The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945)

The Horn Blows at Midnight has four things working against it.  First, it is an explicit dream movie.  By “explicit,” I mean we know from the onset that it is a dream.  Athanael (Jack Benny) plays third trumpet in a band.  Just before the beginning of a live broadcast, he falls asleep and starts dreaming, and he does not wake up until the last few minutes of the movie.  In general, audiences do not like dream movies, presumably because it means that what they are watching is not really happening.  This is something of a paradox, because that is true of most movies, even those without dreams in them.  After all, Hollywood has sometimes been referred to as the “dream factory.”  Nevertheless, the audience can get into a movie they know to be fiction and experience it as something real, but when they know the movie is about someone’s dream, their ability to suspend disbelief is greatly strained.

Brief dreams are not a problem, of course, and they may even enhance our enjoyment of the movie, as in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  It is the longer dreams that test the audience’s patience.  That is why most dream movies do not let the audience know until the end that what they are watching is a dream, as in The Woman in the Window (1944).  Even so, we feel somewhat cheated at the end.  Laura (1944) was originally intended to be a dream movie, and director Otto Preminger even filmed an ending making the dream explicit, but he wisely left it out of the movie.  In The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), we are never really certain whether the ghost is real or dreamt, and this allows us to tentatively accept what we are watching.

When a dream movie is explicit, the characters in real life usually show up in the dream, as in The Wizard of Oz (1939), where it is fun to see the parallels between the real characters and the ones in the dream.  And this leads us to the second thing that The Horn Blows at Midnight has going against it.  While a lot of characters that Athanael knows do show up in his dream, they do not do so in any interesting way.  The first and second trumpeter, who made sarcastic remarks about Athanael’s trumpet playing, are made to be bad guys in the dream, but that is about the extent of it.  Everyone else is just playing two parts.

A link between reality and the dream comes in some remarks Athanael makes in the beginning.  He tells the other two trumpet players that they will be punished someday for snitching on him.  When Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) tries to console him for having to be just the third trumpeter, saying that at least he is making money and eating, he replies, “I wish I’d never heard of food or money.”  He continues:  “It’s an ungrateful world, Elizabeth.  If I had my way, things would be different.  There’d be a lot of changes made.”

And that leads to the third weakness of this film:  it is a Heaven movie.  Apart from the movies, Heaven is a problem all in itself.  No conception of Heaven ever really sounds all that appealing.  Because it is hard to take Heaven seriously, movies about Heaven tend to be comedies, such as Stairway to Heaven (1947), though I have yet to find any of them very funny.  Even when they are dramas, they have a light touch, as in The Green Pastures (1936).  In Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and its remake, Heaven Can Wait (1978), as little time as possible is spent in Heaven, because Heaven is boring.  In fact, in the movie Heaven Can Wait (1943), not to be confused with the previously mentioned movie by that name, we never even get to Heaven.  The protagonist spends most of his time in Hell recounting his sins.  Because this is a comedy, we are not supposed to take Hell any more seriously than Heaven, and thus the man who runs the place is not referred to as Satan, but only as “His Excellency.”  In general, Heaven movies suffer the same problem as dream movies, which is that audiences know that what they are watching isn’t real.  So, when the movie is a dream about Heaven, our credulity is really strained.

Anyway, Athanael dreams that he is an angel who plays the trumpet in the heavenly orchestra.  The dream is a wish-fulfilling fantasy, in which the “ungrateful world” he referred to earlier is selected for destruction, owing to its unworthy inhabitants, and he is to destroy it by blowing his horn exactly at midnight.  So, he is sent to Earth, in accordance with the general principle that it is better to move the story out of Heaven as quickly as possible.  As an angel, he knows nothing about food or money, as per his wish while he was still awake.  Actually, he knows nothing about sex either, which does provide for a few of the handful of laughs that this movie has to offer.

The bulk of the movie consists of the two trumpet players, now fallen angels, trying to keep Athanael from blowing his horn.  I suppose it is the height of absurdity to take this dream-Heaven movie seriously in any aspect, but this leads to the fourth thing working against this movie.  We are expected to pull for Athanael, even though he wants to destroy the world, while pulling against the two fallen angels, who are trying to save it, though for selfish reasons, of course.  If a man commits a murder, he is evil.  If he goes on a rampage and kills a dozen or so, he is a horrible mass-murderer.  And if he is like Hitler or Stalin, who were responsible for the killing of millions, he is a monster.  Athanael is trying to kill every last person on this planet, but since his orders come from Heaven, that is supposed to make it all right.  (It is to be noted, however, that the orders do not come from God, as if to hold him innocent, notwithstanding the fact that the Bible tells us that this is precisely the sort of thing God did in the past with the Flood and will do again on Judgment Day.)

