In the golden age of Hollywood, film casting was often a game of musical chairs.
Twentieth Century Fox Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was impressed with Joan Crawford’s career revival in Mildred Pierce (1945), and thought he could engineer a similar comeback for Norma Shearer in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Though she hadn’t worked since 1942, Zanuck wrote in a memo that “Norma Shearer has one great picture left in her yet.”
But when the music stopped, Crawford had been cast as Daisy, Gene Tierney had shuffled over to play Mrs. Muir, and Norma Shearer was left without a chair.
I think Zanuck was right about Shearer, but if she had one last great film in her, we never got to see it. She never worked in Hollywood again.
Instead of playing opposite the 45-year-old Shearer, 39-year-old Rex Harrison was paired with the 27-year-old Gene Tierney. Zanuck was not overly disappointed to cast Tierney, whom he called “the most beautiful woman in the world.”
And he certainly couldn’t have objected to the result. The film was nominated for an Oscar for black and white cinematography and currently sits at number 73 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest Love Stories.
Set during the last gasp of the Victorian era, Tierney plays a widow with a young daughter. She wishes to live on her own terms, out from under the stifling thumbs of her deceased husband’s mother and sister. She has a small pension which allows her to leave London and rent a surprisingly large and beautiful seaside house in Dorset.
She soon discovers why the rent is within her price range—the house is haunted by the former owner Captain Daniel Gregg, a rough and tumble sea captain who committed suicide and chases away anyone who wishes to live in his house.
But Lucy Muir and her daughter (played by nine-year-old Natalie Wood in her third credited role, filmed just before she would forever charm the world in Miracle on 34th Street) were made of sterner stuff than their predecessors and refused to be put off by howling winds and flickering candles.
Soon Captain Daniel shows himself to Lucy, and is eventually won over when she is not put off by his surly exterior. They begin a tentative friendship, and when Lucy’s money runs out, Daniel comes up with a crazy idea to prevent her from having to leave the house.
He will dictate the story of his life, which Lucy will write and sell as a sensational adventure novel. Making a lifelong living off the sale of a single novel is more unlikely than falling in love with a ghost, but Lucy does both over the course of the film.
But loving a ghost you can never touch is not easy, and Lucy attracts an ardent—and all too human—suitor she meets in London while selling the book. George Saunders is delicious as Miles Fairley, a cad with all the charm of a used car salesman who nonetheless capture’s Lucy’s attention.
He is flesh and blood, after all.
With a twist ending that surely inspired The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), the film finds a satisfying conclusion to the world’s most impossible romance.
In 1968, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was rebooted as a television show that ran for two seasons, though it was more comedic and less romantic than the film.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir goes down like a cup of hot tea on a cold night, a charming love story that asks only that its audience suspend disbelief and allow itself to fall under the spell of fantastical ghosts and romance.
Settle in and enjoy.
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