TCM’s annual Summer Under the Stars programming is officially underway. During the month of August, TCM salutes a different star each day, marathoning that star’s movies and presenting features about the star’s work. This year’s lineup includes programming devoted to a wide range of stars–from megastars Katharine Hepburn and Vivien Leigh to lesser-known actors like Mae Clarke and Warren Oates.
Today was Gene Tierney day, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) was on the program. This is one film that rarely gets the analysis that I believe it warrants, as a film made just after one of the most destructive events in history. It is shot exquisitely, but underneath the film’s exterior lie dark and important themes.
Set in the early 1900s, the story mostly takes place in a cottage in an English seaside village, where Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) has taken up residence following the death of her husband, despite the objections of her mother and sister-in-law, and the fact that the cottage is said to be haunted. She lives there with her young daughter Anna (played by 10-year-old Natalie Wood, in the same year she made Miracle on 34th Street), and on the first night she is visited by the ghost of a sea captain by the name of Daniel Gregg. She comes to accept and acknowledge his presence, and after a series of events Daniel asks her to write his memoirs, with the royalties going to her. Over the course of writing the book, Lucy becomes attracted to Daniel and falls in love with him. The book becomes a bestseller, under the guidance of publisher Miles Fairley (the divine George Sanders), with whom she also falls in love. One night as Lucy is sleeping, Daniel comes to plant the idea in her mind that she had been dreaming him, and that Lucy wrote the book on her own, in order to allow her to forget him and pursue a relationship with Miles, which she does. After discovering that Miles is already married, she dejectedly returns home to live a solitary life. She becomes an old woman, and on the night of her death, Daniel returns to lift her spirit out of her body.
The movie is based on a 1945 novel by British author Josephine Leslie, and before its acquisition by 20th Century Fox, it had only been published in the UK. By the end of World War II in 1945, England had suffered devastating losses due to incessant German bombing and soldiers who fought the Axis powers abroad. The country was reeling as many women on the home front grappled with the reality that their husbands were not coming home, and were faced with the hardships of raising children alone. After the war ended, survivors and their families struggled with how to return to normalcy, how to regain as much as possible from their pre-war lives. A brilliant movie that touches on this subject from the American perspective with remarkable grace is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), made one year earlier than The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, though it takes place at the turn of the 20th century, reflects the sentiments of the survivors of England’s involvement in World War II. Lucy Muir’s becoming enamored with a ghost represents post-World War II British society, a society with a desire to move forward into the future but unable to forget its past, the war as represented by the ghost of Daniel Gregg. The character of Miles Fairley appears as Lucy denies the existence of Daniel, and Miles turns out to be a fake, a character who looks appealing but hides unattractive secrets. Miles is a symbol for the fact that in order to have a future that is real and honest, the past must be acknowledged and respected. At the end as Lucy dies, she realizes that the path toward the future involves walking hand in hand with the past, never forgetting or denying what has happened as the future unfolds.
All throughout the movie, Lucy Muir takes great care to keep Daniel from Anna. “She is much too young to be seeing ghosts,” she tells him. But a scene toward the end shows Lucy Muir talking with her daughter, now grown up, as her daughter divulges that she, too, saw Daniel and was not afraid. This is a subtle message about talking to children about the past, and about war. Those concerned about children often keep them from hearing about the evils in the world, but The Ghost and Mrs. Muir makes a beautiful, subtle point that children are often not as vulnerable as we think they are.
This is a beautiful movie on many levels. The story is simple and easily understood, and the cinematography and lighting perfectly accentuate Gene Tierney’s porcelain features. But underneath the superficial beauty of the movie is a deep message that was relevant then and continues to be relevant now.
Be sure to go to the Summer Under the Stars site to keep up to date on all the wonderful programming this month. Olivia de Havilland day is tomorrow, August 2, so come back tomorrow for your daily dose of Olivia and a some personal stories (I met her in 2011).
See you tomorrow!