I suppose Athanael is redeemed by the fact that in his wish-fulfilling dream, he falls to his death before he can blow his trumpet and end the world, after which he wakes up and starts playing his trumpet in real life.  But for the reasons given above, this movie cannot be redeemed by the few laughs that it affords us.

Laura (1944)

The first part of Laura is narrated by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). At first, he addresses us in the audience, informing us that Laura (Gene Tierney) has just died and that another one of those police detectives is waiting to talk to him. Later, his narration is addressed to the detective in question, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), as Lydecker tells him about how he met Laura and how they became good friends.

One night, while going through Laura’s letters in her apartment, trying to figure out who murdered her, McPherson falls asleep.  Suddenly, Laura walks in through the door.  This exemplifies the principle that if someone in a movie falls asleep in a chair, there is a chance that what follows is a dream (falling asleep in a bed doesn’t count, because that is too ordinary).  Originally, the dream was to have been made explicit in a final scene that was filmed but eventually cut.  That was a wise decision. People tend to feel cheated if they find out at the end of a movie that most of it was a dream. We never minded when Alice in Wonderland turned out to be a dream at the end, because the events after Alice goes down the rabbit hole are too fantastic to take seriously, and we are charmed by the idea that it was the dream of a little girl with an active imagination. It is for the same reason that we do not mind that most of The Wizard of Oz (1939) was just a dream. But when it happens in a movie in which we are taking things seriously, we are irked by a dream ending. The movie Woman in the Window (1944) has such an ending, and the movie is weaker for it.

Because Lydecker dies at the end of the movie, his narration is problematic. How can he be telling us a story in which he dies in the end? It has been done, of course, notably in Sunset Blvd. (1950), but we are supposed to be amused by the absurdity of listening to Joe Gillis (William Holden) tell us his story as he lies drowned in a swimming pool. In Laura, on the other hand, we just might think it was a goof to have the narrator begin a story in which he ends up dead. But if the second half of the film is only a dream, then Lydecker never dies, and his narration only applies to the first half of the film, the half that is real. He is not responsible for whatever McPherson dreams after that.

In his early discussion with Lydecker, McPherson says that Laura was killed with a shotgun, but no mention is made of what part of her body was shot. Even the second time the shotgun murder is mentioned, when McPherson is interviewing Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), nothing is said in that regard. It is not until almost the end of the movie, when McPherson has discovered the shotgun hidden in the clock, and he realizes that Lydecker is the killer, that he mentions that the woman Lydecker thought was Laura was shot in the face with both barrels. This delay in giving us this crucial piece of information is to keep us from becoming suspicious, because whenever someone in a movie supposedly dies, but either the corpse is never found or it has been disfigured beyond recognition, then you can give long odds that the person in question is not really dead. So, if McPherson had said early on that Laura’s face had been blown off, we would have guessed right away that the woman was really someone else. Of course, once Laura returns, right after McPherson has fallen asleep, and we realize that it was another woman who had been shot, we infer that the blast must have disfigured her.

Just before McPherson falls asleep in Laura’s apartment, he gets a visit from Lydecker, who has found out that the detective has put in a bid for Laura’s portrait, and thus realizes that McPherson has fallen in love with her. Lydecker is amused, not only by the idea of a McPherson’s falling in love with someone who is dead, but also by the incongruous notion that someone as refined as Laura could fall for the likes of McPherson, who is low class and crude. He contemptuously asks McPherson if he has ever dreamed that Laura was his wife, indicating how ill-matched they would have been.

This is the first reference to dreaming, but not the last. After McPherson figures out that Lydecker is the killer, he tells Laura to forget the whole thing like a bad dream. And during Lydecker’s radio broadcast, he quotes the poet Ernest Dowson, who speaks of life as emerging out of a dream and then closing within a dream.

Because McPherson has fallen in love with Laura, his dream is the fulfillment of a wish, the wish that Laura were still alive so that he could possess her. Given this, we don’t even know if Laura actually was shot in the face, or whether that was the dream’s way of making it possible for some other woman to have been mistaken for her. And because McPherson knows that Lydecker would be his chief rival for Laura’s affections, his dream makes him out to be the murderer, who is killed by one of the other detectives.

