For the anit-Damsel Blogathon: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

This was my contribution to the Anti-Damsel Blogathon. Read more posts here. Topics span “the wonderful women of classic cinema, both real and fictional.” Good stuff!

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I have yet to see the new Mad Max movie, but it’s clear from a glance that Furiosa, the character played by Charlize Theron, is an incredibly empowered woman who is kicking butt and taking names. In short, she is about as far from a damsel in distress as it is possible to get. Mrs. Muir, the titular character in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, as a widow of limited means living in turn of the century England, is perhaps a little closer. And yet Mrs. Muir, played superbly by a positively radiant Gene Tierney, likewise fits the definition of empowered. Per the Google dictionary, an empowered person is someone “stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” Gene Tierney’s character is on a quest to do precisely that, to claim a life of her own. To do so, she may not have to defeat the War Boys in hand-to-hand combat, but she repeatedly has to assert herself and stand her ground against everyone from her deceased husband’s mother and sister, to a dismissive realtor, to a cantankerous old ghost who would have his home turned into a refuge for retired seamen.

Immune to the Sirens

“And now my mind is made up,” says Lucy Muir, establishing her character in the first line of dialogue. Lucy, or Lucia, as Capt Gregg later will call her, knows that freeing herself from her in-laws, especially her overbearing sister, is a pre-requisite to self-determination. Her demeanor is calm but resolute, and it’s obvious from watching her in this first scene that meek, prim, proper, and demure as she may look on the outside, within is a source of strength that runs to her core. Pulling out all the stops, her mother-in-law brings out the tears while her sister-in-law tries brow-beating. Neither is successful. And in what surely is a tip of the hat to Virginia Woolf, Lucy responds, “I’ve never had a life of my own.” At this point, Lucy isn’t so much speaking to her in-laws anymore as she is speaking aloud to herself, allowing the full portent of the words to sink in and contemplating the exhilarating possibilities inherent in this new-found, unexpected freedom.

What about this one?

No sooner has Lucy left her in-laws, however, than she encounters another person, this time a stranger, who not only believes he knows what is best for her but assumes he is perfectly entitled to tell her so. Having always wanted to live by the sea, Mrs. Muir, with daughter and faithful servant Martha in tow, moves to the English seaside village of Whitecliff, seeking out the services of Mr. Coombe, a realtor. Rifling through a shamble of papers describing available rental property, Coombe skips a page. Lucy, intrigued, does not. Picking it up from his desk, she reads for herself the description for Gull Cottage and to Mr. Coombe’s consternation declares it to be exactly what she wants. “Oh no, no,” says Mr. Coombs, taking the paper from her hands and laying it back on the table, “that wouldn’t suit you at all.” In reply to her question as to why, he responds simply, “My dear young lady; you must allow me to be the judge of that!” Lucy, however, is not put off so easily. “If I’m going to live in the house; I should be the judge,” she returns.

The scenes with Mr. Coombe, both in his office and in Gull Cottage, are the funniest in the film. Indeed, after these scenes, the humor is largely dropped. Film critic Matt Brunson provides a concise summary of the film simply be pointing out these deftly achieved tonal shifts: It “start[s] out as a charming comedy before segueing into a melodrama…and finally erupting as a deeply affecting tragedy capped by a redemptive ending.” Mrs. Muir tours the house, discovering its haunted status in the process. Certain this revelation will have ended her foolishness once and for all, Mr. Coombe prepares to hustle her off to another property only to be confronted with the simple declarative sentence: “I want Gull Cottage.” His response and hers in turn are priceless:

Mr. Coombe: In my opinion; you are the most obstinate woman I have ever met!
Mrs. Muir: Thank you; I’ve always wanted to be considered obstinate.

If The Ghost and Mrs. Muir were a video game, at this part in the game she would have succeeded in defeating the first two enemies. Now comes the boss monster. It’s one thing to stand up to your in-laws, and another to stand up to a self-righteous realtor, but what about a ghost who has been scaring away renters for the last four years, none having lasted past the first night? Captain Gregg, the sea captain who haunts Gull Cottage, is a formidable ghost, but Mrs. Muir, he will soon discover, likewise is a formidable woman:

I say I know you’re here. What’s wrong?  Are you afraid to speak up?  Is that all you’re good for?  To frighten women? Well I’m not afraid of you! Whoever heard of a cowardly ghost!

At these words, Captain Gregg shows himself, and slowly but surely they work their way

You can’t make me leave!

toward a bargain. There is give and take on both sides; however, the simple truth is that Lucy leaves him little choice. “I won’t leave this house,” she tells him. “You can’t make me leave it!”

Mr. Coombe referred to Mrs. Muir as “obstinate.” This theme of stubbornness recurs in the film and is an interesting comment on how a woman in the early 1900s (or rather 1947, when the film was made) might be regarded for being insistent on determining her own self interest. When Lucy’s now grown daughter, Anna, returns home with a young man to seek her mother’s approval, Martha remarks, “don’t matter what you say; she’ll have her own way same as her mother.” But in regard to what things, exactly, has Lucy insisted on having her own way?  A grown woman with a child of her own, she decides to leave the home of her mother-in-law to make her own way a year after her husband’s death. A renter paying a realtor for his services, she insists on being shown the property she wants to see. A woman experiencing the exhilaration of independence for the first time, she refuses to be turned out by the ghost of a curmudgeonly sea captain. In this light, it’s clear her stubbornness is defined entirely in the context of gender expectations.

Lucy may not be stubborn, but she is fallible. About halfway through the film, Miles Fairley, a suitor

Uncle Neddy

played perfectly by George Sanders, comes along and manages to convince Lucy that she is in love with him. Martha, Anna, Captain Gregg, and of course the audience all see him for the cad that he is, while Lucy does not. The relationship does not last, and it costs her. Even here though, at her most vulnerable, Lucy never depletes her strength or loses her resolve. At the end of the affair, there is nothing to be done but buck up and carry on, and that is precisely what she does. She allows herself a few tears and a little comfort from Martha, and it’s all stiff upper lip after that.

Speaking of stiff, Gene Tierney’s performance might seem a little wooden, but it strikes just the right balance given that she had to portray her character as sensitive in a 19th century cult of femininity prim and proper sort of way while at the same time being self-possessed, strong, and determined enough not only to strike out on her own, but to turn around and walk back into a house she fully realizes is haunted and tell the ghost of the salty old sea captain who is haunting it to knock that crap off. A more animated approach would have created too much of a dichotomy between this Mrs. Muir and the one who can barely bring herself to write, much less say, the naughty word Captain Gregg dictates for his memoir. Rex Harrison, too, for his part, is spot on, and as an onscreen couple, they meet the mark of any successful love story–we want to see them together. For while the dynamic of a young woman in the early 1900s resisting various pressures to live life on her own terms makes The Ghost and Mrs. Muir interesting, it is the interaction between her and Captain Gregg, her soul mate, that makes it so repeatedly view-able.  It is one of my very favorite films of all time.


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