Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947) Three years before he would realize his ultimate triumph of All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz made his fifth film for 20th Century Fox, a fantasy-romance, adapted by Phillip Dunne. Mankiewicz had already worked with star Gene Tierney on Dragonwyck and the two re-teamed here to tell the story of a young widow, Mrs. Lucy Muir, who, to get out from underneath the domineering thumbs of her in-laws, takes her young daughter (played by Natalie Wood) and rents a storied seaside cottage called Gull Cottage.

Storied might be too charitable a term. The landlord does his best to warn her that there's been quite a bit of turn-over lately in renter's owing to the rumor that the place is haunted. But, Mrs. Muir loves the place and is undeterred by the stories; she, her daughter and her maid move in.

The first night she is visited by the ghost, in the sepulchral form of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), the first owner of the house. He doesn't take too kindly to the living presences there, but Muir charms him, and he reluctantly agrees to a spiritual version of a renter's agreement—as they're better than past guests, he will allow them to stay, refrain from poltergeistian activities and will only check-in (fade-in) with Mrs. Muir, leaving her daughter undisturbed. Wouldn't do to scare the children, no matter the friendliness of the ghost.  And life (and after-life) settles down for the four residents.

There are disagreements, but for the most part, Gregg and Muir get along, and when Muir's in-laws pay an unexpected visit to tell of her of financial troubles that will force her eviction and her return to London, Gregg shows that the spirit is willing by scaring the in-laws out of the house.
To get her out of debt, the two devise a scheme: Gregg will dictate his memoirs to Muir, and she will then publish them and use the proceeds to buy Gull Cottage.  Gregg spins a tale of derring-do on the high seas, and his obvious love of the sea and means of expressing it, charms his biographer, and slowly, the two begin to fall in love.
But it's a love that can never be in the real world. The Captain is, after all, dead. And not just figuratively, but really and sincerely...dead. She is young, lovely, and, more to the point, alive. Suitors come and go, and Gregg watches them, disapprovingly, and is, himself, haunted by the opportunities for life that Muir might be passing by. "Life is for the living," they say. So, when Muir meets an urbane man (George Sanders) at the publisher's, Gregg convinces Muir (while she sleeps) that he is only a dream that she's had, and fades from her life to give her life, never to return.
But, life is not all it's cracked up to be. Life is hard for Mrs. Muir, and love is even harder—cruel, in reality. She lives out her life alone, without even the spirit of love she once knew.

It's simple in theme, but complex in emotion and resonance. Mrs. Muir is a widow in love with death. Mourning her husband, she finds love in a kindred spirit, in love with life, so much so that he will sacrifice himself in her interest. It is the oddest, and most haunting of love stories that ends in a love that even death dare not part.

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