Because the explicit dream ending was cut from the film, the movie presents itself to us as a story about things that actually happen, and that is the way most people experience this movie, at least the first time. But even if we did not know about the original intention of making part of this movie be a dream, we might still come to the conclusion on subsequent viewings that it was indeed a dream, for the reasons given above. In this way we get to enjoy the movie both ways. More importantly, we can regard the second half of the movie as a dream without feeling cheated.

In interpreting the second half of this movie as a dream, I have assumed that it is McPherson’s dream.  And I have suggested that another ending of this film was originally shot making this explicit.  This was the impression I got from Danny Peary’s Cult Movies: The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, page 202.  However, according to Doug McClelland, in his book, The Unkindest Cuts: The Scissors and the Cinema, page 117, the alternate ending indicated that it was Lydecker’s dream.  Maybe so, but it is hard to believe that Lydecker would dream that he was the one who was killed in the end. Moreover, there would have been no transition scene to his dream, as there is for McPherson, when he falls asleep in the chair.  Whatever ending was originally filmed, regarding the second half of the movie as being McPherson’s dream is the only one that makes sense.


The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz is a delightful movie for children. Adults can enjoy it too, provided they don’t spend any time thinking about it.

The first problem is the no-place-like-home theme. Back home, Dorothy (Judy Garland) is basically ignored and neglected, while she has great friends in Oz, which is a pretty nice place once the Witch has been eliminated. Like many Hollywood movies made in those days, this movie says we should just accept our lot in life, however drab and dreary it may be.

This is made all the more outrageous by the reason Dorothy ran away from home in the first place. It’s not that she thought the grass would be greener elsewhere or something frivolous like that. She wanted to save the life of her dog Toto, whom Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) was determined to have destroyed.  She had a court order to take possession of the dog and bring him to the sheriff. Toto is the only friend she has, and saving his life is not only a good reason for her to leave, but also a good reason for her not to come back. As Dorothy lies there in bed at the end of the movie, I cannot help but think to myself that Miss Gulch will be back the next morning with that same court order and take Toto away.

Some people argue that Miss Gulch died during the tornado, because she corresponds to the Wicked Witch of the East, who died when the farmhouse landed on her. Well, Dorothy may have killed off Miss Gulch as a witch in her wish-fulfilling dream, but there is no reason to think that the real Miss Gulch is dead.  In the dream, the farmhouse had been picked up by the tornado and had landed on the Witch, crushing her.  But nothing like that happened to the farmhouse in the real world. So there may be no place like home for Dorothy, but it is the dog pound for Toto, at least for a few days until he is put to death.

The sister of the Wicked Witch of the East, the Wicked Witch of the West, threatens Dorothy and her friends until Dorothy accidentally throws water on her, causing her to melt. Once the Witch is gone, her minions, the winged monkeys, are quite happy about the situation. It turns out that they were not evil themselves, but only did the Witch’s bidding because they were afraid of her. Now that she is dead, they can be good winged monkeys.

Condensing all the evil into a single person, the Wicked Witch, and then eliminating that person is all right for a fantasy movie, but it is simplistic thinking like that that has serious consequences in the real world. I suspect that George W. Bush and his advisers believed that Saddam Hussein was a “Great Man” like the Wicked Witch, and that all they had to do was get rid of him, and the citizens of Iraq would start singing, “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” as they established a Jeffersonian democracy.

Oddly enough, though the movie seems to subscribe to the Great Man theory in its treatment of the Witch as the sole source of evil in Oz, yet it takes the opposite tack in the scene that follows, in which the message seems to be that no one is better than anyone else. The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) needs a brain; the Tin Man (Jack Haley) needs a heart; and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Larh) needs some courage. They hope to get these things from the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan), which is why they have been accompanying Dorothy to the Emerald City. In the end, however, the Wizard of Oz is just a fraud with no special powers, so he cannot give the Scarecrow a brain, the Tin Man a heart, or the Cowardly Lion some courage. Being a fraud, however, the Wizard believes that the people who supposedly are intelligent, philanthropic, or brave are also frauds themselves. College professors are no smarter than anyone else; they just have a diploma. Philanthropists are no more generous than anyone else; they just have testimonials. Heroes are no braver than anyone else; they just have medals. So he gives the Scarecrow a diploma, the Tin Man a testimonial, and the Lion a medal. And now they are just as smart, generous, or brave as any of those so-called college professors, philanthropists, or heroes.  I suppose this must be reassuring to those who are not all that smart, are not all that charitable, and have never performed a heroic deed in their lives, which would presumably include most of the audience.

