The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - Joseph Mankiewicz - Rex Harrison - Gene Tierney - Captain Daniel Gregg - Lucy Muir - bedroom - window - telescope

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
1947, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

There are two oddly identical passages 75 minutes apart in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In each one Lucy Muir climbs the stairs with her maid Martha and sinks into her chair for a nap. Martha then steals a blanket from under the dog and spreads it over Lucy; the dog settles back into its spot; and the clock chimes 4:00 p.m. Separating these two passages is exactly a year of story time, from when Mrs. Muir first moves into Gull Cottage to her one-year anniversary there.

This repetition should alert us to the two key structural elements of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – the ghost and the sea – which the two passages introduce in succession. When Mrs. Muir falls asleep at four o’clock the first time, she has her first dream of sea captain Daniel Gregg, and his ghost makes its first appearance in silhouette. When she naps in the same spot a year later, the scene cuts to a montage of whitecaps crashing over rocks, the turbulent sea matched by Bernard Herrmann’s score, transporting us years forward to when Anna is grown up. Exactly seven minutes later a second montage of ocean waves, this time much gentler, brings us to Lucy as an old woman reading of her granddaughter’s engagement. The way the sea fills these large gaps, and the way it erodes the post carved with Anna’s name, implies that the sea represents time in this movie – so that Mrs. Muir’s determination to live by the seaside after separating from her in-laws represents her wish to face her remaining time directly, to take charge of her own life.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - Joseph Mankiewicz - Gene Tierney - Lucy Muir - Gull Cottage - mourning - widow

If the sea represents time here, it follows that Captain Gregg, as a sailor, will help the widow to navigate time. His advice to her is expressed in nautical terms: “You must make your own life amongst the living. And whether you’ll meet fair winds or foul, find your own way to harbor in the end.” The next two generations of women will also marry navigators: Anna to a naval lieutenant, and Lucy’s granddaughter to an airplane pilot. However, lest we get the idea that these women are merely ships being steered by the men they love, we must look more closely at the ghost to find the reality behind the fantasy.

During their first bedroom conversation the ghost of Captain Gregg remarks on the “ugly black crêpe” that Lucy Muir had just packed away. “I happen to have been wearing mourning for my husband,” she says, to which he replies, “Whom you didn’t love…. You were fond of him perhaps, but you didn’t love him.” It’s not adding too much to an already supernatural sea captain to credit him with preternatural insight into Mrs. Muir’s marital history, of which she’s told him nothing so far. Nevertheless, it should occur to us that a simpler explanation exists. The ghost’s harsh comment is the kind of truth people often hide from themselves, but which can find indirect outlet through dreams or imagined third parties. In the captain’s words we can hear Mrs. Muir talking to herself.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - Joseph Mankiewicz - Rex Harrison - Captain Daniel Gregg

It’s always ambiguous whether Captain Gregg’s ghost is real or imagined, and the movie never hides this ambiguity. On several occasions Lucy admits he could be a dream or a fancy of hers. When he finally takes leave of her, he insists that she herself wrote the book they had collaborated on. When Anna confesses to having known the ghost, she too admits it was likely her imagination. This possibility is always out in the open, yet it takes an unusual effort to watch The Ghost and Mrs. Muir as if the ghost isn’t real. It’s so much easier to believe in him.

What makes the alternative viewing so challenging, if we’re willing to forgo our belief in the ghost, is that we have to translate everything the captain says and does into the corresponding thoughts and motivations of the widow. In most cases this means translating outward actions into inward revelations. When he shoves Mrs. Muir’s in-laws out of the cottage, when he charges the publisher Mr. Sproule to “Come back here, you blasted grampus!”, or when he scares a male train passenger away from the widow’s compartment: “Cheer off, you blasted mud turtle!” – each time in contrast to Lucy’s habitually mild manners – what’s really happening is Lucy Muir exercising a newfound assertiveness that catches people off guard. The others don’t hear a sea captain’s gruff voice, they simply hear a young and pretty woman addressing them with unexpected authority.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - Joseph Mankiewicz - Rex Harrison - Gene Tierney - Captain Daniel Gregg - Lucy Muir

