The Ghost and Mrs. Muir: As charming as the film, but deeper and wiser

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The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R.A. DickThe Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R.A. Dick

If you were to ask me to name my top two or three favorite fantasy novels, the answer would take me a long time to come up with, given the overwhelming number of possible choices. But if you wanted to know my top two or three fantasy films, well, I could give you that reply fairly quickly. One of them would of course be The Wizard of Oz (1939), which I steadfastly maintain must be viewed on the big screen. Next up, for me, is The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), co-created by Dr. Seuss himself. And third, a film that has been charming me (and millions of others) for decades now, 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The only one of these three to be shot completely in B&W, the film provided one of my very favorite actresses, Gene Tierney, with one of her greatest roles (Laura Hunt in 1944’s Laura and Ellen Berent in 1945’s color noir Leave Her to Heaven being her two greatest, natch), and she was perfectly matched by Rex Harrison’s gruff but likeable portrayal. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz helmed his film with great sensitivity, while composer Bernard Herrmann provided a lush and haunting score, years before his many collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock.

But while this film has been a favorite of many for almost 70 years now, few, I have a feeling, have read the picture’s source novel, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, released in 1945 and written by R.A. Dick (the pseudonym for Irish authoress Josephine Aimee Campbell Leslie, who passed away in 1979). Now, however, thanks to Doubleday’s Vintage Movie Classics series (“novels that inspired great films”), a new generation will finally be able to read this long-out-of-print wonder. And as it turns out, Dick’s original is every bit as good as its film, with some significant differences.

In the book, the reader makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Lucy Muir, a 34-year-old (Tierney was 27 when she did the picture), recently widowed mother of two in the England of the early 20th century. Fed up with the stifling attentions of her in-laws, she boldly takes her son and daughter to the coastal town of Whitecliff, where she rents the abode known as Gull Cottage. Lucy soon realizes that the house is haunted by the ghost of its previous owner, the 12-years-dead sea captain Daniel Gregg, with whom she strikes up a reasonably friendly relationship. The captain tells Lucy where he has hidden some gold, allowing her to purchase the cottage outright, and he suffers her to stay on his property with the provision that she will one day bequeath the house to be used as a rest home for retired sailors.

As the years pass, the captain helps Lucy in many aspects of her life, giving brusque but sage counsel regarding her snoopy in-laws, her children, and her financial affairs. When Lucy unwittingly has a love fling with a married man, the captain comes to her aid; when Lucy is close to running out of money, he dictates his memoirs to her, which autobiography brings in decades of royalties. The reader senses that the aging widow and the deceased sea captain might have made a perfect couple, despite their bickering, if only … you know, one of them wasn’t noncorporeal, and all…

Excellent as the film version is, Dick’s book is just as charming, and possibly even more wise, along with those aforementioned differences. (Screenwriter Philip Dunne did a marvelous job at adapting the source novel, and the changes that he made don’t really detract from the film’s fine qualities.) The two main differences between book and film are that Lucy’s son, Cyril, does not appear at all in the picture, not to mention all the subplots pertaining to him — although daughter Anna, played in the film by 9-year-old Natalie Wood, does — and the entire section dealing with that married cad, Miles Fairley Blane (portrayed by the great George Sanders in the film), takes place in an entirely different context. We get to know a lot more about Lucy’s and the captain’s past in the book, making for more well-rounded characters, too. Gene and Rex, as it turns out, were indeed perfectly cast, although Tierney, who was 5’ 7”, was surely a taller woman than the diminutive Mrs. Muir, as described by the author. Still, the film does basically hew to the novel fairly faithfully, up to and including that truly lovely finale in the afterlife.

And speaking of afterlife, Dick’s novel does give us a sneak peek as to what the great beyond will be like, but for the most part, Capt. Gregg says he just doesn’t have adequate words (reasonably enough, I suppose), although he surely does dispense words of wisdom aplenty throughout The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I mentioned that her work is very wise in places, and just take a look at some of the more touching samples, many of them from the mouth of Capt. Gregg himself:

“Real love isn’t blind, it sees everything and has an endless capacity for forgiving…”;
“[children’s growing up] means a breaking away … and you wouldn’t want them to stay anchored for the rest of their existence, growing barnacles all over them and rotting away with rust…”;
“…if you set your ship on a certain course you stick to it; you’d never get anywhere if you navigated backwards half the time…”;
“…good and bad doesn’t always mean spiritual and unspiritual…”;
“knowledge and book learning are not wisdom…”;
“loneliness [is] not a matter of solitude but of the spirit and often much greater in company for that very reason…”

And on and on. The entire book is like that, full of sage and wonderful commentary. Dick, as it turns out, is a lovely writer, with a winning way with her descriptions of nature and a sure hand at amusing dialogue. For me, her book was absolutely unputdownable. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is the sort of book that you wish would go on indefinitely, but sadly, is one that clocks in at under 200 pages. Still, the evenings that I spent with it were very pleasant ones, indeed.

I suppose the bottom line is that if you are a fan of the 1947 film (and I cannot imagine any viewer who would not fall in love with it), then you will surely appreciate the added depth and character background provided by Dick’s source novel. The new Doubleday edition, incidentally, arrives with an introduction by novelist Adriana Trigiani, who tells us how addicted she was to the film while she was pregnant, and how she loved the fact that Capt. Gregg refers to Lucy throughout the film as “Lucia,” which was Trigiani’s grandmother’s name. (Indeed, she seems to have written a 2003 novel entitled Lucia, Lucia.) Her enthusiastic intro (marred only by her saying that Capt. Gregg had died in a house fire, instead of by accidentally gassing himself to death) makes this new edition of a long-unavailable classic even more worthwhile.

And I have just noticed that other titles in this inspired series include Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter and William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run! I might have to pounce on those, too, before they disappear again for decades, although I doubt if either of them will be half as charming as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Oh, dear me, I called the book “charming” yet again. And as Capt. Gregg once said, “it’s a sign of old age creeping on when you make the same remark twice in as many minutes…”

Published in 1945. The basis for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s cinematic romance starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. Burdened by debt after her husband’s death, Lucy Muir insists on moving into the very cheap Gull Cottage in the quaint seaside village of Whitecliff, despite multiple warnings that the house is haunted. Upon discovering the rumors to be true, the young widow ends up forming a special companionship with the ghost of handsome former sea captain Daniel Gregg. Through the struggles of supporting her children, seeking out romance from the wrong places, and working to publish the captain’s story as a book, Blood and Swash, Lucy finds in her secret relationship with Captain Gregg a comfort and blossoming love she never could have predicted. Originally published in 1945, made into a movie in 1947, and later adapted into a television sitcom in 1968, this romantic tale explores how love can develop without boundaries, both in this life and beyond.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough’s finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a “misspent youth” of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship — although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century — and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror… but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle “ferbs54.” Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club….

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4 comments

  1. Interesting that Leslie wrote it under a pseudonym, and a male-ish one at that. I loved this movie when I was a kid, but never read the book.

  2. sandy ferber /

    Well, Marion, thanks to Doubleday, you–and everyone else–now have a chance….

  3. Misti P /

    I’m going to have to read this. The movie was on Netflix or Amazon Prime awhile ago and that’s where I saw it for the first time. It was so good, I think I would love the book.

    • sandy ferber /

      Well, as I said, Misti, if you enjoyed the film, you should certainly appreciate the added depth that the book provides. This new edition should be in your local bookstore now, but I’d jump on it, as these things tend not to have a long shelf life….

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