“Sometimes you can be much more alone with other people than you are by yourself.” -Lucy Muir
In the first decade of his career, Rex Harrison had done right well for a young actor, assisted by a number of first-class British playwrights and novelists. In Blithe Spirit—by Noel Coward no less—he senses his dead wife is haunting him. As a somewhat stronger character, a professor, in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, he woes a young girl who has joined the Salvation Army.
In A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel, Rex Harrison plays a doctor showing a fellow physician how to get the most money out of his hypochondriacal patients. As another doctor in Over the Moon, his participation is wasted, as the comedy is rather weak to say the least, despite the writing credentials of American Robert E. Sherwood—The Best Years of Our Lives, Rebecca, etc. And from a literary source further back than any mentioned—the eighteenth century and Richard Sheridan—Harrison has an uncredited bit part in the 1930 version of The School for Scandal.
Maybe those last two films shouldn’t count for anything, except to further illustrate the female company Rex Harrison keeps. If not always “opposite,” he is at least in these pictures, and others, with such ladies as Wendy Hiller, Rosalind Russell, Merle Oberon, Gertrude Lawrence, Madeleine Carroll, Margaret Lockwood and Vivien Leigh.
The literary source of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is, granted, less illustrious than the just-named mainstays of British and American literature. R. A. Dick is the pseudonym of Josephine Leslie, for only a woman, it seems, could have created the strong-willed, independent female character who, despite Harrison’s, is central to this little film. Leslie also penned The Devil and Mrs. Devine, an obscure gothic novel never lifted by Hollywood.
It’s perhaps Rex Harrison’s connection with Blithe Spirit, and that haunting by a dead wife, that is a link to The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, where he plays . . . well, a bit later. Although he creates quite a fascinating character, he is surpassed by his “spiritual”—if that’s the proper word—love interest, Gene Tierney, who, for some reason, has never been a favorite actress. Here, however, she does herself and the film proud, in one of her best roles as this indomitable woman. The actress was on a definite roll, for within the previous three years she had had perhaps three of her finest roles—in Heaven Can Wait, Laura and The Razor’s Edge. And now, in 1947, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
The acting of the supporting cast, too, is first-rate. While no one is overtly dramatic, unless it’s Harrison on a few occasions—always three-dimensional while remaining laid-back—the possible quaintness of Robert Coote and Whitford Kane resembles Dickensian caricatures.
The black and white film is set in Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. The period is obvious, for one thing, by that newfangled noise, the motor car. Lucy Muir (Tierney), recently widowed, is at odds with her mother-in-law (Isobel Elsom) and sister-in-law (Victoria Horne). So she decides to find a place of her own, accompanied by her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and maid Martha (Edna Best).
The real estate agent Mr. Coombe (Coote) attempts to downplay a certain seacoast cottage which, from its description on paper, immediately fascinates Lucy. After a tour of Gull Cottage, however, she concludes it isn’t right for her after all, but then, walking back to Mr. Coombe’s motor car, she abruptly changes her mind: she will buy the cottage.
It’s not long before she discovers why the cottage had been vacant for so long. Seems that a sea captain, Daniel Gregg (Harrison), who supposedly committed suicide, haunts the place. At first he only observes Lucy while she is asleep, and when she does see him, she is never frightened by the apparition. (No ghostly effects are used: Captain Gregg is simply there, and gone in the next cut.) Being a strong woman, Lucy at first treats the captain as an invasion of her space, a mere annoyance.
Their early relationship is a quiet tolerance of one another, then a growing affection. He even dubs her “Lucia,” and he becomes to her something of a counselor. Lucy learns that her late husband’s gold mine is no longer productive, and to acquire an income, Captain Gregg decides to dictate his memoirs to her for her to submit under her name to a London publisher.
When Lucy and Captain Gregg’s book is finished, she takes it to a publisher (Kane) who, impressed by the vividness of the memoir, agrees to print it. In these offices Lucy meets Miles Fairley (George Sanders in another of his charming cad roles) and, as their relationship develops, she considers marrying him.
With Lucy under the spell of Fairley, the captain accepts her preference for a flesh-and-blood man and so, when she is asleep, he tells her she will remember him only as a figment of her dreams, the book a creation of her own imagination. And he bids farewell.