Is it possible to love a ghost? For the answer to that question, there’s no better film than the haunting 1947 romance, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Step into Gull Cottage with Gene Tierney as widow Lucy Muir, her small daughter, and loyal housekeeper Martha.
Find the ghost of Captain Gregg—“Daniel” to Lucy, played by Rex Harrison—comfortably ensconced and ready to spook her into fleeing his seaside home and his interrupted solitude.
As women, perhaps nothing has influenced our sense of the romantic more than the cinema. What is real and what is fantasy? Oddly, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir has both. As a child of ten, the movie and the Captain captivated me. To say I fell in love with him then, and several times over as a woman, isn’t too much of a stretch. In ways I had not even thought about, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is my own story. Did I will it to be so?
Lucy’s disappointment in marriage is the product, she contends, of reading a romantic novel, being kissed in the orchard by a young man, and then being rudely awakened after the marriage did not hold true to the book (or the kiss). She is still a romantic, and her swashbuckling, sometimes moody Captain quotes Keats to her—“Ode to the Nightingale,” to be exact. He designed his own home, Gull Cottage, something any woman could love in a man.
The pair set out to write the Captain’s memoirs, Blood and Swash, and publish them to win Lucy her financial independence. The Captain has lived life—has been reckless and wild. Lucy, his “Lucia,” was the perfect young girl and woman, living life the way she was taught. Here we have the classic Bad Boy-Good Girl Love Story. Luckily, the Captain and Lucy have found each other—they are soul mates. Complicating the happy ending: Lucy is very much alive, and simply put, the Captain is dead. It can’t work out well for them, can it?
The ghostly Captain appears very much “of the flesh” in the film. Rex Harrison was 39 when the movie was made, and full of sex appeal and machismo. No wonder Lucy was mad for him. As an observer of the romance, it was difficult for me to think of him as not “of the body,” and Lucy has much the same problem. He has presence. He has a way with her, and they have taken up life together. They are a couple, yet the reality of their romance, though idyllic, isn’t real. Just as I would romanticize the perfect man—he doesn’t exist—so too, Lucy’s hopeless dilemma. “It’s no crime to be alive!” she cries. Painfully Daniel replies, “No, m’dear, sometimes it’s a great inconvenience. The living can be hurt.” Her frustration throws her into the arms of a roué. The Captain understands and leaves Lucia, “m’dear,” with the freedom to choose life with the living. He releases her, and while she sleeps he whispers, almost kissing her: “…and it will die, as all dreams must die upon waking… that she has dreamed him. You must make your own life amongst the living and, whether you meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.” Remember me only as a dream, he says. But “Oh, what you missed. What we both missed.”
Of course the roué is just that, and a married one no less. Lucy lives out the rest of her life without physical love and a lingering memory of a love that seemed very real but was only a dream. She tells her daughter, now a woman, that she has been lonely at times but content. “I wasn’t intended to have that kind of happiness.” The conversation turns to the Captain, and though Lucy maintains he was just a dream, her daughter asks, How could they both have the same dream?
Of course Lucy’s year with the ghost of Captain Gregg was real. How could she have written anything like Blood and Swash? For that one almost perfect year, the Captain was real and Lucy loved him. As the film closes, Lucy dies peacefully. The Captain returns to carry his now young Lucia out of Gull Cottage and off into the mist. Keats writes in “Ode to the Nightingale,” “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Do I wake or sleep?” Is it no wonder The Ghost and Mrs. Muir haunts me still?