has an inexplicable fondness for it and finds the lore alluring. “Haunted,” she says, in her soft, breathy voice, “how perfectly fascinating!” Her move is also unsavory to her overwrought in-laws, who find her independent behavior shocking. This is, after all, the year 1900.
But no one is more displeased with her move than Gull Cottage’s resident ghost, Captain Daniel Gregg (Harrison). As stubborn and foul-mouthed in death as he was in life, Daniel haunts in order to protect his old home, sending out every would-be tenant by slamming windows and howling with laughter. In Lucy, however, he meets his match. Initially intimidated, she is unafraid and determined in her decision to remain at the cottage she has come to love. Daniel finds himself powerless to force her out. The two begin an amicable house-share and become feisty, fast friends– they are polar opposites in history, behavior and habit, but have much in common emotionally. However, when Lucy’s finances threaten her ability to stay on at Gull Cottage, her in-laws arrive to persuade Lucy to come back with them. In one beautiful moment, it is evident that Daniel’s fondness for Lucy has blossomed into something deeper than friendship. “Don’t do it Lucy,” her whispers to her in his brash, sandpaper voice. “…Tell them to shove off … We’ll think of something.”
He devises a plan to pay the rent: Lucy will write Daniel’s autobiography: Blood and Swash by “Captain X.” Lucy is an independent woman, but her Victorian prudishness prickles at Daniel’s language as he dictates the manuscript to her:
It’s that word. I’ve never written such a word.
It’s a perfectly good word. It means what it says, doesn’t it?
All too clearly.
Well, what word do you use?
Hang it all, if you’re gonna be prudish we’ll never get the book written, now put it down the way I gave it to you.
The typewriter clicks, slowly, exactly four times.
But their time spent together on Blood and Swash is also deeply personal; both open up to the other with often poetic candor. Lucy confesses she wishes that she had known him before; Daniel dubs her “Lucia”, a name betting her as it is “fit for a queen.” It is obvious they are falling in love with each other, though neither dare admit it. Daniel, wanting to protect Lucy, begrudgingly urges her to get out in the world and see men. “Oh, Daniel,” she sighs to herself, “I’m afraid we’ve got ourselves into an awful fix.”
Blood and Swash is a success. But more importantly, it brings her into the life of a charmingly caddish children’s book writer, Miles Fairley, played by the always wonderful George Sanders. (Tell-tale sign you’re watching a good movie? When the delightfully oily Sanders shows up halfway though.) Lucy is helpless against the advances of the charismatic, very romantic, and very physical, man. The overtly masculine Daniel takes an immediate dislike of well-dressed dandy (“he smells of blasted perfume!”) and warns Lucy to be careful. But Miles is flesh and blood, allowing for the physical intimacy she can not have with Daniel, and Lucy intends to marry him.
It is logic that even Daniel can’t argue with. Knowing he can’t stand in the way between her and life, he comes to her in the night while she sleeps to whisper his farewell, telling him that she made the only choice she could make: life. “You’ll only remember this as a dream,” he tells her, “and it will die, as all dreams must die in waking.” Just before he dematerializes, he gazes longingly at Lucy’s beautiful sleeping form. “What we missed, Lucia. What we both missed.Goodbye, my darling.” Mankiewicz’s soon-to-be greatness is highly evident here: the scene is decadently lit, quietly executed, and the result is a moment of supreme beauty; Mrs. Muir transforms, in one brief moment, from an entertaining fantasy to something much more complex and affecting.
Without Daniel’s companionship, Lucy is left alone to deal with the series of events that follow. Upon going to her publishers in town, Lucy stops by Miles’ home to surprise him. Only to be met with his wife. He’s out at the park with his children. His wife understands immediately and, with sincere compassion, says “I think I understand, my dear. And I am sorry too. You see, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.”
Devastated, Lucy retreats into a life of solitude, shared only with her maid and her daughter, to whom she devotes her life, haunted by the memory of her “dream”. Time passes. Her daughter marries, and then her daughter’s daughter marries, and Lucy ages into a quietly melancholy old woman, whose happiest memories are the “dreams” she had so many years ago.
But when her time comes, Daniel is waiting for her. Extending his hand, she is young and beautiful once more, and the two depart, arm in arm, to spend their eternity together, as fate had always destined them to.
Mankiewicz was public in his derision of the film, calling it a “hack job”, but time has been very kind to Mrs. Muir. It’s dramatic, highly stylized photography is noirish and yet deeply romantic, making it a complicated film to pigeonhole. It has been called a “genre tour”, which is perhaps its best description, as Maniewicz himself said he wanted to show what could be done on a modest studio budget. Even Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is one his his undisputed best, sweeps the romance along with dramatic–and delicate–complexity. Adding to Mrs. Muir‘s worth as something more than just a romance flick, is the fact that the film has undeniable protofeminist undertones, with Lucy being a shockingly independent figure in turn of the century Victorian England; it could justifiably argued that the film is an exploration, however rudimentary, of the female voice.
But the real star of the show is the magnetic chemistry between Harrison and Tierney. Their playful banter is sharp and infectious, making the viewer root for a thoroughly impossible romance. Their attraction is palpable, though never outright stated, only adding to their kinetic charge. It isn’t often that a fantasy that is so, well, fantastic, feels human right down to the marrow, but Mrs. Muir is certainly one of them. For all it’s otherworldliness, Mrs. Muir is as human as it gets. Which is why it will always resonate with viewers.