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Film Friday: "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" (1947)

Although Valentine's Day was months ago, this week on "Film Friday" I am bringing you one of the most romantic films of all time according to the American Film Institute. The reason for this is that this particular film had its original premiere exactly 68 years ago.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) opens in the early 1900s when the young widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) moves to the seaside English village of Whitecliff, where she takes up residence at Gull Cottage with her daughter Anna (Natalie Wood as a child, Vanessa Brown as an adult) and her housekeeper Martha (Edna Best). On her first night in the house, Lucy meets the ghost of its former owner, a roguish sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who is impressed by her love for the cottage and agrees to let her stay, promising to make himself known only to her.

One day, Angelica (Isobel Elsom) and Eva Muir (Victoria Horne), Lucy's mother-in-law and sister-in-law, pay an unexpected visit to report that her investment income had dried up and insist that she return to London with them, but Lucy kindly tells them to "shove off." Daniel then proposes that they repair her finances by collaborating on a book about his life on the sea and in the course of the following weeks, they find themselves falling in love, but both realize that it's a hopeless situation. When Lucy becomes involved with the debonair author Miles Fairley (George Sanders), whom she meets in her publisher's office, Daniel takes leave of her while she sleeps, admonishing her that she simply dreamed of him and wrote the book by herself. For a time, Lucy appears happily convinced that the captain was just a dream, but after her discovery of Miles's wife and children, she retreats to Gull Cottage, where she lives the rest of life as a single woman. One foggy night many years later, Daniel reappears before her at the moment of her death and lifts her young spirit free from her aged body. Arm in arm, they leave the cottage and disappear into the mist.

Daniel Gregg: You must make your own life amongst the living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.

During the 1930s and 1940s, when women dominated the American moviegoing audience, many of Hollywood's most popular films dealt with key issues in women's personal lives. Known as the "woman's film" and featuring such stars as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, these pictures were centered around a female protagonist and looked at love triangles, unwed motherhood, illicit affairs and the tangled relations between mothers and daughters, all while empowering "a sex that society had relegated to secondary status." The years following World War II witnessed the emergence of a small sub-category of woman's films, which were formulated as romantic ghost stories and recounted tales of desire, longing and loss. Among such films as Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Letters From an Unknown Woman (1948), we find Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

A Columbia University graduate, Mankiewicz worked for seventeen years as a screenwriter for Paramount and as a producer for MGM, before getting a chance to direct at 20th Century Fox, beginning with the gothic romance Dragonwyck (1946). With a screenplay penned by Philip Dunne based on the 1945 novel by Josephine Leslie, writing under the ambiguous pseudonym R. A. Dick, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was Mankewicz's fifth film at Fox and expressed his ongoing interest in exploring the nature of strong women. He would later return to this theme in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950), both of which earned him consecutive Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir
In a memo to Dunne and producer Fred Kohlmar, Fox's production chief Darryl F. Zanuck expressed his wish to cast Norma Shearer in the role of the self-determined and principled Lucy Muir, hoping that she would make the same kind of comeback Joan Crawford had made in Mildred Pierce (1945). Mankiewicz, however, decided to give the part to 26-year-old Gene Tierney, who had starred in Dragonwyck. Tierney was at the height of her career, having just received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for John M. Stahl's Technicolor noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945). 

When production on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir began in November 1946, Mankiewicz's initial directorial tactic was to overplay the comic element of Dunne's script and have Mrs. Muir be a playful and almost screwball character. However, after two days of filming Tierney "tiptoeing around the house, reacting to Rex's ghostly pranks with exaggerated comedy takes," Zanuck ordered Mankiewicz to reshoot the scenes so that she could give the character more emotional depth. A few weeks later, production was delayed again when Tierney broke her foot in an accident and had to stay off her feet for several days. She had to wear a plaster cast for the remainder of production, which accounts for the large number of shots in which she is seen sitting down, though the long dresses designed by her estranged husband Oleg Cassini, with whom she eloped in 1941, helped disguise the problem.

Harrison and Tierney in a publicity still
Rex Harrison, who made his American film debut opposite Irene Dunne in John Cromwell's Anna and the King of Siam (1946), was chosen to play the cynically charming ghost of the deceased Daniel Gregg. Being a perfectionist, Harrison felt that he needed a beard in order to make his role as a 19th century sea captain more believable, but Zanuck highly objected to this. Neverthless, with the help of make-up director Ben Nye and artist John George Vogel, he had his portrait painted wearing a beard (the eerie portrait we see in the beginning of the film). When Zanuck saw the painting, he was immediately sold on Harrison's beard and revoked his orders that the actor's face remain clean-shaven.

Jeanine Basinger and Cheryl Bray Lower argue that Captain Gregg functions as Lucy Muir's alter-ego and as the film progresses, her relationship with him "becomes less of a romance with a ghost-man than a love affair with her own excitement at growing into independent womanhood." By imagining herself in his place while writing their book, Blood and Swash, Lucy learns from Daniel what is like to be a man in a man's world and eventually finds her way into the public sphere, "a man's world into which she has no other entrée." In this type of reading, we can describe Mrs. Muir's conflict as being a prototype of what writer and feminist Betty Friedan would later call in her book The Feminine Mystique (1963) "the problem with no name," the widespread of happiness of women in the 1950s and 1960s, who realized they needed more than motherhood to be fulfilled.

