Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) ***
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Written by: Philip Dunne based on the novel by R. A. Dick.
Starring: Gene Tierney (Lucy Muir), Rex Harrison (Daniel Clegg), George Sanders (Miles Fairley), Edna Best (Martha Huggins), Vanessa Brown (Anna Muir – adult), Anna Lee (Mrs. Fairley), Natalie Wood (Anna Muir – child), Robert Coote (Mr. Coombs), Whitford Kane (Mr. Sproull).

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a classy romance/ghost story from the studio era. Watching it today, it seems rather quaint and simplistic, but that doesn’t necessarily negate all the joys that there are in watching the film. It didn’t sweep me off my feet in the way that grand romances should do, but it was an enjoyable time filler – with a few really special elements that make it worthwhile.

The film stars Gene Tierny as Lucy Muir – a young widow, raising her daughter (a very young Natalie Wood) while living with her mother and sister in law. She hates these in-laws, who are too smothering for her, and she wants out. Her husband left her little, but perhaps enough to get a small house on the seaside. She finds the perfect one, and it’s absurdly cheap. The realtor warns her away from it, telling her it’s haunted, but Lucy doesn’t believe him, and moves in anyway. It isn’t long before she discovers the realtor wasn’t lying. The former owner of the house, Captain Daniel Clegg (Rex Harrison), is still hanging around, and wants to be alone. This despite the obvious handicap that he supposedly killed himself in the house years before. We get mercifully few of the old ghost movie clich├ęs – windows and doors opening and closing by themselves, gusts of wind, strange noises, etc before Lucy has had enough – and calls Clegg out. Strangely, he appears, and the two talk and come to an agreement. He’ll let them live there, if she’ll leave the house to old sailors when she dies, much like he wanted to do. She agrees.

But things aren’t that simple. Clegg, this brash, profane sea captain and Lucy, this upper middle class, prim and proper housewife seem to be complete opposites – so of course they fall in love. When Lucy runs into money problems, Clegg helps her out by dictating his memoirs to her as a book that she then sells for lots of money. Working on the book brings the two of them closer – but of course, how can two people really be in love when one of them is dead? Things are further complicated when George Sanders shows up, to play the George Sanders role as fop and playboy – and becomes a living suitor for Lucy.

There is much to admire about The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. While I have always thought that Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a better writer than director, he did know how to direct quite well. Here, working with someone else’s screenplay, he and cinematographer Charles Lang give the film a nice, gothic look. This is a romance along the lines of Jane Eyre (although far lighter), and Mankiewicz does an excellent job at capturing that look and feel to the movie. Bernard Hermann’s score is one of his very best – even if at times I think it overwhelms the movie – but it does an excellent job of hitting all the right notes – sad, plaintive, romantic, spooky. He was one of the best composers in movie history, and his work here is a triumph. The performances are rock solid, if not overly spectacular. Gene Tierny does a nice job with Mrs. Muir, but nothing really great. She keeps the audience at a little bit of a distance. Rex Harrison does what Rex Harrison does best – go wildly over the top, with his stereotypical sea captain. It’s a joy to watch him. George Sanders is saddled with his typical role, but no one plays it better than he does – which helps, because the role is completely underwritten.

Yet, the movie never really grabbed me like it should have. It is a fine film – made with intelligence, style and class – and I enjoyed it. But as the movie wore on, it starting to grow a little tiring. Especially unnecessary is the ending 20 minutes, which covers about 40 years of time, and simply goes on well past the point where it makes any sense. I enjoyed The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – but I didn’t love it.

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