Seventy-five years ago, a short novel charmed readers and became popular enough to get made two years later into a major Hollywood film. Twenty-one years after the film’s moderate success, the story became a weekly half-hour television show, lasting two years. Along the way, most people seem to have forgotten the book, by R. A. Dick (pen name of Josephine Leslie), although it remains in print.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir can come under the heading of romantic comedy, the ghost not being the scary sort menacing about in stories by M. R. James. In early 1900s London, Lucy Muir, a thirty-something widow of an architect who has left her with two small children, surprises even herself by deciding to break free from her domineering Victorian in-laws and move with her son and daughter to a small town along the English Channel. There she rents Gull Cottage, and it is haunted by the roaring and restless spirit of its previous owner, a retired sea captain, Daniel Gregg.
Four years before Mrs. Muir rented the cottage, Captain Gregg, a bachelor living alone, had been found dead there, asphyxiated by a gas line left open. A coroner’s inquest delivered a verdict of suicide, a slander on his good name infuriating the late captain, and frustration at that besmirching of his character drove him to haunt his old house.
It gives nothing away to say that Captain Gregg becomes something of a guardian angel to Mrs. Muir, advising her and guiding her through tough spots. During his visits to her each evening she uses him as a sounding board, and he coaxes and coaches her to grow out of her shell. Also, they collaborate in a way that gives new meaning to the term “ghost author.”
Subtle cinematic romance between a widow and a ghost required good writing and better acting. As Bob Dorian put it in Bob Dorian’s Classic Movies (1990), “As far as the censors were concerned,” this movie “was the ideal love story, one that contained no language of love, no lingering kisses, and absolutely no bodily contact.”
In its review, The New York Times called the film, “a jolly caper,” that was “gently humorous and often sparking good entertainment.” Rex Harrison, who played Captain Gregg, recalled in his memoirs, A Damned Serious Business (1991), it was “a delicate and unusual love story,” and “the mood of it was genuinely romantic but not cloying.”
While the film stays faithful to the novel, it necessarily streamlines the story. For example, wisely and mercifully, the screenwriter, Philip Dunne, focused on Mrs. Muir’s vivacious daughter, Anna, and left out her prig of a son, Cyril, who becomes a clergyman. Cutting out Cyril thus removed scenes of him toadying to his bishop and his household, such self-righteous pomposity concentrated around one dining room table that the reader cannot blame poor Mrs. Muir for fainting.
Most notably, the film glosses over the Christian themes touched upon in the book.
Mrs. Muir is understandably curious about what the next world is like, and for all her middle-class respectability, it is always the boisterous and profane Captain Gregg who quotes Scripture. Notwithstanding his unhappiness over how his reputation has been ruined, Captain Gregg is closer to the Word.
When Mrs. Muir asks Captain Gregg to tell her what the afterlife is really like, he is silent for a while and then says, “No.” He adds, “It’s as if I were asked to explain navigation to a child sailing a celluloid duck in its bath,” meaning, “there aren’t earthly worlds to fit this other dimension, just as there weren’t earthly words to fit telegraphy and electricity till the scientists worked their way up to these things.”
Some time later she asks him about his age now, and he tells her there is no aging where he is: “There is just being—no age and no time, no height and no depth—only immortality and eternity and vision.” When she says it strikes her as “frightening and rather dull,” he says again that there are no words to describe where he is.
All the same, he tries to give her a glimpse, even though superlatives fall short. “It’s all the beauty and serenity and nobility you have ever experienced on earth,” he says, and that is including “all your grandest and most generous feelings, and the finest sunsets and greatest music—and then you’re only on the fringe of understanding.”
Although Mrs. Muir comes across as a conventional Anglican, at one point the narrator tells us that the years flew by, “like beads told by nimble fingers on a rosary, smooth and round, full of interest.” A couple of times the captain refers to his youth in Dublin, and without using the word, he tells Mrs. Muir about Purgatory. “There’s a dimension,” he explains, “that some spirits have to wait in till they realize and admit the truth about themselves.”
He explains that someone who is “spiritually deaf,” such as her sister-in-law, cannot hear him, because “she’s only tuned in to earth and herself” Later on, he elaborates, “It’s only those with one-track minds, who never can see or feel anyone’s point of view but their own, who are spiritually deaf.” Along with the spiritually deaf, he regrets the lukewarm: “It’s the saints and the sinners that are much the closer to first things, not the half-and-halfers with their negative sins of spite, malice, and uncharitableness.”
Though often blunt and impatient, Captain Gregg encourages Mrs. Muir to see that she was right to live her own life and get out from under the thumb of self-important people who need to help others. After all, people who need to help (read, control) others lack self-control and need psychiatric help. “What would the world be like,” she muses after a bullying letter from her sister-in-law, “if everyone minded his own business?”
When The Ghost and Mrs. Muir moved to television, the setting moved as well, from the south coast of England to the coast of Maine. Also, it moved from the first half of the twentieth century to what was then the present day, that is, roughly, 1970. This adaptability of the tale shows that it hovers within the realm of myth, its timeless elements of love and loyalty, of family and faith transcending the limits of any era and place.