From book to screen: The haunting beauty of ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’

The sublime beauty of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” can fill your heart and break it at the same time.

It’s in the faces of the equally lovely Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney, perfectly paired as the title characters. It’s in the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Charles Lang who paints the screen with hauntingly beautiful shades of shadow and light. And it’s in voices often so tender that a hushed utterance of a single word like “Lucia” can send goosebumps up your arms.

We’re drawn into this universally beloved film even before the opening credits roll. In an unusual move, the 20th Century Fox logo is not accompanied by the stately Fox fanfare, but by music from Bernard Herrmann that starts with a deep, swirling rumble and opens into an almost painfully sweet crescendo. It will repeat throughout the film, never losing its emotional power.

Everywhere you look or listen, this 1947 supernatural romance from director Joseph L. Mankiewicz wraps itself around you in a comforting cocoon.

That’s why “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” always felt like it existed only in movie form to me – and one that was nearly as perfect as any could be. The film about a sheltered widow moving into a British seaside cottage inhabited by the ghost of its owner holds a magic all its own. Somehow, I kept skipping over the opening credit that read “From the Novel by R.A. Dick.” I’ll blame that on the fact that I was too wrapped up in the splendor of Herrmann’s music and the scenery to read the credits.

I was always too busy listening to Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score and watching the crashing waves to see that “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was based on a novel.

It wasn’t until a few years back that I stumbled on “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” by R.A. Dick while looking for books adapted into classic movies to read on a cross-country trip to the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” is one of the offerings in the very cool Vintage Movie Classics book series launched in 2014 by Random House under its Vintage Books imprint. (“The Night of the Hunter,” “Back Street” and “Cimarron” are among others.)

Because of this embarrassing gap in my film history knowledge, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” seemed a good choice for me to explore for the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. It’s not Great Classic Literature with capital letters in the sense of Bronte, Austen, Dickens or Twain, yet this slim novel deserves credit as the basis for one of the most universally beloved classic films.

Setting the film’s atmospheric mood was the Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography by Charles Lang.

Often with classic movies based on literature we have either read the original novel – “Frankenstein,” “Pride & Prejudice,” “Rebecca,” “A Tale of Two Cities” – or at least have a CliffsNotes familiarity with it. You may not have read “Wuthering Heights,” but you know Heathcliff and Catherine.

But, I knew nothing about the book form of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or its author so there was a lot to be excited about: Tierney and Harrison were perfect on screen, but did they fit the author’s original vision? How did the romance – so chaste in the movie – develop in the book? Would there be deep words of love between them or would it be hidden behind a softly uttered “Me, dear” as in the movie? Were R.A. Dick’s other stories equally mesmerizing?

The answers were surprising.

Author Josephine Leslie wrote “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” under the pen name of R.A. Dick.

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” was published in 1945 under the pseudonym of R.A. Dick by Irish author Josephine Leslie. There’s not much out there about her other than she wrote two, possibly three other books over 20 years or so including “The Devil and Mrs. Devine.” She wrote barely any description of the lead characters other than their size (“Little Lucy Muir” and that the Captain was tall with broad shoulders) and there were no additional proclamations of love.

Think of the book this way: If it was published today, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” would be on a summer reading list or labeled a beach read  – those easy-to-read books that sweep you away for a relaxing few hours. It is a slim novel written with an economy of words that speak volumes. Leslie (as we’ll call the author from here) also has a way with descriptive, poetic dialogue. “The wallpaper had gone past fading into death,” is a wonderful visual of Gull Cottage. Lucy’s words in trying to make sense of unexplained happenings could be a poem: “There aren’t any ghosts really. They always turn out to be the wind in the chimney, or shadows on the wall, or branches tapping on the window.” The best of Leslie’s dialogue is used in the movie.

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As the novel opens, the author helps the reader understand in only a page that Lucy Muir has led an oppressed life, and that the young widow and mother is yearning for a life that is her own – not her late husband’s, nor his family’s.

She has finally found the courage to leave the house she lives in with her husband’s mother and sister for a fresh start by the sea. Arriving in Whitecliff, she fixates on the one property the house agent doesn’t want to show her: Gull Cottage. Very inexpensive, fully furnished and with a gorgeous sea view, Gull Cottage has been uninhabitable for the 10 years it has been on the market. Previous tenants haven’t lasted 24 hours, yet Lucy stubbornly insists on seeing it. The twinkling of the eyes in a portrait, the discarded lunch in the kitchen of someone was “called away in a hurry” and Lucy’s delight in seeing the clean telescope in the otherwise dusty house are the first signs that the house is haunted.

