Friday Flicks: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. With Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison and George Sanders.

I have scads of movies. Way more than anyone needs, but, well, I like ‘em.  I’ll likely do some serious editing before my next move, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir will stay in my collection—it’s one of my favorites. It’s one that I tend to put on before I go to sleep, just to watch for a few minutes, and then catch myself feeling all sappy and sentimental as I watch the end credits, yet again.

Gene Tierney is Lucy Muir, a widowed mother living uncomfortably with the mother and sister of her deceased husband. After a year of mourning, she decamps with her daughter (a very young Natalie Wood) and Martha, her maid/cook/companion, for Whitecliff by the Sea, a small village that is—accurately enough—by the sea.

She sees an advertisement for a small cottage that seems perfect for their needs; the realtor that she consults is both condescending and mysterious, and repeatedly tries to direct her attention to something more “suitable.” As she did with her overbearing in-laws, she listens to his objections, smiles quite graciously, and does precisely as she pleases. She rents Gull Cottage.

The realtor finally reveals the reason for his initial hesitation: Gull Cottage is reputed to be haunted by (wait for it…) the previous owner, a sailor named Captain Gregg who died in the house four years earlier.

Mrs. Muir laughs and takes the cottage anyway. (She is a shockingly headstrong young lady.) That night she is confronted with the subject of the rumors. Captain Gregg did, indeed, die in the house four years earlier, and doesn’t approve of the way the cousin who inherited the house is dealing with his property. Captain Gregg had planned to leave his house to retired seamen, but his death preempted his plans. (I’m not completely sure why Captain Gregg assumes that if he can keep the house empty he can somehow get it off the market and made into the home for retired seamen…but that’s apparently what he thinks. The legal ramifications of dying intestate aren’t exactly the primary focus of this movie.)

Mrs. Muir maneuvers  him into agreeing to let her stay, and thus begins a period of camaraderie between the ghost of Captain Gregg and Mrs. Muir.

Their tentative peace is threatened when the Muir in-laws arrive with the news that the gold mine (conveniently paying dividends that support the widow and child) has been tapped out. Without finances, her dream of living in Gull Cottage has been unceremoniously curtailed. Captain Gregg surprises her by urging her to stay, insisting that they will find a way to manage.

Captain Gregg decides that he will write his memoirs, Blood and Swash:The Unvarnished Life of a Seaman, for the income that the royalties will bring.

As the writing progresses, the two are increasingly familiar with one another, moving from the use of given names to spending all of their time in each other’s company until it is clear that there are quite a few unexpected emotions zinging around the little cottage. (Well, I suspect that’s what you are supposed to assume this by the fact that they often laugh together and just as often get caught in long, significant glances. It’s a movie from 1947: everything is quite quite sublimated.) As Mrs. Muir—now Lucretia—puts it, they’ve gotten themselves into an awful fix.

As is naturally the case, the book is immediately accepted by the publisher and all of the money troubles are over. (I think this dream is about on par with incredulity of a handsome and haunting sea-captain. But maybe I’m cynical.)

While she is at the publisher’s, she is noticed and pursued by Miles Fairley, a suave playboy who writes children’s books under the name Uncle Neddy. As Captain Gregg says, “He smirks like a cat at a fishmonger.” He begins courting Mrs. Muir, but it’s clear that he’s much too, well, smarmy to be considered as a true suitor.

Nonetheless, she succumbs to his blandishments and consents to marry him because “he’s real” and can provide companionship, laughter, love. (Personally, it seems that she’s getting all of those things from the good captain… the only thing that Uncle Neddy can provide is a bit more of a physical manifestation of said love, minus some of the other good stuff. Of course, we don’t overtly talk about sex in movies from 1947. At least, not this one.)

Captain Gregg leaves her to have a happy life and a real life with her real suitor,  with one of the best lover-departing speeches in the movies.

She wakes up believing the past year—the narrator of her book, her  constant companion—has all been a dream.

A few days later, she drops in on her fiancé during an impromptu trip to visit her publisher in London, and in an excruciating interview with his very sympathetic wife (!) learns that she and the children have just returned from an extended vacation abroad. Yep, as those of us with suspicious minds already feared, the smarmy children’s writer is just as smarmy as he seems. Now seems like an excellent time for Captain Gregg to go back on that “find your own harbor” business, but nope, she walks along the shoreline, alone, believing Captain Gregg was a dream for the next fifty-some years.
As a very old lady, she sits, resting at Martha’s urging before dinner, after mildly complaining of tingling in her arm. As she drops off to sleep, Captain Gregg appears, taking her again-young hands and lifting “her” from her aged corpse that remains in the chair. And off they go, into the wild, blue yonder.

And that’s the story. And honestly, I love it for the story, not for any possible critiques, analyses, la-de-dahs or what-have-yous. But were I so inclined, here is where I would start a critical analysis of this movie:

I’d look at gender. I know. Shocking. 

First: In writing the memoirs of the sea captain, the demure widow is able to access an alternate form of expression, and so, a previously curtailed form of power. Initially his voice is merely mistaken for hers, as he, invisible, tells intruders to “shove off” while she politely smiles. Later, from exposure to such conversational styles, one assumes, she is able to utilize the presumed masculine—and therefore [assumed to be] stronger—form of speech as she similarly tells intruders to “shove off.”

Second: One could do a more traditional (*ahem* old-school) reading of the movie by critiquing the way the movie frames her as merely the pen to his inspiration. While there is plenty of feminist literature about women being utilized to merely showcase the talents of the male artist, this doesn’t completely hold up with this movie. True, writing is distinctly his arena, and she operates as his secretary by typing up the notes. However, writing is not presented as a goal to which she is trying to aspire and cannot, either explicitly because of her sex or more implicitly just because she happens to lack the talent. Rather, writing is a means to an end—to keep the house—and it is successful and they move on.

Third: It would be quite interesting to do a reading of alternate forms of masculinities as presented in this movie. Captain Gregg is rough and blunt, but obviously the hero and so assumed to be honorable, trustworthy, basically kind and good. Miles Fairley is smooth and suave, but ultimately the anti-Gregg (dishonorable, untrustworthy, unkind, ungood. er, bad.) And Captain Gregg was a manual laborer. And Miles Fairley was not only a writer (already a more effete way of earning a living  than following the sea) but he’s a children’s writer, and one who writes tales so insipid that not even Mrs. Muir’s young daughter can stomach them. He’s obviously the loser of the testosterone race. The contrast between the two is almost too drastic, and any sort of overstatement makes me wonder what is being obscured.

There are aspects of this movie that are somewhat problematic: There is more than a bit of voyeurism—as Captain Gregg is a ghost, he can be invisible at will. After undressing in (supposed) isolation her first night in the house, Mrs. Muir is told by his disembodied voice that she should never be ashamed of her figure (!). Captain Gregg frequently rages at her, calling all women idiots and fools, gruffly mocking her (admittedly somewhat feeble) attempts at autonomy. And finally, and most problematically, Captain Gregg asserts that “when a woman is kissed, it means, deep down she wants to be kissed.” And all the thinking women of the world said HUH?

Regardless of possibly problematic elements, this is a fantastic movie. Check out this short video (above) which conveys some of the feel of the movie, using the  background music (written by Bernard Herrmann, who is most well-known for writing the score for Psycho and Vertigo) which is absolutely beautiful, as well as the shots of the ocean, pounding on the shore.

Happy movie watching!

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