Captain X

It was DER REST IST SCHWEIGEN that gave me the idea of re-watching THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Kautner steals the image of the painting seen in a dark room which looks like a person — his swipe is a nicely done variation, though: the room is all dark, but the painting has its own illumination, which comes on a second before the rest of the lights.

But Mankiewicz did it first in this, perhaps his most visually beautiful and imaginative film.

JLM is sometimes criticised for prioritising words, and there are places in each film where this maybe becomes a slight issue. THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, an underrated film I think, makes a big thing of Peggy Cummins’ wedding dress — but then never lets you see it properly. And here, Natalie Wood is delighted as her name is carved in a marker at the beach, with the man telling her he’s made the lettering big so the ships can see it. But it’s facing the land! Yes, I’m a pendantic swine, but I always hold that kids are pedantic too.

It’s a very funny film too, but it always brings a tear to my eye. First time it happens is Gene Tierney saying “It’s hard to imagine you as an ordinary anything,” to Rex Harrison’s ghost and the LOOK he gives her — an indefinable mixture of pride, complacency, tenderness and adoration. And Bernard Herrmann’s score is part of it, and all the rest.

Tierney was supposed to be Katharine Hepburn, who would have brought more eccentricity — from the outside, it’s the story of a crazy lady — but Tierney makes it sexier, I think. She’s not the actress Hepburn was, but she really grows into it — her old-age acting is very understated and effective. Harrison is playing a character where he has to put on a voice for the whole film — and he can do it. He’s one of the two greatest light comedians the screen has known (Cary Grant’s the other) and so if you make things hard for him, he just gets better — or that’s the impression he gives here.

Also, BLITHE SPIRIT has given him invaluable experience of spiritism cross-talk.

“What we’ve missed… what we’ve both missed,” is the second teary moment. The climax of a Grand Speech (do we suppose Mank rewrote Philip Dunne’s script a fair bit?)

It’s also an interesting test case of Bernard Herrmann’s scoring — how he can do stuff that is, in theory and by any logic, too heavy and overpowering for the material, and make it absolutely right. So that I don’t know that I believe Elmer Bernstein’s thing about how Herrmann would have overwhelmed MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by treating it as “a Train of Death” rather than as a cosy and nostalgic romance of steam. Herrmann seems to demonstrate consistently that he can make stuff work in better and less expected ways by taking it much, much too seriously. It would be awful if he wasn’t so brilliant.

“With Captain Gregg? With the ghost of Captain Gregg?” That one caught me off-guard. The ghost has been an imaginary friend to Mrs. Muir’s daughter, who still remembers him now she’s grown up. (Wipes away manly tear.)

The film does something really lovely with fantasy — the idea that we may have fantastical characters in our lives, only we’re not allowed to remember them, or entirely believe in them.

And then the ending.

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR stars Laura Hunt; Professor Henry Higgins; Addison DeWitt; Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe; and Daisy Clover.

8 Responses to “Captain X”

  1. JAMES W COBB Says:

    One of my favorite movies and indeed I also tear up at the finale. I also like the scene where Tierney goes to George Saunders house and gets disillusioning news from Anna Lee—I can think of few scenes more subtle and yet devastating. And—based on your comments was Herrmann going to score MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS? I think his score for MRS. MUIR may well be his best.

  2. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is sublime. Herrmann’s score brings the sea — a very important character in the story — front and center rather than hovering in the background. As I trust you know I’m not a Katherine Heartburn fan. She would have chased the Captain away with her annoying tics that her fans call a “performance.” he only movie she’s right for is “The Cobweb” — in the Gish role. I adore Gene Tierney.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    They made an American series of this in the 60s, with Edward Mulhare (Harrison’s successor in “My Fair Lady”) and Hope Lange (a MILF to my preteen eyes) in modern dress. The first season was, for a stock sitcom with a laugh track, almost classy — even though Mrs. Muir had two cute kids, a cute dog, and Reta Shaw as a sarcastic housekeeper. Also, Charles Nelson Reilly played a frantic great-nephew who also saw Captain Gregg and didn’t get on with him (his schtick was trying to sell off Gregg’s now-antique curios). For the second season the show moved to a different network and cranked up the goofy sitcom stuff, abandoning the feints at romance and poignancy attempted in the first season. Reilly now had competition for broad takes.

    In both seasons Captain Gregg had the ability to make himself visible to others, usually to guest actors who accepted he was just a colorful local. The romance was standard sitcom, almost like a workplace comedy where the attractive leads inexplicably never get beyond mild flirting. The plots centered on Gregg interfering with her, the kids, and/or Reilly — lots of props floating around on wires while people aren’t looking (“But the sales agreement was right here on my desk!”).

    The most interesting one I remember involved a beautiful young woman researching an ancestor who had a romance with Gregg (she’s the spitting image of said ancestor). He eagerly contrives for her to find all the evidence of the great love story she’s seeking. It looks like he wants her to replace Mrs. Muir as his resident mortal love interest. When Mrs. Muir decides to move out the younger woman suddenly finds a harsh, disillusioning letter written by Gregg. Fantasy shattered, she leaves. The letter, Mrs. Muir can tell, was just recently written. Of course it doesn’t affect the relationship — this was continuity-free, like nearly all sitcoms of the era. But a fickle fantasy lover is a promising idea.

  4. I’ve seen a film of Reilly’s terrific one-man show, The Life of Reilly, which is how I know about the TV series. Never saw an episode.

    Yes, the Anna Lee scene is a marvel of tact. Major props to Edna Best, former Hitchcock heroine, as Mrs. Muir’s maid and best friend, too.

    Yes, the sea! That’s the part of the script which calls for Herrmann’s grandeur, which he then applies to everything else, elevating it.

  5. There’s a first season episode where Captain Gregg persuades Harry Nilsson (not, alas, playing himself) to set one of his (the Captain’s) poems to music. The whole thing used to be on YouTube. Nilsson looks about 14.

  6. WOW. Everybody’s talking at me… I don’t hear a word they’re saying… only the echoes of my mind…

  7. bensondonald Says:

    Don’t mind me. I was coming down off a holiday sugar high.

  8. Not a problem! I appreciate hearing about this stuff.

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