It’s the week before Halloween, and yet it still doesn’t feel like fall. Let’s spend the week catapulting ourselves into the spooky mood by watching holiday-adjacent old movies. I’m sorry, but we’ve all seen Hocus Pocus too damn many times.
Need a good cry? Who doesn’t, these days? I therefore direct you to 1947's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a studio system women’s picture par excellence. It’s about a beautiful young widow and the crotchety old ghost of a sea captain who fall in love, despite the fact that their love is impossible. I bet you’re tearing up already. I dare you to make it through this movie without crying.
This is another oldie available to rent on YouTube, which—much to my surprise—is maybe the best place to find classic movies online. Like Dragonwyck, which we discussed earlier this week, it stars the stunning Gene Tierney and was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Tierney plays Lucy, a young widow of the early 1900s who faces down the disapproval of her overbearing in-laws to leave London for the seaside with her daughter, Anna. She arrives to find that their cozy cottage is already crowded, however, as the previous owner Captain Daniel Gregg has not left, despite his death. That would be Rex Harrison, as usual playing kind of a dickhead, but with a more convincing heart of gold than he sometimes pulls off.
Captain Gregg wants her to leave so the place can become a home for retired sailors. But Lucy, having already faced down her in-laws and the real estate broker who didn’t want to rent her the house, isn’t phased and tells him off. He of course loves this and immediately they begin falling for each other, which is a terrible idea because he is, of course, a ghost. But it’s also a great opportunity for lots of wink-wink humor with a perfect end-run around the Hays Code. And the movie gets it. There is, for instance, a very funny joke where Lucy says that her daughter “just... happened!” and Martha the maid replies that that’s what her mother used to say, pauses meaningfully, and adds, “I was the eleventh.” The two are clearly sharing a bedroom but it doesn’t matter because hey, he’s dead! What’s he gonna do about it? You’ve probably already come up with six different answers to that question, but none of them are things that anybody in 1947 wants to say out loud. There is a lot of pounding surf, though.
Unfortunately, Captain Gregg decides that he has to let Lucy (or Lucia, as he takes to calling her) go live her life, with corporeal men. (I dare you to try to make it through this movie without at least one joke about ghost dick.) Unfortunately she has one bad experience—with sleazy George Sanders, the awful but hilarious critic from All About Eve—and writes the whole thing off. And so the picture has a sense of humor, but it also layers on the feelings like birthday cake icing, with classic lines like, “I suppose you think I’m just a silly woman, but that’s the way I feel!” and “I just wasn’t meant to have that kind of happiness, really I wasn’t.” You get your bawdy giggles, but you also get your exquisite misery. Which is what’s so great about this sort of classic movie, made before Hollywood turned itself over entirely to the whims of teenage boys: It offers a safe space to wallow for a little while. And who among us couldn’t occasionally use a good wallow?
I’m going to spoil the end of the movie for you, because know what happens won’t make one iota of difference to your enjoyment.
The timeline fast-forwards in the final minutes as Lucy quietly lives out the rest of her life with Martha, and Anna grows up to marry a Royal Navy man. At the very end, Lucy—having lived a long and in many ways full life—settles down into the chair where the Captain first found her. He dies and he comes to get her, and she stands up and she’s radiant young Gene Tierney again, and, obviously, I bawled. Eat dirt, Nicholas Sparks!