Whatever our opinion of love and marriage, we usually agree as to how a movie depicts them, whether it represents them as something desirable, as is usually the case for romantic comedies, or something to be avoided, as is often the case for films noir. An exception to this is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). Most people think of this movie as romantic, which is to say, as one that represents love as something beautiful. It is a story about a woman who falls in love with the ghost of a sea captain. And though she cannot marry him, of course, yet he is the man with whom marriage would have been ideal. In reality, this movie has a dark view of love and marriage, and is quite cynical at its heart.
When the movie begins, Mrs. Muir (Gene Tierney), a widow, decides to move into a house with her daughter and her maid. She is made aware that previous occupants moved out, claiming the house to be haunted, but she is undeterred. One day, she sits in a chair and falls asleep. Now, it is axiomatic that when a character in a movie falls asleep in a chair, there is a good chance that what follows is a dream (falling asleep in a bed is too ordinary to have any significance). And so, we immediately become suspicious, especially when the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) makes an appearance. Is the ghost real, or is she just dreaming him?
In any event, they get acquainted. And when she finds she is hard pressed for money, she becomes a ghost writer for this ghost, telling his story as a sea captain. When she meets Miles Fairley (George Sanders) at the office of a book publisher, she finds herself attracted to him, and they start seeing each other. Captain Gregg decides to take his leave. He tells her while she is asleep that he is only a dream, and that she wrote the book herself. Now, is this a real ghost telling her this, or is she just dreaming that a ghost is telling her he is a dream?
Years later, she sits in the chair and falls asleep again, and so once again we wonder if what follows is another dream or if we are still in the first one. The scene that does follow is one in which she finds out her daughter Anna is about to be engaged. Anna and Mrs. Muir have a talk in the kitchen, where it turns out that when Anna was a child, she had seen the ghost of Captain Gregg too, and they discuss whether they both saw a real ghost or simply had the same dream.
This is followed by another scene many years later, in which Anna writes that her daughter, Little Lucy (“Lucy” being the same first name as Mrs. Muir), has married a captain (an airplane captain, but you get the idea). Mrs. Muir is tired and decides to take another nap in that same chair. She falls asleep and dies. Or she falls asleep and dreams that she dies. Or she is still in the first dream, and only dreams that she sat in the chair and died? And by now we are completely confused as to what is real and what is a dream. In any event, she is now a ghost and is finally united with Captain Gregg.
However we interpret this movie, it has a rather paradoxical attitude about marriage. On the one hand, it follows the usual Hollywood line for that period that marriage is essential for happiness. On the other hand, there is an undercurrent throughout the movie that marriage is not conducive to happiness, that it is something to be avoided. In the opening scene, Mrs. Muir announces to her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, with whom she is living, that she is going to get her own place and move out. Her in-laws object, suggesting that it would be indecent. To this, Mrs. Muir responds, “I’ve never had a life of my own. It’s been Edwin’s life and yours and Eva’s, never my own.” Since there is no indication that her husband was a bad man, the implication would seem to be that there is something oppressive about marriage itself, that it involves the sacrifice of one’s life for the sake of others. In fact, she later admits to Captain Gregg that Edwin proposed to her just after she had read a romantic novel, and thus she got her own feelings for Edwin confused with the feelings elicited by the book. The suggestion is that love and marriage sound good when we read about them in romance novels, but they are something quite different in real life.
After Mrs. Muir rents the house, Mr. Coombe, the man who brokered the deal for her, comes to visit her intent on proposing marriage, saying that she needs the “protection of a man,” which is absurd, coming from someone like him, with his high-pitched voice and nervous manner. Captain Gregg is disgusted, referring to him as a “herring-gutted swab,” and gets rid of him by causing Coombe’s car to start rolling away by itself.
As mentioned above, after Mrs. Muir writes the book about Captain Gregg’s adventures, she takes it to a publisher, where she meets Miles Fairley and soon falls in love with him. We are suspicious of him, because he is played by George Sanders, who often plays characters that are smarmy and decadent. She intends to marry him, but it turns out that he is already married with children. Worse yet, his wife knows that Fairley does that sort of thing to women on a regular basis, and it seems to be no big deal to her.
In a subsequent scene, however, Mrs. Muir tells Anna she saw Fairley years later at a dinner party, where he cried because his wife had finally had enough and left him. She also mentions that he was “bald and fat.” But if Fairley had turned out to be a decent man, and had married Mrs. Muir, he would still have become bald and fat, because that happens in marriage. And so, if the deterioration of Fairley’s looks causes Mrs. Muir to be thankful she did not marry him, does it not follow that the inevitable deterioration of a man’s looks is a good reason for her not to marry anyone at all?
This theme of deterioration is reinforced by analogy with a post. An old man carves Anna’s name into a post on the shore, and he tells her it will be there forever and a day. And yet, as the years pass, we see it slowly rot away and fall over. Is this not a metaphor for marriage, which begins with the illusion that love will last forever, only for it to slowly decay and fall apart?
Now, we know that the idea is that for a woman to be happy, she must marry the right man, and the right man in this case is Captain Gregg. And so, at the end of the movie, when she dies, and she and Captain Gregg are together again, apparently forever, we know that she is finally happy. And she and Gregg both have their good-looking, youthful appearance, forever apparently. In other words, Gregg will never become “bald and fat.”
The three real men in Mrs. Muir’s life, her husband Edwin, Mr. Coombe, and Miles Fairley, were not suitable for her for different reasons, and only a dream-ghost was the right man. In short, real people can never measure up to what we find in romantic fiction or in our dreams. The further implication of this story is that a truly happy marriage is itself a dream, and that in real life, one is better off remaining single. As Mrs. Muir says to her daughter, “You can be much more alone with other people than you are by yourself, even if it’s people you love.”