Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Ghost & Mrs. Muir

“This is the Twentieth Century.”

That line is spoken several times throughout Joseph Mankiewicz’ The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, and it contains the seed which lies at the heart of the film. G&MM is, I suppose, a romance – a love story, but in many ways it rejects the shop-worn concept of living “happily ever after.” It’s a twentieth century take on things.

Gene Tierney is the Mrs. Muir of the title, a recently widowed young mother in turn-of the century London. We first meet Lucy Muir as she discusses her plans to move out of the mother in laws home. She is still technically in mourning at this point, but she displays not a hint of sorrow or sentimentality as she talks to her mother and sister in law. When her late husband’s name is brought up she coolly replies, “But Edwin is dead.” It’s a tiny glimpse, but it illustrates what kind of marriage she is coming off.

She finds herself in a seaside cottage on the ocean, despite the repeated efforts of the local land agent to dissuade her. Despite his comments that “You wouldn’t be interested”, something draws her to the place, and she moves in. Soon enough, however, we see why the property values were so low. This cottage already has an occupant - The ghost of a seaman named Captain Gregg (Rex Harrison). Gregg is not a bad sort, despite his language and gruff manner, and Lucy’s original fear slowly gives way to fascination and fondness for this doppelganger.

The earthy sailor and the prim lady are therefore now living (sort of) under the same roof, and the film winks at the sexual possibilities that come with this situation. At one point as Lucy lies in bed, she hears Gregg intone, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you should be ashamed of your figure!”

The exchanges between these two are what start to really reveal Lucy Muir. Captain Gregg, you see, seems to know everything about Lucy, perhaps more than she knows herself. Consider this exchange about her ex-husband.

“You didn’t love him”

“How dare you say that?”

“Because it’s true. You were fond of him, perhaps, but you didn’t love him.”

Lucy goes on to talk about how Edwin was an architect, “But not a very good one. He couldn’t have designed this house. Who DID design it?” and Gregg replies with satisfaction “I did.” It’s at this point where it becomes plain that the ghost and Mrs. Muir have a kinship that goes beyond mere affection.

Lucy begins writing Gregg’s memoir, marvelously titled “Blood & Swash”, and the film has a bit of fun with the Production Code here. At one point, Lucy hesitates at one word, and only after exhortation from Gregg, does she type it – In four distinct keystrokes. The ghostwriting allows Lucy a look into the exiting manly life of the Captain, and her own life comes up short in comparison. Earlier, when she was with her in-laws, she said that she’s never had her own life, and that sentiment comes up here again. Gregg tells her that she should be out amongst the living, including with other men.

Unfortunately, she gets her chance, in the arrival of George Sanders as the impossibly droll and sophisticated Miles Fairly, a wealthy writer of children’s books. Fairly is handsome and charming, and Lucy falls for him, against the wishes of Captain Gregg. The new man is kind and generous, but there’s something about him that’s not right. Gregg sees it, Lucy’s housekeeper sees it, and we even sort of see it, when he jovially describes the children he writes for as “little monsters.” The ghost is absent for most of the section of the movie involving this romance, and it’s by design, I think. It seems that Gregg is letting her go her own way, even if he thinks she’s making a mistake. Which she is, as she eventually discovers.

So, what to make of TG&MM? Lucy Muir’s story is also the story of how 3 men affect her life. There’s her late husband, and Miles Fairly, both fond of her and kind, although with very little under their surfaces. She ends up feeling unfulfilled by both. Then there’s Captain Gregg. He’s the one who really understands her, and tells her what she needs to hear. The problem is, he’s dead. Why does the film present a love interest that can never really be a love interest? My thought is that the film isn’t really about Lucy’s quest for love, but rather about her quest for emancipation. That’s why Lucy keeps telling people that this is the 20th century. It’s a new era, and the old norms of romance and fulfillment don’t necessarily apply anymore.

The ghost visits Lucy near the end of the film, and as she sleeps, tells her that it wasn’t him channeling the book to her, that it was just her alone. That theory was always out there – That the ghost was just a figment of Lucy’s imagination, and that she found her way to emancipation by herself. The truth is left ambiguous, and I’m glad. At one point early on Gregg recites from Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”

“Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam, of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn”

That fits Captain Gregg to a T, but go a bit further in the same poem and you find a stanza that might have been written for Lucy Muir.

“Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music – Do I wake or sleep?”

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