Once the Scarecrow gets his diploma, he believes the Wizard and thinks he is just as smart as all those college professors. Suddenly inspired, he enunciates what he takes to be a theorem of geometry: “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh joy, rapture! I’ve got a brain!”  But that is not a theorem of geometry.

It sounds as though he is thinking of the Pythagorean Theorem, which applies to right-angled triangles, not to isosceles triangles. But even if we allow for that correction, substituting “right-angled” where he says “isosceles,” it is still wrong. It is not the square roots of the sides that are related in that way, but the squares, to wit: The square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.  In fact, it does not matter what kind of triangle we are talking about, there is no triangle that satisfies the condition that the sum of the square roots of two sides will equal the square root of the third.  It is an impossible triangle.

As the Pythagorean Theorem is something known by most high school graduates, let alone by college professors, maybe a diploma counts for something after all.  Fortunately, even if you do have a brain, you can still enjoy The Wizard of Oz, provided you don’t use it too much while watching the movie.

Vertigo (1958)

Unless a movie is a fantasy, like The Wizard of Oz (1939), people tend to feel they have been deceived if they find out that most of a movie has just been a dream.  To keep the audience from feeling cheated in this way, some movies will be ambiguous as to whether what we are seeing is reality or a dream, and this is the case with Vertigo.

The movie begins with a close-up of a woman’s face. The camera moves in even closer on her eye, in which we begin to see swirling animation along with the opening credits. Moving into her eye suggests that we have moved into her subjective state, allowing us to see what she is imagining or remembering. And the animation is a further indication that what we are seeing is not real. One might be justified, even at this early stage, in wondering if the movie that follows is a woman’s dream.

After the credits, the movie jumps right into a chase sequence on the rooftops of tall buildings, when police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) slips and finds himself hanging from the gutter above the city street below, which causes him to have vertigo. A uniformed policeman tries to pull him to safety, but slips and falls to his death. When the scene ends, Ferguson is still hanging there, and we do not see him being rescued, nor is there any reference to his being rescued afterward, leading some critics to argue that the rest of the movie is his hallucinatory dream while he remains suspended.  However, my preferred point at which this movie becomes a dream is in neither of these two scenes, but comes somewhat later.

Presumably, then, Ferguson is rescued, but he is forced to retire on account of the acrophobia resulting from the incident on the rooftop.  In a subsequent scene, we meet Midge. In her conversation with Ferguson, whom she calls “Johnny” or “Johnny O,” we find out that they were engaged for three weeks while they were in college, but that she broke off the engagement, even though she says that she never married because he is the only man for her. From the surreptitious glances she gives him as they talk, we suspect there is more to the story than Ferguson is aware of. Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Midge, is a nice looking woman, but she has no sex appeal. We can easily believe that she broke off the engagement when she realized that he had no passion for her. Platonic relationships are often characterized by saying that the man and woman are like brother and sister, but several remarks suggest that she is more like a mother to him. This implies that there is something naïve and inexperienced about Ferguson, as when they talk about braziers, and she says, “You know about those things. You’re a big boy now.”  Ferguson is a middle-aged bachelor. Today, a man who has been a lifelong bachelor would be assumed to have had sexual relationships along the way. But in 1958, when this movie was made, it was not uncommon for bachelors to be virgins, and that is probably the case with Ferguson.  This makes it easy to believe that he might become madly and obsessively in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak) later on in the movie.

This Madeleine with whom he eventually falls in love is the wife of an old friend, Gavin Elster, who asks Ferguson to follow her around. He is worried about her because she goes into dream-like trances, which he believes have something to do with her obsession with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide.  Ferguson reluctantly agrees to follow her.  When Madeleine tries to drown herself in the bay, he rescues her.  Eventually, however, she manages to kill herself by leaping from a bell tower.  Ferguson was unable to stop her because his vertigo prevented him from keeping up with her as she ascended the stairs.  He feels responsible, and he ends up having nightmares, in which he sees himself falling the way Madeleine did. As a result, he winds up in a mental institution, in a catatonic state.