Gene Tierney and George Sanders
[Gregg] is the symbol of many possibilities. He might be her need for a man [...] for a true, deep love, or even for just hearty sex. He can be her need for reassurance as she faces life as a woman on her own, or he could be a covert representative of her desire for a career [...] He is more or less her "male" side, or that part of her that is brave and independent, fierce and creative.
(Jeanine Basinger)

Richard Ney, who had appeared in Mankiewicz's The Late George Apley (1947), was originally cast as the second male lead, but was forced to withdraw from the project due to a schedule conflict with Sam Wood's Ivy (1947). The studio then hired George Sanders to play Miles Fairley, whose dialogue was substancially rewritten by Mankiewicz to underline his sophisticated, if indecent, personality. In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Sanders's character appears in sharp contrast to the one played by Rex Harrison. While Daniel is able to provide comfort, support and, through Blood and Swash, the money to sustain Lucy as an independent woman, Miles provides the problem by putting Lucy in the role of a potential home-breaker. By shattering her dreams of finding real companionship and "all the things a woman needs," Miles is the ultimate cause of her decision to live the rest of her life as a recluse. 

Natalie Wood on location in California
For the role of Mrs. Muir's young daughter, Mankiewicz chose an eight-year-old Natalie Wood, right before she was cast in one of the key roles of her screen childhood, that of the skeptical Susan Walker in The Miracle on 34th Street (1947). When Famous Artists sent a pig-tailed Wood on an interview for what would be her third film role, Mankiewicz was immediately charmed and impressed by her reaction when he asked her if she had read "the whole script or just your part." Looking very surprised, she told the director: "The whole script." 

Allison L. McKee argues that what marks The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as a woman's film is not so much the way it emphasizes love, romance and the family, but rather Bernard Herrmann's "haunting and melancholic" score, which "communicates the elements of pathos and desire that are so integral to the woman's film generally and to this film specifically." Herrmann, who wrote his first film score for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), considered The Ghost and Mrs. Muir "his finest film score: poetic, unique, highly personal," and half-jokingly called it his "Max Steiner score," alluding to some of its more melodramatic qualities. The Austrian-born Steiner was responsible for scoring such iconic and emotionally-driven pictures as Gone with the Wind (1939), Sergeant York (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Now, Voyager (1942), receiving great acclaim for the way he was able to create a theme for each character in a film.

[Herrmann's score] contains the essence of his Romantic ideology — his fascination with death, romantic ecstasy, and the beautiful loneliness of solitude. Superficially it recalls past works — the impressionistic seascapes of Debussy's La Mer, Britten's Peter Grimes; but beneath an allusive veneer Herrmann paints his most eloquent work, filled with the pain of frustated desire and the Romantic promise of spiritual transcendence through death.
(Steven C. Smith) 

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison
Critics were generally disappointed by The Ghost and Mrs. Muir when it premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on June 26, 1947. The New York Times, for instance, commented that "this romantic fantasy [...] is gently humorous and often sparking good entertainment, but only to a point [...] Rex Harrison plays Captain Gregg mostly with a booming, querulous voice, but the actor has such an ingratiating personality that this compensates in large measure for the lack of characterization in his role. Gene Tierney plays Mrs. Muir in what by now may be called her customary inexpressive style. She is a pretty girl, but has no depth of feeling as an actress." Still, the Times agreed that "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir remains a pleasurable film, despite its failings, and it has some saucy dialogue to its credit, spoken mostly by Captain Gregg." In contrast, Variety wrote: "This is the story of a girl who falls in love with a ghost but not an ordinary spook. As that girl, Gene Tierney gives, what undoubtedly is her best performance to date. It’s warmly human and the out-of-this-world romance pulls audience sympathy with an infectious tug that never slackens. In his role as the lusty, seafaring shade, Rex Harrison commands the strongest attention."

In recent years, however, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has garnered great acclaim and was one of the 360 films chosen for preservation by the National Film and Television Archive of the British Film Institute as "key films in the history of cinema." The book and the film also inspired a short-lived television series, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir (1968-1970), starring Edward Mulhare and Hope Lange in the title roles. Though the series had the same premise and characters as the original story, it was reshaped into a sitcom, with the time and setting being updated to modern-day New England.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is such a magical film. Even though it was entirely filmed in California, Joe Mankiewicz's beautiful shots of the beach, along with Charles Lang's stunning cinematography and Hermmann's sweeping score, were able to create a perfect illusion of turn-of-century seaside England. Gene Tierney is simply ethereal and Rex Harrison is quite dashing too. You will most definitely dislike him at first, but as the film progresses, you will find youself falling in love with him and wishing Daniel and Lucy to stay together forever. And then of course there is that stunning ending, which I think is one of the most perfect and beautiful film endings of all time. If you are looking for a film that will sweep you off your feet, then The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is just exactly what you are looking for.

A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 by Jeanine Basinger (1993) | Bernard Herrmann's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: A Film Score Guide by David Cooper (2005) | Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith (2002) | Joseph L. Mankiewicz: Critical Essays with an Annotated Bibliography and a Filmography by Cheryl Bray Lower and R. Barton Palmer (2001) | Natalie Wood: A Life by Gavin Lambert (2004) | The Woman's Films of the 1940s: Gender, Narrative and History by Allison L. McKee (2014) |  | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. When I first saw this film, I liked it, but I wasn't crazy about it. Then I learned that it was one of my mom's favorites and I gave it another shot. It. Is. So. Good. Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison are phenomenal--everything is! I hadn't thought about what Captain Gregg represents other than a handsome ghost, so I'll definitely have to think about that the next time I watch it. Great post!

  2. Love this movie!! Natalie Wood is so cute :)


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