It’s such a fun thing, listening to the dialogue between the stars in pictures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Its so quick and witty and melodic and when its barbed its absolutely venomous. This matched with the Hollywood manufactured “Transatlantic” accent of the actors of the time makes for an almost musical quality and it really is a beautiful thing. That’s what struck me the most while watching Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “The Ghost and Mrs Muir”; it doesn’t quite work as a fantasy, it doesn’t quite work as a romance and it doesn’t quite work as a comedy, but I did find myself being completely lost and immersed in the rhythm of the conversations.
Set in 1900’s England, recently widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) decides to move away from her dreary and domineering mother-in-law and sister-in-law and finds a quaint, idyllic cottage by the seaside which is in her price range because its haunted by its previous owner, the gruff but charming Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). Mrs Muir doesn’t scare as easily as the house’s previous tenants and the two develop a friendship, Mrs Muir even writing the Captain’s biography. While trying to get the book published, Mrs Muir meets famous children’s author Miles Fairley (George Sanders) and he visits Mrs Muir back at the cottage. When the Captain sees this, he decides to leave so that Mrs Muir may have a chance at a real and happy relationship, bewitching her so that she believes that her memories of him are only dreams. Mr Fairley eventually turns out to be a married man and philanderer, and Mrs Muir lives the rest of her days in the cottage with her friend and maid Martha (Edna Best). When Mrs Muir passes away, the Captain returns and takes Mrs Muir’s spirit (in her youthful form) by the hand while her elderly body remains behind and the two walk off together.
It’s a sweet premise for a love story, its just that the film doesn’t know which direction its supposed to go and so it dabbles in a few and never really lands any of them. The initial interactions between the Captain and Mrs Muir are probably the strongest, where he tries to intimidate her the way did the other tenants and she calls his bluff, establishing herself as headstrong and intelligent and capable of dishing back some of his snark. They’re matched up well and its evident why love may blossom, but that’s unfortunately as far as it goes. Out of the initial sparring and banter, the anticipated romance doesn’t really follow; they continue to bicker with each other with clipped tones and perfectly annunciated vowels but there’s never any real suggestion that the two are growing fond of each other let alone a spark of real romance. I think this is in large part due to the lack of development in Harrison’s character; Harrison is commanding and gruff but often one noted and isn’t allowed the same amount of range to work with as Tierney is.
One of the big issues I found with the film is that it doesn’t allow itself to have more fun with the premise! Rex Harrison’s most famous leading roles are obnoxious, sophisticated and debonair, but they’re also deliciouslysarcastic and imbued with a wicked sense of humour. When the Captain frog marches Mrs Muir’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law out of the house while they have no idea what’s going on, I was excited because I thought that the Captain and Mrs Muir were going to be able to have a bit of fun together. Unfortunately there’s barely any of it, which is such a shame because Harrison was such a gifted comedic actor and Tierney was funny in the few earlier moments where she was allowed to have a bit of fun. Apparently the 1960s sit-com of the same name that followed the film goes more down this direction, which makes sense because it seems so strange to not use the fact that your male lead is a ghost for at least a little comedic relief!
The film’s ending is admittedly beautiful, especially the scene with Mrs Muir and her now grown up daughter who admits that she too knew the ghost when she was a little girl and developed a crush on him. The moment of realisation in Mrs Muir’s face that she hadn’t just dreamed it all is one of pure happiness, almost childlike. When she and the Captain walk off together, there’s a fairy tale type of beauty to it, and a breath of relief from the audience as we see the two lovers finally walk off together when we never thought they’d be able to! Like I said, it would have been even better if an actual romance had been developed between them earlier on, but it’s still nice.
“The Ghost and Mrs Muir” is a pleasant experience, but unfortunately in many ways is somewhat forgettable. There are some enjoyable, even magical moments at times and had the film leaned a little further in a more resolute direction, I think the whole thing probably would have come together and made the most of what really is a fun premise and some undeniably charismatic leads.
By Jock Lehman