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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

2oth Century Fox Home Video

Starring Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, and George Sanders

Written by Philip Dunne
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

There's a wonderfully Gothic, Jane Austen-like sensibility to 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir — a charming, romantic film that somehow manages to escape becoming either a treacly "women's picture" or a bleak drama about paths not taken. Gene Tierney plays Lucy Muir, a late Victorian-era widow who flaunts convention by moving away from her annoying mother-in-law and bitchy sister, insisting instead that she wants to live her own life on her own terms. To that end, Lucy heads for the English coast with her housekeeper, Martha (Edna Best), and her daughter, Anna (a very young Natalie Wood). Lucy falls in love with secluded Gull Cottage and, despite protestations by the real estate agent, she rents it — only to discover that the house is haunted by its former owner, a cantankerous sea captain named Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison). In the same spirit that she refused to bow to her in-laws or to the real estate agent, Lucy stands up to the captain's attempts at scaring her away, thus earning his respect. And when she learns that she may have to give up the house for financial reasons, the Captain suggests that she "ghost-write" his autobiography, have it published, and stay on in Gull Cottage.

There's a substantial amount of psychosexual subtext in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, seeing as the story's a period piece about a headstrong young widow who develops a romantic relationship with a man who is, for all intents and purposes, not actually there. Lucy and the Captain fall in (non-physical) love, knowing that they can never really be together — and when Lucy meets smooth, blatantly sexual Miles Fairley (George Sanders), she readily falls into his arms despite the Captain's ghostly jealousy. But after the non-corporeal Daniel withdraws so that Lucy can get on with her life with her new beau, the very physical Miles turns out to be a cad — there's little indication that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was aware of the Freudian/Jungian implications of his story, presenting it all as a straightforward — albeit bizarre — love triangle. But the subtext is there nonetheless.

The film also has a lot to say (correct or not) about women's fantasies and romantic wish fulfillment. On her own for the first time in her life, Lucy chooses not to grieve for her husband for very long; in fact, she only speaks of him when Daniel confronts her, and then she admits that she only married him because she was very young and he seemed romantic. No, she hangs up her widow's weeds right away and engages in a platonic relationship with a very masculine, adventurous hero — a racy sea captain. But he's a safe fantasy because he doesn't really exist. Having thus been romantically (i.e., sexually) awakened by sharing a bedroom with this roguish specter, Lucy's primed and ready when Miles comes along. In her innocence she doesn't realize how creepy his stalker-ish pursuit of her is, instead falling into the same trap that she did with her husband, allowing flowery compliments and insistent kisses to turn her head — despite Martha and Anna's warnings that Miles isn't right for her.

There's a lot of gentle humor in the script by Philip Dunne (from the novel by R.A. Dick), but the undercurrent is melancholy. All of Lucy's genuine relationships are with women — she severs her unhappy connection to her controlling in-laws and goes her own way with her housekeeper/confidante and her daughter in tow. She has no use for the ineffective real estate guy, her heroic Captain is a dead man, and her lover turns out to be a bastard. Then, when Lucy discovers that Miles is married, she has a moment of sympathetic understanding with Miles' wife, giving her a more "real" relationship with yet another woman than she has with the men in her life. When Capt. Gregg decides to leave Lucy to her earthly pursuits, he comes to her in her sleep, telling her that she'll henceforth remember their relationship as just a dream. Years later, when Martha and Anna both confirm that they, too, fantasized about the Captain, it's still left as a possibility that it really was just a dream — or an elaborately vivid romantic/sexual fantasy by a lonely, frustrated woman.

As Lucy, Gene Tierney displays spunk along with her usual elegant control, and Rex Harrison makes the Captain a figure of dashing masculinity and sympathetic understanding — if he's a fantasy, he's a darn good one. Sanders oozes sexuality as the transparently smarmy Lothario, and the brilliant score by Bernard Herrmann lays just the right amount of sadness and loss over the sparkling dialogue. The "happily ever after" conclusion is sappy but, in this case, exactly what the audience needs by the movie's end, with Lucy's life of isolation and loss rewarded with her heart's desire — the sort of reward that all of us fantasize about, in one form or another.

Fox Home Video's DVD release of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir offers a beautiful full-frame (1.33:1) transfer in deep, rich black-and-white. The titles are a little wobbly and there's a tiny amount of scratchiness here and there, but overall it's very, very clean — with good low-contrast and amazing detail. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is offered with either a monaural or stereo option. Both are very good, showcasing Herrmann's wonderful score without overpowering the actor's voices — and Harrison's, Tierney's and Sanders' voices are all extraordinary. Audio tracks in French and Spanish are offered as well, as are English and Spanish subtitles.

Two commentary tracks are offered, both bursting with anecdotes and trivia — one features effects supervisor and film historian Greg Kimble with Christopher Husted, manager of composer Bernard Herrmann's estate, while the other features film professor Jeanine Bassinger and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's biographer, Kenneth Geist. Also on board is the 45-minute "Rex Harrison: The Man Who Would Be King"(which originally aired on A&E's "Biography"); a stills gallery; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Fox DVD titles.

— Dawn Taylor

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