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THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, George Sanders, Edna Best, Natalie Wood
Director: Joseph Mankiewicz
Audio: English stereo/mono, French and Spanish mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: black and white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: two audio commentaries, still gallery, theatrical trailers, Rex Harrison documentary
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: April 1, 2003

"I'll make a bargain with you.  Leave me bedroom as it is, and I'll promise not to go into any other room in the house."

"But if you keep the best bedroom, where should I sleep?"

"In the best bedroom."

Film ****

In the late 1960's, for a couple of short seasons, there existed on Saturday evenings a television program called The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  It was a romantic drama about the irascible ghost of a sea captain and the current occupant of his former home, Mrs. Muir.  Younger generations may be forgiven for being unaware of this show, though older generations may remember it well.  Still older generations may also recall fondly the classic film upon which the show was based.

The original film of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) was adapted from a popular 1940's novel by Josephine Leslie (under a pseudonym).  In the novel, there was no visible presence to the ghost.  Instead, Mrs. Muir perceived the ghost as a voice within her mind.  The ambivalence over whether the ghost truly existed or was merely a trace of Mrs. Muir's imagination made for an atypical ghost story.  So it is with the film as well, for director Joseph Mankiewicz has refrained from many of the conventions of the haunted house genre in crafting his film.  The result is a story that is only mildly frightening in some early passages before revealing its true nature as a romantic tale about unrequited love.

In the film, Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is a young and beautiful widow living in turn-of-the-century Victorian England.  Having grown tired of occupying the same house as her in-laws, she determines to find a home of her own.  Taking her young daughter (Natalie Wood in an early role) and a housekeeper along with her, she travels towards the English shores.  Her journeys bring her to Whitecliff, a quaint coastal village.  Herein, she finds a local real estate agent to introduce her to some available homes.  Lucy eventually decides upon Gull Cottage, a lovely but isolated home situated upon a hilltop overlooking a beach.  However, its four previous occupants strangely had fled after only an evening, and the manor has remained empty for four years ever since.  The real estate agent repetitively tries to warn Lucy that the house is unsuitable for habitation.  Despite the agent's misgivings, Lucy decides that Gull Cottage, though dusty and enigmatic, offers her the peace and solitude she seeks.

Gull Cottage initially appears to be a comfortable home.  By day, it is warmed by sunlight that filters in through the windows and bathes the home in a cheerful glow.  By night, it is cooled by whistling sea breezes calling up from the shores.  The home's decor possesses an elegant oceanic theme.  An elaborate telescope, mysteriously always clean, peers from an upper story window upon the dancing waves below.  A nautical compass hangs in the main hall, while numerous paintings of ships adorn the walls.  In the parlor, there is a bold portrait of a handsome sea captain, presumably a previous owner.  It is a strangely affecting portrait, which  Lucy eventually moves into her bedroom.

Lucy's young daughter and her housekeeper are blissfully unaware of anything peculiar about the house.  However, Lucy, mindful of the real estate agent's words, suspects otherwise.  Disembodied laughter sometimes drifts through the rooms.  Windows open and close by themselves.  At night, kerosene lamps flicker and die away in perfectly still hallways, as though blown out by unseen lips.  One stormy evening, as Lucy wanders down to the kitchen to heat some water, she has a sudden encounter with the hidden force behind these disturbances.

That force is Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), a proud and cantankerous spirit.  His death many years ago was an unexpected one, and since then, he has haunted Gull Cottage and successfully scared off all other would-be occupants.  Lucy Muir, however, is different.  Though she is at first very apprehensive of the ghost, she quickly tells him that she has no intentions of being frightened away so easily from what she considers a beautiful and ideal home.  Perhaps her stubborn stance and her love for his old home appeals to the bemused ghost, for, contrary to his salty nature, he decides to allow Lucy to stay "on trial" for a while.  The captain's gruff and often frank manners are initially a source of irritation to Lucy's Victorian sensibilities, but she eventually becomes accustomed of his presence, seen or not.

The rest of the film follows the flowering of their unusual friendship, although their story is destined to have a bittersweet quality.  After all, Lucy is alive, and the captain is not.  As the film progresses, Lucy eventually meets a writer, Miles Fairley (noted character actor George Sanders).  Fairley is quickly smitten with her and signals his feelings quite clearly.  Thus, Lucy is presented with a difficult situation.  She has grown fond of the captain's ghost, yet here now is a flesh and blood man who adores her.  The ramifications of her eventual decisions affect the course of the remainder of the film, albeit in a somewhat unexpected manner.  I will not reveal more except to say that the final scene, though melancholy, is a fitting conclusion that establishes the film's reputation as one of Hollywood's most touching romances.

So many elements coalesce beautifully in this film.  Mankiewicz's direction is subtle yet very confident, second only to his masterpiece All about Eve.  The set designs, featuring many antique furniture pieces, bring Gull Cottage wonderfully to life.  The actors are superb - Rex Harrison is lively and witty and has a truly commanding presence as the roguish captain, while Gene Tierney is quite radiant and sublime in perhaps her finest screen performance.  Particularly noteworthy is Bernard Herrman's memorable musical score.  What's not to love about music by Bernard Herrmann?  Although he is justifiably famous for his many collaborations with Hitchcock (Psycho, Vertigo, or North by Northwest to name a few), Herrmann has created an atmospheric score here that easily ranks as one of his finest.  It is simultaneously lush and poignant, conjuring vivid images of serene seascapes and forlorn love.  Make no mistake - the musical score transforms The Ghost and Mrs. Muir from being merely a very good film into the great classic that it is.

