One of the most unusual romantic stories I’ve ever heard, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film sees the widowed Mrs. Lucy Muir (the achingly beautiful Gene Tierney) fleeing her haughty, oppressive in-laws and moving to the seaside with her daughter Anna (a young Natalie Wood) and their maid, Martha (Edna Best). Upon arriving at Whitecliff-by-the-Sea, Lucy seeks the assistance of estate agent Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote) in finding a suitable property. She is immediately taken by Gull Cottage, despite the disapproval of Coombe and the warning that no other resident has managed to stay there for even a night. This probably has something to do with Captain Gregg (Rex Harrison), the former owner who passed away there some time ago, and whose spirit still haunts the house. In spite of all this Lucy moves in, and she and the ghost of Gregg form an unusual bond.
This could quite easily have gone two ways. Firstly, it could have been a horror, as a family moving into a haunted house is the setup for countless creepy films, yet Lucy’s obstinate refusal to be even the least bit scared of a ghost prevents this territory from being breached. Secondly, it could have gone down the Casper/Beetlejuice route and become a saccharine-sweet, child-friendly and frankly silly comedy-romp as Gregg attempts to scare his latest houseguests away. Both of these options are occasionally dallied with – Lucy’s first encounter with Gregg is all candle-lit shadows, and there is some prank-pulling when Lucy’s in-laws come to visit and drag her back home, but for the most part the fact that Gregg is deceased is all but ignored. He acts more as a confidant and adviser to Lucy, becoming something of a catalyst to changing her life.
The casting is spot-on, and no more so than with Harrison. He is the epitome of a salty sea dog, with a rasping, salt-ravaged bark, though his overuse of nautical terms in day-to-day conversation becomes jarring after a while. Tierney is good, and George Sanders is wonderfully sleazy as a suave suitor wooed by Lucy’s beauty. Gregg is a brilliant creation – a man out of his time, especially when it comes to women. His dialogue is peppered with sexism, but it’s delivered in such a way that it’d be difficult to take offence: “You’re a woman, I suppose you can’t help it,” / “Help what?” / “Making a fool of yourself.” Though at times he does come off as more than a little creepy, even for a ghost, when he remarks that Lucy is not a bad looking women (“confoundedly attractive”) even when she’s asleep.
The relationship between Lucy and Gregg is well formed and evolves naturally, as she begins to pick up some of his coarse seahand terms that she previously disapproved of (in this world, “Blast” seems to be the worst word imaginable), and they find a way to make the best of their current situation. Like many films it does seem to imply that the only way a woman can make something of herself is if she receives the help of a man. After her husband dies, Lucy has been left just to live off his funds, and had she not encountered Gregg, all would have been lost had she not married some other man, but this notion could be a product of the times when the film was made (1947).
If I have one major flaw with the film, it’s that we’re never really made privy to the limitations and frustrations of being dead. At no point does anyone ask Gregg what it’s like to die or be dead, and there seems to be little he could do in life that he cannot do in death. He is not bound to his house, and can willingly interact with people and inanimate objects. In most instances it appears to be better to be deceased, as you are able to only appear to the people you wish to, leading to what I can assume would be much hilarity. The characters too seem unsure of Gregg’s abilities, as shown when Lucy feels embarrassed getting undressed in front of his portrait and covers it with a sheet.
Also, many elements of the plot were quite predictable, but overall this is an original and well told story full of lightness and likable characters, even if the ending seems to forget that she was ever married.
Choose film 7/10
After I saw Laura many years ago I wanted to see Tierney in something else, and I had heard of this movie so I rented it. I thought it was only okay, which meant I was disappointed by it. Perhaps if I watched it again I would like it better.
It's by no means groundbreaking, but I have to reward a film my girlfriend will happily watch that was made before 1995.
Nice review. This movie was not as bad as expected. I think there may be two reasons why we do not learn more about Captain Gregg. One is that the focus is on Lucy. We should not get too distracted from that, though it would have been interesting to know more about him. The second is that I think the film wants to keep open the possibility that the captain is just a product of Lucy’s imagination. We only know about him what qualities she gives him. Maybe.
Both good points. I still look back fondly at this film, and I look forward to catching it again sometime.