Supposedly, he gets out of the mental institution, discovers a woman named Judy, who looks like Madeleine, and begins trying to make the resemblance even greater by getting her to dye her hair and wear it like Madeleine, to dress like Madeleine, until he eventually discovers she really is Madeleine. Or rather, that the real Madeleine was murdered by her husband, and that Judy helped him do it by pretending to be Madeleine. When Judy got to the top of the bell tower, Elster was already there with his dead wife, whom he threw off the tower.  In the process of discovering that this is what really happened, Ferguson forces Judy to go back to the mission with him and once again ascend the stairs of the bell tower.  This leads to a climactic scene in which Judy accidentally falls to her death, which apparently cures Ferguson of his vertigo.

Though the movie can be understood realistically in this way, there is a good reason to suspect that the second half is just a dream. In any movie you have ever seen in which someone is in a hospital, there is almost always a getting-out-of-the-hospital scene, as in The Glass Key (1942), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Godfather (1972). But there is no such scene in this movie. And considering that Ferguson was in a psychotic state, the need for a getting-out-of-the-hospital scene would be even greater than in the examples just given, where only physical conditions were involved.

Instead, we get a discontinuous transition.  We see Midge in Ferguson’s hospital room, where he is staring off into space, oblivious to her presence.  She leaves the room and stops by the psychiatrist’s office, where she tells him that she does not think Ferguson is ever coming back.  Then she walks away, down the hall, where darkness slowly closes in around her, almost as if this were the end of the movie.  Suddenly, we see Ferguson outside the building where Madeleine once lived, and the fact that he had once been under the care of psychiatrists is never even referred to during the rest of the movie.

Alfred Hitchcock, who directed this movie, could have made it explicit that what follows is a dream by the well-known method of closing in on James Stewart’s eyes, allowing the image of his eyes to be slowly replaced by an overlapping image of Stewart standing outside Madeleine’s apartment.  But, as noted above, the audience would have lost its patience having to watch the entire second half of the movie while knowing it was just a dream.  Instead, Hitchcock allows us to watch the movie under the assumption that the entire movie depicts events that are actually happening, while at the same time giving us hints that at least some of the movie is a dream:  the closeup on the eye of a woman (Madeleine? Judy?) during the opening credits; Ferguson’s hanging from the gutter without being rescued; Madeleine’s dream-like trances; Ferguson’s nightmares; and the absence of any scene showing us that he has recovered from his catatonic trance and is being released from the hospital.

Other than Vertigo, there is one other movie in which there is no getting-out-of-the-hospital scene.  In the movie Four Daughters (1938), John Garfield plays a character who dies in a hospital.  But in the remake, Young at Heart (1954), Frank Sinatra, who played the corresponding character, Barney Sloan, did not like the unhappy ending, and so he insisted that Barney live instead.  The result is a tacked-on happy ending, in which Barney goes from dying in the hospital to suddenly being home and in great health.  Whether intended or not, one cannot help but interpret this final scene as Barney’s wishful dream in the hospital in the last moments of his life.  And considering that Barney had been gloomy and miserable throughout the movie, the fact that the final scene shows him playing the piano, happy and content, even further invites the dream interpretation.

In any event, by regarding the second half of Vertigo as a dream, the movie as a whole becomes more realistic. The murder plot revealed in the second half is far-fetched and would have been extremely difficult to arrange. Elster would have had to get his wife to wear the same clothes that Judy was wearing that night, find some reason to get her up to the bell tower, break her neck, and then wait for Judy to arrive before throwing the real Madeleine out of the tower.  And then he would have to hope that Ferguson would not look at the body and discover that it was a different woman.  There are easier ways for a man to get rid of his wife than that. The idea that Madeleine was mentally unbalanced, had found out about her great-grandmother and become obsessed with her story, leading her to commit suicide, is much easier to believe.

Furthermore, the Judy of the second half of the movie appears to be lower class, whereas the Madeleine of the first half strikes us as middle class.  We would have to believe that Elster was like Professor Higgins to Judy’s Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady (1964), but that once the murder was accomplished and Judy was abandoned by him, she lapsed back into her lower-class mannerisms.

Finally, Midge is not seen in the second half of the movie. She represents rationality and common sense, as well as being the woman Ferguson should have married. Her absence in the second half of the movie is an indication that only irrational forces are at work in his wish-fulfilling dream. By dreaming that the woman he loved really did not die that night, that she was involved in a murder plot to kill the real Madeleine, he absolves himself of any responsibility for her death.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

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.”