Lastly, I would be remiss in not mentioning Charles Lang's stunning cinematography.  Lang paints a breathtaking canvas, from early haunting scenes that display his true mastery of light and shadows, to his many evocative shots of the beach waters and the restless oceans.  There is something inherently tranquil yet sad about coastal shores, with the mournful cries of gulls and the ceaseless motion of waves.  Lang's cinematography, combined with Herrmann's score, captures this mood perfectly.  Of all other ghost stories, only one, the achingly-beautiful Portrait of Jennie, is comparable in romantic beauty.

Video ** 1/2

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is presented in glorious black & white.  It is full screen, as are all films from before 1950.  The good news is that the image clarity and contrast are excellent and do justice to the Oscar-nominated cinematography.  The many dark scenes show no hint of breakup, and overall, detail levels are quite fine with only minimal grain.  As for the bad news, the film is over fifty years old, so it does show its age.  There are dust spots scattered about, as well as a few minor scratches.  The frame is not entirely stable; it seems to shake ever so slightly in a few scenes, though this is not too uncommon with older films.  At any rate, it does not distract from the actual viewing.  There is a shimmering effect here and there which does call attention to itself.  Also, stationary objects may occasionally wobble, which is annoying.  Overall, the print is pretty good and the transfer is okay but has a few defects.

Audio *** (mono) * (stereo)

This edition of the film offers four different modes for listening - French mono, Spanish mono, and English stereo/mono.  Most people will probably choose the English stereo track, but I implore you not to do this!  Please stay with the original English mono track.  The stereo track is horrible.  It is beyond horrible.  The dialogue sounds as though it was recorded through a tin bucket in the middle of a large wind tunnel.  The echo effect is so prominent that the film is virtually un-listenable in stereo.  The stereo track barely deserves one star.  No joke.  And I only give it that because the Bernard Herrmann music seems to have survived unmangled.  Really, the sound engineers dropped all the balls on this one.  Trust me - I tried repetitively to listen to the stereo track to give it an honest shot, but I had to give up in the end.

I want to point out that this same problem occurs with other DVDs in the Fox Studio Classics series as well.  The solution is simple - just listen to the original mono audio track!  Fortunately, the sound engineers redeemed themselves nicely with the English mono track.  It may not be very dynamic, but it is crisp and scrubbed clean of all snaps, crackles, and pops.  The dialogue sounds natural.  Best of all, Bernard Herrmann's score sounds wonderful in it.

Features *** 1/2

There are some nice features on this DVD.  The minor extras include trailers, six in all, for this film and others in the Fox Studio Classics series.  Also included is a still gallery.  I must admit that it temporarily stunned me because the splash screen displays such a luminous photograph of Gene Tierney that I was reluctant to move onward!  At any rate, this gallery is divided into five categories,  some of which only have a couple of entries, while others contain several dozen.  Overall, it is quite nice.  Notably, Gene Tierney is observed sitting in a wheelchair in a number of photographs.  This is because, believe it or not, she had broken her foot the night before the start of filming and spent virtually the entire production wearing a foot cast!

The next feature is from the A&E cable program Biography.  It is a 44-minute documentary on Rex Harrison, The Man Who Would Be King, and is a great look at the public and personal life of this talented and knighted thespian.  Harrison had quite a reputation for being a ladies' man and in his youth had earned the nickname Sexy Rexy!  How about that?  The documentary is lurid but great fun!

Last but not least, there are two separate audio commentary tracks.  Both feature duo commentators.  The first is narrated by Greg Kimble, a special effects supervisor, and Christopher Husted, a musical scholar on Bernard Herrmann.  They reminisce about the studio era of filmmaking, the construction of Herrmann's wonderfully moody score, and the brilliant black and white composition of  the film itself.  Modern audiences may be surprised to learn how exceedingly difficult it often is to photograph a black and white film as well as this one!  Cinematographer Charles Lang's efforts earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination, yet it was merely one of an astounding eighteen nominations for this master craftsman!

The second commentary track features Jeanine Bassinger, a film historian and professor, and Kenneth Geist, an author on a book about the film's director.  While the previous commentary was often tangential to the plot, here Bassinger directly discusses the film and its scenes in depth.  Her commentary is quite good.  Geist, however, is a bit of a shadowy afterthought but occasionally offers an insightful comment.

The last "feature" is not on the DVD per se.  Rather, it is a mail-in offer good until the end of 2003.  Buy any three of the fourteen Fox Studio Classics DVDs released in 2003, send in the appropriate materials, and soon thereafter you will receive the 1927 silent film masterpiece Sunrise...on DVD!  Sunrise is the only silent film included on Sight and Sound's 2002 list of the world's ten greatest films.  It is also widely considered to be the best silent film ever made.  In general, the Fox Studio Classics are all very noteworthy films.  For instance, admirers of director Mankiewicz may wish to purchase his masterpiece All about Eve.  Conversely, fans of the lovely Gene Tierney may be very interested in Laura, due out in late 2003.  Including The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, that's three superb Studio Classics DVDs already!  It couldn't be any easier to get a free copy of Sunrise.  It's an offer you can't refuse!

Summary:

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a wholesome, romantic film of a caliber that we rarely see anymore.  The performances are winsome, the script is witty, the music is incredible, and the cinematography is other-worldly.  This is one film that I recommend whole-heartedly for the entire family!