The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, Edna Best

There’s a scene towards the beginning of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir which is actually even a little spooky. Lucy (Tierney) is walking around the cottage which used to belong to a sea captain, Daniel Gregg (Harrison). Mankiewicz is working at a disadvantage here. For one thing, it’s the 1940s, and ’40s horror is not expressly frightening. For another, this is a ghost story in which the ghost is Rex Harrison, who I’m inclined to be as frightened of as I am of my cat. Still, we know the house will be haunted, even if Tierney doesn’t, and the way Mankiewicz reveals Harrison for the first time is worthy of a good jump. Tierney pushes open a door which is in total blackness except for what looks like Harrison’s smirking face and torso. In the story, this is revealed to be a portrait of the late captain; as a device, placing Harrison there is just fabulous in the moment. Sadly, nothing else in the movie jerks the viewer quite like that image. It absolutely belongs in that class of movies that has a superior plot summary to actual execution.

Harrison is the best part of the movie, and the reason I know that is because all of the parts where he’s off-screen are a chore. It’s not even as if Harrison has a lot to do in this movie besides make pirate noises, drop the occasional line of jargon, and sneer at things, but when he does any of them it’s hard not to find him a little endearing. Daniel comes to take a liking to Lucy, who he had originally planned to haunt out of his onetime home before he decided he liked her backbone. Even if Tierney is almost deliriously dull (the best parts of Laura, perhaps not coincidentally, are the parts where Dana Andrews thinks she’s dead), that at least plays in her favor for a little while. We can’t tell if she’s exhibiting phlegm or if she just doesn’t have another range, although it becomes abundantly clear later in the picture that it’s the latter. All the same, Lucy refuses to be cowed by Daniel, and so he grudgingly accepts the widow and promises not to wander about and scare Lucy’s daughter, Anna (Natalie Wood). He becomes more kindly inclined towards her after watching her interact with her in-laws, who have come to fetch her back from the seaside because her only source of income has dried up. Not only does he sympathize with her reckless independence, but he personally escorts the deeply frightened ladies off the premises. His plan for her to achieve financial solvency—write a novel that he’ll dictate to her based on his adventures, called Blood and Swash—goes off well. Blood and Swash, aside from sounding like one of the singles off of a nautical Snoop Dogg album, is one of the weakest links in the movie. It’s hard to believe in the cosmology of the early 1900s, even one in which ghosts hang around pretty young widows, that a novel about a sea captain’s life is likely to just magically fund the author in perpetuity. Even worse is the fact that the movie cannot think of another way to introduce Lucy to Miles Fairley, although that’s something we’ll deal with later.

They turn into a close-fitting team. He does the masculine things and speaks the masculine thoughts. It’s “her novel,” even though it’s really “his memoirs,” and where he dictates she transcribes. He frequently holds forth on what women want in a way that makes modern ears shiver. (His diatribes on women are a collective reminder that “consent” is the terminology and rule of a much more recent time, that there’s nothing intuitive about it, and that men must be educated on the subject and adhere to its lessons.) He renames her “Lucia” in their conversations, which he thinks more fittingly statuesque than the mousier “Lucy,” but which comes off as shockingly controlling: who is he to call her by a different name? Again, it’s Rex Harrison: even the most presumptuous readings are somehow a smidge self-effacing, and we see the chauvinist even if his character has no idea what that word means. He’s proof that bombast and noise can, in the right proportions, come off as amusing. When he disappears into the ether after realizing that Lucy has fallen in love with a man she can physically possess, he does so after giving her a quietly whispered speech which also, like, erases her memory of him while she’s asleep. It would be a bad scene even if he weren’t doing some kind of voodoo on her—Gene Tierney’s ability to look asleep while Rex Harrison’s goatee is almost in her mouth is the best acting she does all movie—but the most disorienting piece of it is Harrison’s quietness. When he isn’t ripping off some colorful insult or outlandish opinion fortissimo, he loses his power.

George Sanders is, even in the best of times, no fitting successor to Rex Harrison. Nor is the plot featuring a mere adulterer with an absent family nearly as interesting as the foul-mouthed ghost of an old sea dog. Miles Fairley is a children’s book author with the practically euphemistic pseudonym “Uncle Neddy” who runs into the handsome Lucy Muir at the publisher’s. He is instantly smitten. Daniel, by the fact of his incorporeal state, is reduced to wooing his living love through doing deeds and reciting poetry. (Lucy’s heart is softened as regards Daniel when he drops a few lines of Keats on her.) Miles does not have to use words; he insinuates himself physically, creeps up close to her in a shared carriage during a storm, paints a portrait of her in her bathing suit, kisses her frequently. It is, by the standards of Edwardian England, a torrid affair; for ’40s film, the liberties he takes with her are no small ones. Alas that Miles’ presence means Daniel’s absence, and that without Daniel the movie fades into tropes. It turns out that Miles is a serial libertine, and everyone could have guessed at it but Lucy. Lucy grows old; Anna gets engaged to a man with several names; the relationship between Lucy and her (gasp) thoroughly protective and devoted maid, Martha (Best) gets some play. How dreary the last act of the movie is! There’s no surprise, no energy, no zest. Even Mankiewicz seems tired of the film by then; the adroit stair-climbing camera is replaced by one which sees static wide shots of rooms and little else. Bernard Herrmann’s score becomes frivolous and screechy, as if it must do some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the movie. What a relief it is when Lucy dies an old woman and Daniel can come rescue her from her solitude and our boredom, and I’m sure the protagonists were glad of it too.

Despite the tedium of the movie’s second half, the romance between Lucy and Daniel seems advanced and thoughtful. No one says the word “love,” and there are no tawdry arguments between the two of them about their expectations or commitment or anything of that sort. Because she is tangible and he is not, there can be no sex, no hugging, no appropriately English pecks on the cheek or pats on the hand. (The blocking in this movie is subtly strong and doesn’t call attention to itself, as it does frequently in Harrison’s other ghostly ’40s romance, Blithe SpiritThe two of them are not often forced to be close to one another and they never do touch while living on different planes.) If there’s love buried in those frigid little English hearts of our protagonists, it’s a love that is settled and agreed upon. Daniel may be tempestuous and Lucy easily led, but neither one of them feels the need to speak it or express it. Even if neither of our leads is lusty enough to draw us in onto that prurient road, there’s a personality to the film that is only possible because of the chastity of the lovers. It doesn’t build yearning—Daniel knows that all he has to do to win Lucy is wait her out, which sort of collapses any kind of meaningful longing—but it makes the movie special.

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