75 years of magic, romance, and feminine perseverance with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
NOTE: This feature originally appeared in the August 26, 2022 edition of the Seattle Gay News. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher Angela Craigin.
It is the year 1900, and this new century and all its promise have recently widowed Mrs. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) giddily excited. She has taken up residence in a quaint seaside cottage with daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and housekeeper Martha Huggins (Edna Best), much to the consternation of estate agent Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote). His reasons for not wanting Mrs. Muir to take on the lease have nothing to do with the woman’s finances, however, but instead the home’s disquieting history, and he’s worried she’ll flee before making the first month’s payment.
Why? The place is haunted by the ghost of its former owner, cantankerous professional seaman Capt. Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). He’s pompous and angry, and has no wish to have roommates, let alone a young mother, her inquisitive child, and a kooky servant. But Mrs. Muir is undeterred. She will not let Capt. Gregg shoo her away, and therefore resolves to come to an arrangement with the apparition, never realizing that, in doing so, the pair will enter into a relationship that will transcend practical reality and even time itself.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is one of the most passionately romantic motion pictures I’ve ever seen. Based on the novel by R.A. Dick, adapted for the screen by the great Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley, The Agony and the Ecstasy), and directed by the legendary Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives), this 1947 classic is one of those motion pictures that leaves a permanent impression. Even 75 years later, this remains a shockingly modern tale of feminine rebellion and everlasting love that’s nothing short of timeless.
But that’s not the reason The Ghost and Mrs. Muir sits right next to my heart. This was the last film my maternal grandmother Doris and I watched together, a few months before she succumbed to cancer. Even though it was difficult to get away from my classes at the University of Washington, I still felt it necessary to make the roughly 90-minute trek from Seattle to Tenino whenever I could. Doris meant the world to me, and as often as she was there for me in my young life, it was only right I try to do the same when she needed it most.
I’m not entirely sure how we came to watch the film. Most of my visits were rather quiet. We’d play cards. Doris would ask how my classes were. I’d lie, doing my best to convince her things were going great when the reality wasn’t so pleasant. She would in turn feign believing me, and in between shuffles would grab my hand and give me a reassuring smile that was like an atomic bomb of kindness. These were our moments, and I will forever treasure them.
I was taking an introduction-to-film class and would sometimes bring VHS homework during my visits, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was one of those titles I had randomly decided to bring with me. Doris loved Rex Harrison and George Sanders (he plays Miles Fairley, a successful author of children’s books who becomes enamored with Mrs. Muir, the consequences of which have a huge impact on the third act), and while she wasn’t as fond of Gene Tierney, my grandma did recall enjoying this one quite a bit when she was young.
Few moviegoing experiences in my life have ever equaled this one. Neither of us made a sound other than a few soft giggles early on, when Lucy and Capt. Gregg are getting to know one another. We barely moved. When it was nearly over, and as Bernard Herrmann’s memorable score built to a powerful crescendo, we shared a box of tissues and as tight a hug as her frail condition would allow. While the rest of the day is a foggy blur, the 104 minutes we sat there watching the picture are burned into my soul, and that’s no small thing.
Mankiewicz adored strong women. His filmography is littered with them, All About Eve’s Margo Channing — so brilliantly portrayed by Bette Davis — arguably towering about them all. But to me, Tierney’s Lucy Muir is the character I shall always be most fond of. Her strength, her resilience, her ability to maintain her dignity in the face of all obstacles — these were all traits my grandmother embodied, and ones I have done my best to emulate as the years have slowly passed.
The final moments of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir are profoundly cinematic. Charles Lang’s lush black-and-white cinematography (the seventh of his 17 Academy Award nominations) creates an otherworldly dreamscape that hovers right at the edge of reality and fantasy. Hermann’s music propels things forward with baroque dynamism. Harrison’s larger-than-life performance reaches its zenith, and Tierney’s hushed, almost imperial elegance brings forth a waterfall of tears.
It’s pure perfection, made even more so by Mankiewicz’s stubborn refusal to overplay his hand. He chooses subtlety over melodramatic excess, knowing that, even during the climax, less remains more and that the audience will fall even more into his hands via a gentle coaxing, not a forceful shove. The magic of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir refuses to dissipate, making it even more unforgettable now than it was three-quarters of a century ago.
Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is available on DVD (the Blu-ray is sadly out of print) and to purchase digitally on multiple platforms.