Most ghost stories are meant to be frightening or creepy, even when they are funny, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a ghost story of a different tradition; it is a romance, a beautiful and poignant love story that gets me every time I see it.
Sometime in the early nineteen hundreds, Mrs. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is widow who has been living with her husband’s mother and very overbearing sister and she yearns for independence. She has some money from her husband and takes her daughter (Natalie Wood) to the ocean where she falls in love with Gull Cottage, which is thought to be haunted. She tours the house and there are some odd occurrences (like laughter, which could theoretically just be the wind) but she’s indomitable and rents the place. The cottage used to belong to a sea captain, Captain Daniel Gregg, who died four years earlier, reportedly of suicide.
One evening, during stormy weather, Lucy goes down to her kitchen to prepare tea for herself, but the lights go out and her candle is repeatedly blown out and in prim and proper annoyance, she announces that she is not afraid of the ghost, that his tricks are quite unimpressive and she dares him to show himself. To her surprise, he (Rex Harrison) really does reveal himself. She is very taken aback, but still indomitable and the ghost, Captain Gregg, is rather impressed. They make a deal: he’ll stop haunting the whole house and keep to her bedroom (which used to be his bedroom) so her daughter won’t see him if she’ll put his picture up in her room (which he likes). Also, he expects her to leave the cottage to sailors as a home, which is why he had been haunting the house in the first place, trying to keep other people away. He also rather indignantly denies having committed suicide – he was sleeping in a chair with his window shut because there was a storm and kicked the gas on with his foot.
The two argue a lot, but also become friends and spend a great deal of time talking about their lives. When her income from her husband unexpectedly peters out so that she can no longer afford to stay at Gull Cottage, Daniel suggests that she write a book, or rather that he write it and she take the credit for it. He calls it “Blood and Swash,” to her mild disapproval, but he asserts that this must be a man’s book, the unvarnished life of a sailor, which is basically his own life story.
It is while they are writing the book together that Lucy begins to realize that she and Daniel have gotten themselves into a pickle, emotionally. She realizes they are in love, but there’s nothing to be done about it. But after they finish the book and find a publisher, she meets another man, a real man, named Miles Fairley (George Sanders – in one of his inimitable cad roles) who pursues her, despite Daniel’s strong disapproval.
Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney make such an adorable couple, which is kind of funny because I don’t think I would have applied that term to either of them on their own. Gene Tierney is a gorgeous woman and I never considered Rex Harrison exactly cute, but together they are perfect; they convey that these two souls were made for each other. They are companions, as well as lovers. In fact, they are companions because they can’t be lovers. He is cantankerous and goes about saying “blast” this and “blast” that (a habit that Lucy picks up, much to the surprise of several of her acquaintances) and has lived a very full life. Lucy is very refined, very proper, but with a will of her own and a longing to do something worthwhile. She loves to hear his stories and he recognizes a kindred and queenly spirit in her. He calls her Lucia instead of Lucy, because he considers it a name fit for a queen.
I must confess the end didn’t go in the direction I was expecting at all, but it’s a beautiful story, but also quite sad because it’s about loneliness. She is a lonely widow, though she never complains about it. When Daniel tells her how he ran away to sea when he was young and how his aunt was probably glad to be rid of him, Lucy asks him if she ever wrote and he replies that she did faithfully until she died. Lucy comments that his aunt probably missed him much more than he knew. When Lucy falls for Miles Fairley, she does so partly as a reaction to the fact that he is alive and can provide real companionship and love.
But in truth, Lucy and Daniel were made for each other and Lucy never does find a real companion in life. She loves her daughter, but it’s not quite the same thing. She cares for her servant, Martha, but that also is not quite the same thing. The tragedy is that they didn’t miss each other by many years. He only died four years before she came to Gull Cottage and if he’d been alive, she still would have come to that village, they would have met, and they could have been together. When Miles Fairley enters the picture, Daniel talks to her while she is sleeping of all that they have missed, allowing himself to image what it would have been like if they could have been together.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is another example of what I call a cosmic romance: the romance that was fated to be, where there is no other one for you, that transcends time and space. Though, in this case, it’s a bit like something went wrong with fate. They were meant to be together, but he accidentally died, and that kind of messed everything up. So they have to wait for after life to truly be united.
The score was written by Bernard Herrmann, who is probably better remembered for his scores to movies like Psycho and North by Northwest. He joked that the score was his “Max Steiner score” (who wrote sweepingly dramatic scores for movies like Gone With the Wind), but it’s haunting, lovely, almost like a tone poem, often running along in the background and providing a cohesive feel to the movie, as if the movie were part of the tone poem. Leonard Maltin describes the movie as a fantasy, which it is more than a ghost story. It is a movie that has to be accepted on its own terms (why there is a ghost is never explained) and is rather achingly romantic, almost a tear-jerker, with a tremendous amount of charm from the actors.