“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947) is notable for Gene Tierney’s charming performance as the spunky widow who shares a seaside cottage with her young daughter, a meek housekeeper, and a ghost.
Set in England of 100 years ago, we meet her in mourning black, which she eventually sheds when she establishes herself living independently after the death of her husband. In a time when widows with small children were taken in by relatives, this one avoids her husband’s dour family by striking it out on her own, upsetting the notions of proper female behavior held by them, the nervous real estate agent, and society of the day.
The irascible ghost of Captain Gregg tries to get her to “shove off” at first, but then the macho misogynist sea dog, played by Rex Harrison, takes a liking to the lady and allows her to remain, even dictating to her his memoirs, “Blood and Swash” so that she may sell it to a publisher for an income. It is an interesting irony that a character so boldly vocal about the faults of women, is also the one to accept her presence on an equal partnership.
They become fast companions, broken up only by the brash and flirtatious George Sanders, who helps get her foot in the door at the publishing house. Sanders is a writer of children’s books, and a painter as well who paints a saucy portrait of her in a bathing costume on the beach.
The Captain disappears, leaving her for her own good to a more practical romance with a human, but when Sanders is revealed to be already married, our spunky Mrs. Muir seems to lose some of her whimsical personality. The film shows the passing of long lonely years with only her housekeeper for company. As a child, her daughter is played engagingly by Natalie Wood, but the child grows up, and an elderly Mrs. Muir is still waited on by an even more elderly Martha. When Mrs. Muir dies in her sleep in her familiar chair, the Captain returns, and they walk out to some celestial horizon where we are meant to believe they will be together always.
What to do about a friendship with a ghost, let alone a romance with a ghost, is not an easy plot for a writer or director. How funny that we can spin endless fantasies about any manner of unlikely scenarios: time travel, aliens, monsters, etc., but a love story between a living person and the soul a person long deceased gets a bit tricky. We are stubbornly apt to try to infuse logic into the plot. This keeps us grounded to reality, but reality is just what the plot isn’t.
As well known as the movie, the television series which it inspired in the late 1960s also runs into a similar problem. The Captain and Mrs. Muir, played on TV by Edward Mulhare and Hope Lange, present a more romantic pairing, with part of the romance obviously being the longing over the fact that they cannot really be lovers. Rather than have the spirit of Mrs. Muir being united with the Captain in death, the show was simply cancelled after a couple seasons, avoiding this “resolution.” The search for a resolution when there is none is the conundrum.
The television version is also notable for the part of Martha being played by character actress Reta Shaw, who was no dishwater servant, but a more feisty housekeeper and companion to Mrs. Muir. She could make any line funny, dripping with sarcasm, and carelessly referring to the Captain in his grim portrait as “Laughing Boy.” Reta Shaw, who had performed extensively on television and the stage, made her film debut in “Picnic” (1955) which airs on TCM on Tuesday.
The Muir home interiors in the TV version are quite similar to the film’s interiors, particularly Mrs. Muir’s (and the Captain’s) bedroom, which pays homage to the film’s wonderfully evocative setting of living in isolation by the sea.
More sad than a romance that cannot be, is the part where the Captain, hoping that Mrs. Muir will marry George Sanders, magically convinces her that her relationship with the ghost of a sea captain was nothing but a dream, removing all her memory of him. Not having read the novel by R. A. Dick, I wonder if this was part of the original story, or an affectation of a studio uncomfortable with the unresolved romance with a ghost?