Gene Tierney is one of my favorite actresses from the ’40s. (What can I say? I’m a sucker for a cute overbite.) She’s often criticized for being more of a pretty face than a talented performer, but I think that’s unfair. Maybe some of these criticisms spring from her most famous role — Laura (1944) — in which she literally played a painting. I don’t know. What I do know is that when she was given good material and paired with a good director and co-stars, she really shone.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made another wonderful film starring Tierney, Dragonwyck (1946). Mankiewicz clearly cared about helping Tierney craft a fully realized character. And it doesn’t hurt that in this film, she is paired with the great Rex Harrison, who plays the ghost of the title.
Harrison’s scenes with Tierney are the highlights of the film, and the two actors play off each other beautifully. Their relationship runs the gamut of human emotion, from fear to amusement, anger to warmth, reproach to acceptance, and eventually even into the uncharted territory of human-spectral love.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir takes place in England at the turn of the century. Tierney plays a widow named Lucy Muir who moves with her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and her maid Martha Huggins (Edna Best) to Gull Cottage at Whitecliff-by-the-Sea. Unlike her real estate agent, Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote), who flees from ghostly laughter when showing Lucy the house, Mrs. Muir is sanguine about the prospect of moving in with a ghost. “Haunted,” she says. “How perfectly fascinating.”
Of course, she’s also a skeptic who doesn’t believe that medieval nonsense like ghosts and hauntings could ever exist in the 20th century. The painting of the fearsome-looking former owner of the house — Capt. Daniel Gregg — is certainly lifelike, but it takes the appearance of the salty old seaman “in the flesh” to convince Lucy that she’s not imagining things.
Philip Dunne’s screenplay for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is based on a novel by Josephine Leslie, who published it under the masculine-sounding pseudonym “R.A. Dick.” (I’m not sure if that pen name is supposed to be as funny as I find it.) In the novel, Capt. Gregg was just a voice inside Mrs. Muir’s head. He manifests more literally in the film, but in many ways he still symbolizes Lucy’s personal journey from a black crepe-wearing widow bound by convention to a liberated woman who writes and publishes a very unladylike book entitled Blood and Swash (with Capt. Gregg’s help, of course).
Ironically, the ghost of the Captain has no use for superstition or fear, and his plain, unvarnished speech, peppered with curses, speaks the truths that everyone in Lucy’s life has been too straitlaced to ever acknowledge. Also, because he has no corporeal form, the film is able to get away with things that otherwise wouldn’t have been acceptable under the Hay’s Code, such as a widow and a virile man sharing a room and intimate talk. He insists she call him by his Christian name, “Daniel,” and he decides her name should be something more exotic than Lucy, so he calls her “Lucia.”
“Keep on believing in me, and I’ll always be real,” Capt. Gregg tells Lucy, but eventually a real man enters her life — a slippery lothario named Miles Fairley (George Sanders) who writes children’s books under the name “Uncle Neddy” — and the jealous ghost must fade away.
The scene in which he says goodbye to her might be the most weirdly erotic and deeply romantic scenes of all time. She lies down in bed, her eyes close, and he sits down next to her, his face very close to hers as he says, “It’s been a dream, Lucia. And in the morning, and the years after, you’ll only remember it as a dream, and it’ll die, as all dreams must die at waking.”
Mankiewicz’s able direction is aided by the brilliant cinematography of Charles Lang and the luscious musical score of the great Bernard Herrmann. Together, they craft a film that nimbly moves from horror film to comedy, and then from romance to drama. I can’t recommend The Ghost and Mrs. Muir highly enough for lovers of classic cinema.