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December 2011

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

Every once in a while I delve into old movies I've never seen, because sometimes you find the most amazing stories in them. They're the kind of stories you couldn't sell to a major studio today, and sometimes that's a good thing: melodrama was a true art form in the 1940s, sculpted like clay and just as sticky.

But then something comes along like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Based on a novel, it is the story of a young widow who breaks free of her late husband's stultifying family and dares to *gasp* live on her own - with her daughter and housekeeper, of course. Shocking!

Okay, it was set at the turn of the last century. Things were different then. But it doesn't take long for us to love Gene Tierney's Lucy Muir. In the very first scene, she tells off the most obnoxious sister-in-law in England (a snide Victoria Horne, and I looked it up because she literally reminded me of Margaret Hamilton as Dorothy's nemesis, the Wicked Witch). She has investment income from her husband's estate and she calmly declares, "I've never really had my own life. It was Edwin's life, and your life, and mother's life. Now I want my own life to live."

That's when I knew it was written by a woman. Sure enough, the novel was written by "R.A. Dick," a gender-neutral pseudonym for Josephine Leslie. It shows through more in later developments, after Lucy meets the resident of her new seaside cottage: the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison at his most devilishly charming). At first the spectral sailor wants Lucy out of the house, but she faces him down with the same strength of will she showed her in-laws. Nobody tells Lucy what to do, and she wants this seaside cottage for her home.

This is rare for 1947 and even more rare in the time period in which it was set. Honestly, Lucy had me from the words "bite me," which she never actually says but are coded in just about everything she does. Lucy and Daniel are at first uneasy roommates, then cautious friends.

Then Lucy's investment income dries up and still she tells the meddling in-laws to take a hike - "shove off," I believe are her words. It's Daniel's idea that she should write his life story and sell it as a novel so she can afford to keep the cottage.

That's when Leslie shows up again. Sure, Lucy wrote down Daniel's life story... but she's a woman trying to sell a novel in a man's world. She is dismissed by everyone from the clerk to the publisher, assuming that she is bringing them nothing but a bunch of sentimental hogwash, dreams and poetry. She only gets through the door to meet the editor because another author thinks she's hot and gives her his place so he can press his advantage later.

Even when the book is (naturally) fantastic enough to thrill the editor, he assumes it's because some man dictated it to her. In the film, this is technically true: she was taking dictation from Daniel. In the book, as I understand it, Lucy only sees Daniel in dreams, and the writing is all hers. But she must pretend that she has some male counterpart who really wrote her book, because of course a woman cannot write the exciting, adventurous fiction a man enjoys.

Edit. Edit. Edit. I'd love to say things have changed but EDIT. EDIT. EDIT. Onward.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was a delight. The best parts are the dialogue scenes between Tierney and Harrison, verbal sparring that almost always ends in a draw. I loved Lucy from the start, her refusal to conform to the lifelong docility and passivity her world required of a widow, her strength of character and ability to face a lonely life with equanimity.

SPOILERS!!  Daniel begins as a ghostly pain in the ass, but with his decision to withdraw from her and allow her peace and happiness, he is more unselfish in death than he ever was in life. The world they built by themselves in the cottage was insulated from the annoying world around them: every time Lucy ventures away, she is faced with sexism, lies and stupidity. If it isn't the publisher insisting she introduce him to the man who really wrote her book, it is the discovery that the one man she trusted besides Daniel is married with children and was just dallying with her.

No wonder she retreats to the cottage and lets the world go on without her. Wouldn't you? Even then, she manages a full and mostly happy life.

It was a story about a woman who did not want men to lead her life. Ironic, then, that poor Josephine Leslie could only get her book published by writing as a man, and only wrote one other book at that. When the book was adapted into a movie, the screenplay was written by Phillip Dunne, who by all regards did justice to it.

It has a near-claustrophobic sense of a play or short story constrained within a movie, a heroine beyond most I expect to see in black and white, and a love story that manages to be beautiful without being melodramatic or squalid. One might be sad for the lost opportunities that pass Lucy by, but you can still admire her for living the life she did, under the circumstances.

I picked this movie at random, and I'm so glad I did. It is little gems like this, movies that use big words for small spaces, that make me wonder what we might be missing in the era of slapstick gross-out comedy and giant explosions in between overwrought, under-clad clinches. If you get the chance, check out The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. It's a spectre worth seeing.

Trivia note: Lucy's daughter is played by a very young Natalie Wood. Blink and you miss her, because she grows up very quickly.