The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir
Rex Harrison as Daniel Gregg

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Produced by Fred Kohlmar
Based on a novel by R.A. Dick

Running Time: 104 min.
Not Rated

Funny, how a 1947 film set at the turn of the 20th century succeeds better than most modern movies in portraying a woman’s solitary life as something other than hubris or tragedy. In an age when having it all is practically mandatory, contentment in a cottage by the sea is vastly underrated.

The titular Mrs. Muir is a young widow who moves from her in-laws’ house in London to a little village on the coast along with her daughter and maid. The ghost is former sea captain Daniel Gregg, the cottage’s previous owner who hasn’t seen dying as any reason to move out. They meet snarky, as is the way of romance, but come to admire each other in time, and eventually collaborate on Gregg’s memoirs, the success of which allows Mrs. Muir to buy the house.

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

The 1900s: Men were real men, women were real women, and the word "seamen" was not funny.

Daniel Gregg is clearly the Don Draper of his day. Somewhere in the writing of this, someone thought, “Do you know what was great about the early 1900s? The way manly men thought women were complete garbage. Those were the days!” When he first appears, Gregg’s roguish charm is suspiciously similar to the modern phenomenon of being an asshole, and one suspects that if this guy had a woman in every port, it was because he was the only man on his ship without crabs on his dinghy.

Rex Harrison in The Ghost of Mrs. Muir

"Ha! Dinghy!"

However, Gregg does undergo some post-mortem character development as he’s forced to share his home with a woman for the first time since he was a child, and in short order he comes to treat Mrs. Muir very much like a human being instead of an irrational, squid-like creature who might spray estrogen all over the place at the slightest provocation.

Gene Tierney in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

"I ain't 'fraid of no ghost!"

Mrs. Muir, in turn, comes into her own as she learns to navigate the world of business, romance, and her own household as an independent woman. No longer a daughter or a wife, she sets out for new territory, with Gregg along as captain and co-conspirator.

Perhaps because of its historical setting, the film has aged well. On a technical front, there is no attempt at special effects beyond the odd flickering candle or slamming casement. Gregg’s ghostly nature is established by the narrative, other actors’ reactions or lack thereof, and the tension that slowly builds between a couple kept chaste by more than Edwardian morals and the Hayes Code.

The black and white leaves something to be desired here here, given the role the seaside setting plays in the story, and I was surprised (but not necessarily unpleasantly so) by how few scenes the daughter had. Motherhood isn’t one of the roles Mrs. Muir is seeking to escape, but it’s not the centre of her new life either. It’s almost like she’s a real person capable of existing outside of all-consuming relationships with her love interest and/or child. How quaint.

This film is recommended for those who are pro-rogue, anti-cad, not yet tired of narratives in which sheltered upper-class women reinvent themselves amidst colourful backdrops, and for those who are of the opinion that a haunted cottage by the sea sounds like just the thing.


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