From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
I have known four women who recalled this film as one of their favorites. Before the first one told me, I had already seen it and liked it but would not have elevated it to, say, the lofty position of being in my top 50. But by the time the fourth one sang its praises, I saw it again with a new attitude. And I must admit I could see why women especially would like it well enough to brand it a favorite.
In London at the turn of the 20th century, a comely young widow with an 8-year old daughter informs her mother-in-law and sister-in-law that she is going to move out of their home. There is a part of Mrs. Muir that is reserved and well-bred, but she is strong-minded and has a determination to live life on her own terms. She informs them she would like to live by the sea. Perhaps this fact alone is part of the film's allure. Couldn't we perhaps say that most folks would live by the sea if they could, especially if it were in a home with lots of character?
And then there's the home. If I were a real estate agent I could probably make you drool with my outlining of the many colorful features. For one, it was on a hill above the sea with virtually no one around. It had that perfect two-story cottage look with warm, wonderful rooms, highlighted by a master bedroom and balcony that faced the sea. It wasn't difficult for me to picture a good life there.
But Mrs. Muir was having a difficult time with the real estate agent who rejected the notion of showing her the place. After all, we're told Whitecliff-by-the-Sea has a number of houses that would be more suitable to the widow, her daughter and their trusted maid. But Mrs. Muir would not take no for an answer and soon she was moving into Gull House. (Since childhood I seem to have always been attached to films where a house has been named. How snobbily wonderful is that?!)
The confounded agent won't say what the problem is which becomes clear when the two are walking through the master bedroom and a large bellowing laugh sends them both running outside. He then confesses that he hasn't been able to keep anyone in the house past one night because of that laugh and worse. It seems that the spirit of a previous owner, a rough and tumble sea captain named Daniel Gregg remains in the house. More to the point he doesn't want anyone moving in.
Mrs. Muir, tired of being pushed around, decides to move in. Once she does, the captain becomes visible to her, nearly scaring her out of her wits when he does. (He has the ability to be seen by others or not.) His voice is loud, his eyes are squinty, his ego is bloated and he bellows at her that she is not welcome to stay. Getting nowhere with that, he informs her that things will at least be done his way.
He asks her what her first name is and she says Lucy. It may be then that he fell in love with her. The camera catches his face to show yearning, something he only seems to have while on that balcony overlooking the sea. He tells her he will call her Lucia. He comes and goes to suit himself. Sometimes he is not visible to her but usually he is. Eventually, she simply seems to know when he is around her.
Bristling at his abrupt and controlling manner, she nonetheless is somehow drawn to him. She decides to tuck away the knowledge that their relationship is something out of this world.
When Lucy is informed that she has lost all her money, the captain comes up with a plan. He will dictate to her the facts of his colorful life and she will type it up for a book publisher. As it turns out, that's exactly what happens and her finances are restored. At the publisher's, she meets a cad, Miles Fairley, a pompous writer of children's stories.
Despite her fine house and seaside location, Lucy is a bit lonely. It is exacerbated by her relationship with her incorporeal housemate and it is obvious from both that they wished they occupied the same world. So in this regard she allows herself to be swept up by Fairley, despite his obvious caddishness. They declare their love for one another. We who are watching this development are not pleased at all.
Someone else who is watching, of course, is our by now besotted captain who decides to haul his heavenly presence out to sea. Here is where the film loses its way a bit. The captain leaves the story until the finale and the film concentrates on Fairley, which is unfortunate. His story is not as interesting as the captain's and Fairley is not as interesting a character. Lucy, as well, becomes a little more testy and most of the action takes place out of the cottage and away from the sea. I read a critique once which mentioned this same fact but added there was probably nothing that could have been done about it. What? How about, at minimum, simply leave the captain in the story, in the house, and let him do our bidding for how much we don't like Fairley? On the other hand, by the time this occurs, we are so invested in this charming little fable that it matters little.
Lucy does come to her senses when she shows up unannounced at Fairley's home and discovers his wife. The film's pacing changes at this point and perhaps rushes too quickly to the end but it is nonetheless beautifully done. Years rush by. The captain has still not returned and we know that Lucy is lonely for him. Soon her hair is quite gray, she's sitting in her favorite rocker looking toward the sea and she dies.
As that happens, the captain returns, touches her hand and a young Lucia arises. He tells her she will never be tired again. Arm-in-arm they walk out of the house in the fog toward the sea.
I confess my main reason for my fondness for this film is Mrs. Muir herself, Gene Tierney. I was always so captivated by her imperfect beauty and her manner that I can safely say I have seen every film she has ever made. If this weren't her best film, it was certainly one in which she was enchantingly presented. She was on a high when she made it because it was the fourth film in four years that was a sensational match of actress with a character.
Rex Harrison, though he's never been an actor that registered much on my radar, was perfection as the ghost. The captain was pompous, conceited and arrogant and there's little doubt why Harrison was thought of for the role. Fox had brought him to America to star opposite Irene Dunne in Anna and the King of Siam, filmed the year before The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. He had already been hailed as the terror of 20th although Tierney said she found him to be a delightful costar.
I have likewise never been especially drawn to George Sanders but I would be the first one to admit that his calling was without a doubt playing the well-mannered lout. It's also a good film for a glimpse of the adorable Natalie Wood at eight years old. (Her next film would be Miracle on 34th Street.) It is a shame she was underused here and in fact it served as another of the film's shortcomings. A lonely widow living at the seaside with only a maid and her young daughter for company would certainly have spent more time with the daughter.
Then there's the director Joseph Mankiewicz. I just recently finished writing an extensive piece on the gentleman so we won't repeat much here. To be fair, Tierney did some of her best work with the strongest of directors (neither Mankiewicz nor Otto Preminger were weak). For the first film Mankiewicz directed, Dragonwyck, Tierney was his star and they dated for awhile. Their relationship had ended by the time they started this film but it ended on a good note and she still responded to his direction in the way a compliant lover might and he appeared to coax her to a greater range and technique.
At this point, Mankiewicz had not begun his brilliant writing career (it was two years off) but this film was the second of three in a row he would collaborate on with writer Philip Dunne. This was also the best of the three as it shows what can happen when a director and a writer are sympatico.
Lending a great deal of panache to this film is the lush, haunting score of Bernard Herrmann which is so a part of the story that it is almost a character itself. It's hard to grasp that it wasn't nominated for an Oscar. Charles Lang's atmospheric cinematography was also a major contributor to the overall high regard for this film and he was Oscar-nominated.
The story was certainly enchanting enough for it to be revised as a 1968 television series starring a perfect actress for the part, Hope Lange, and Harrison-lookalike, Edward Mulhare.
Here, have a look at this lovely film...
2 often-paired character actors