The opening in London catches Mrs. Muir at the moment she seeks independence from her husband’s family, a year after his death. She is ready to navigate life on her own, and her willingness to live in a haunted house signals her readiness to confront her fears. The ghost frightens her at first, but she collects her wits and quickly reconciles herself to the phantom seaman, going so far as to share a room with him on the first night. Captain Gregg’s confident manner is always an expression of Lucy Muir’s own budding courage as she sets out on her independent life.

The ghost is more than a crutch to Mrs. Muir – he also guides her to a truer kind of independence than she had envisioned. She tells her in-laws she’ll survive on the modest dividends from her husband’s shares in a gold mine, but this income quickly dries up, and Captain Gregg proposes that she write down his life story and market it through a London publisher. (The book’s title, Blood and Swash, doubtless alludes to Blood and Sand, an earlier 20th Century Fox movie.) If the book is truly her own, as the ghost says, then like everything else Captain Gregg does, it’s a projection of Lucy’s own liberated spirit.

However The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is not merely a story of rebellion, of an oppressed woman asserting herself in Edwardian England. As soon as the book is finished Lucy remarks that she finds it wise, and although we never learn the exact contents of her writing, we can gather a certain wisdom from the movie that, as we’ll see, corresponds with the wisdom she gains from channeling the sea captain in her own life.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - Joseph Mankiewicz - Gene Tierney - George Sanders - Lucy Muir - Miles Fairley - painting - seaside - trees

First of all, if we’re going to hypothesize that the ghost is part of Mrs. Muir, we need to account for the one major disagreement that arises between them. On her visit to the publisher she meets a rakish man named Miles Fairley who gradually seduces her then breaks her heart. From that first day in London until his spirit leaves Lucy, Captain Gregg is suspicious of Fairley, calling him a “perfumed parlor snake” among other expressions of disgust. Of course it’s plausible that Lucy’s unconscious is speaking through the ghost as it did when he said she didn’t love her husband – she may be secretly aware that Fairley’s no good – but the captain’s wisdom goes deeper than his judgment of any particular man. He also seems to understand the precise weakness that leads Lucy to both of her mistaken relationships: her marriage to Edwin Muir and her affair with Miles Fairley.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - Joseph Mankiewicz - Rex Harrison - Gene Tierney - Captain Daniel Gregg - Lucy Muir - sleeping - farewell - bed

Lucy had met her husband when she was 17, right after reading a novel whose heroine was kissed in a rose garden and lived happily ever after. Thus vulnerable, she fell for her father’s hired architect when he kissed her in an orchard. Miles Fairley wins her heart almost the same way, stealing a kiss from her in a scenic spot overlooking a beach. Her weakness is her romanticism, her belief that love is some quasi-poetic state elevated above ordinary life. There’s an element of romance too in her attraction to Captain Gregg – she first sees him in a portrait that appears to glow from within a dark room, and naturally the masculine figure of a free-spirited sea captain carries a romantic appeal, enhanced by the gulf between the living woman and the dead spirit. At key moments he comes and goes by the telescope, an instrument that corresponds to romanticism because it looks into the distance. But Lucy learns to let go of this romance, as she also gets over her two misguided relationships. Her reunion with Captain Gregg at the end reveals another part of this wisdom: that romance, the exalted state of being “above life”, belongs exclusively to the dead.


A Matter of Life and Death – Ambiguity regarding a character’s presence in the world of the living

The Exterminating Angel – Two uncannily identical arrangements separated by a long interval

Charulata – Critique of romanticism

Pan’s Labyrinth – Idea that exalted states, whether romance or royalty, belong exclusively to the dead