Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Ghost of Romance Past

Hollywood, it seems, loves ghosts. Just think of the Ghostbusters franchise, and the schmaltzy romance beyond the grave known simply as Ghost. In that 1990 film, Patrick Swayze appears post-mortem to his love, played by Demi Moore, to the throbbing strains of “Unchained Melody,” in what has turned out to be the sexiest pottery-making scene of all time.

 Much earlier in the 20th century, there was another popular ghostly romance, though one decidedly more prim.  In 1947 the ubiquitous Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, based on a popular British novel though shot entirely on the coastline of California. The starring roles were taken by Gene Tierney (yes, Laura herself) and Rex Harrison (fresh from the male lead in the non-musical Anna and the King of Siam).  She plays a young widow too independent in spirit to commit to life with her former mother-in-law. Decamping with her young daughter (an 8-year-old Natalie Wood, already a screen veteran), she falls in love with a seaside home that is rumored to be haunted. And so it is . . . by an irascible ship’s captain determined to scare off potential buyers. Though his original hope is to convert the house into a home for aged seamen, he soon develops a soft spot for the plucky widow who alone can see him.

 Mrs. Muir is determined to be what she considers a modern woman. (At several points, the characters remind one another that they’re now living in the 20th century, though they still light gas lamps and her skirts trail the ground.) When Capt. Gregg persuades Mrs. Muir that she should be on the lookout for a living male who can love and sustain her, she falls for Uncle Neddy, a successful author of children’s books. Since he’s played by the often dicey George Sanders, the audience certainly wonders how this human romance is going to play out. Though Sanders was yet to take on his most indelible role, that of the cold-blooded Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, he ultimately shows himself here as an equally untrustworthy type. Poor Mrs. Muir—but when we skip ahead in time we get a conclusion that is both bittersweet and entirely satisfying.

 I won’t give away the ending of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir here.  Suffice it to say that its charms are of an old-fashioned sort, one that demands that the plight of its characters be taken seriously. I’m assuming that the same held true in the several radio and television versions of this popular material that surfaced between 1947 and 1974. But when it was transformed into a TV series that ran from 1968 to 1970, with Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare in the leading roles, the emphasis was on sitcom hijinks. In April 1994, Variety reported that there would be a Twentieth Century Fox remake of the movie, with Sean Connery perfectly cast as the irascible but ultimately tender Captain. Alas, it was not to be.

,In its own day, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was perhaps best admired for its romantic Bernard Herrmann score, and for its Oscar-nominated cinematography. But romantically-inclined voters from the American Film Institute have chosen it as #73 among its 2002 listing of 100 Years . . . 100 Passions. Casablanca was named #1, Gone With the Wind #2. West Side Story #3. And The Way We Were, about which I’ve recently written, came in at an unlikely—to me, at least--#6, ahead of such unarguably romantic flicks as Doctor Zhivago, Love Story, and The African Queen. Oh well.    


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