“Haunted! How perfectly fascinating,” she says with a big smile in the film and we know this haunted house story veers from traditional ghostly encounters. It is not interested in terrifying its audience, but rather wants to explore a woman’s fight for her independence as well as as the deepening relationship based on mutual respect of two characters that grows in the most unexpected way.

The ghostly inhabitant is Captain Daniel Gregg whose much talked about suicide was really an accident caused when he kicked over the gas heater as he slept.

Though it’s easy to assume Lucy fell under a ghostly spell, it worked both ways as our ornery sea captain was no match for the newly independent and determined Lucy Muir. Their bond formed almost immediately. Formalities are dropped – they become Lucy and Daniel to each other – and they make peace. She’ll take care of the cottage he built and he’ll stop his ghostly shenanigans (as long as no one messes with his “Lucia,” the swoon-worthy name he gives her). The story is sprinkled with light moments of humor such as when Lucy picks up the captain’s salty language such as “blasted.”

When she gets into financial difficulty and fears she’ll have to leave Gull Cottage, Daniel has her write out his life stories in a book on the “unvarnished life of a sea captain.” It’s a success.

Coming into their comfortable existence is the handsome and charming Miles Fairley Blane who sweeps her off her feet while hiding his own secrets. Though his portrayal in the book is different than the movie, the final effect is the same.

Actors Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison were perfectly matched on screen as Lucy and Daniel.

Adapting a book into film

Screenwiter Philip Dunne was brought in to turn Leslie’s efficient novel into a film. He had previously adapted such works as “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1934), “Magnificent Obsession” (1935), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1936) and “How Green Was My Valley” (1941).

In her forward to the Vintage Books edition of “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” author and filmmaker Adriana Trigiani does a wonderful job in explaining Dunne’s talents. “Mr. Dunne was a master dramatist, keen and spare in his process. He would take apart a novel, pulling threads from it like a lacemaker. Mr. Dunne would hold on to some characters, discard others, restructure timelines, winnow down scenes, remove some altogether, and add new ones to create the most powerful screen narrative from the source material.”

That’s what Dunne did here. Let’s take Miles as an example.

Miles Blane (George Sanders) is a charming man with secrets who becomes a love interest for the naive Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney).

In the novel, Lucy meets Miles after he moves into a nearby cottage and saves her dog (with the “help” of the Daniel). He doesn’t have an occupation but he does a bit of “this and that.” For the film, Dunne turns Miles into a popular author of children’s books (he writes under the pen name of Uncle Neddy) who meets Lucy at the publisher’s office where she is trying to sell “Blood and Swash” by Captain X. Clearly attracted to her, Miles gets Lucy in to meet the publisher. Her gratitude and naivety combine to make her gullible and she falls for Miles, who is played with an unsettling mix of charm and scoundrel by George Sanders.

Another change by Dunne that works in the film’s favor is that Lucy has one child, not two as in the book. It was a good choice to focus on Anna (played by an adorable 8-year-old Natalie Wood), and thereby also focusing on Lucy instead of splitting attention with another child.

The big change, and one I am eternally grateful for, is that while Lucy never sees Daniel in the book – he comes to her only in her thoughts, like a voice in her head – he is a commanding presence in the film as played by Rex Harrison. Can you imagine the film without him? No, you can’t.

Through it all, there is a question of how a relationship caught between two worlds can be played out. We get a hint early watching Daniel’s reaction when Lucy asks “What is to become of us, you and me?” with a mix of yearning and pain in her voice. His subtle facial expressions help us understand he will do what he needs for her, whatever the sacrifice.

In this shattering scene, Daniel (Rex Harrison) softly tells the sleeping Lucia (Gene Tierney) that he was just a dream.

Dunne answers Lucy’s questions by adding one of the most romantically heartbreaking scenes on film as Daniel realizes he needs to allow his Lucia to live her human life. Visiting her as she sleeps with dawn pouring in the windows, he speaks to her with great tenderness of making her life among the living. “It’s been a dream, Lucia. In the morning and the years after, you’ll only remember it as a dream.”

He has kept his composure to this point but then his grief can’t be held back anymore. “What we missed, Lucia. What we’ve both missed,” he says with inescapable pain in his voice.

In another book or film, that could be the end, but not here. Instead, it starts another chapter. There is still more life for both Lucy Muir and Captain Daniel Gregg to live.

Other adaptations beyond the movie

Radio plays: About seven months after the film’s release in 1947, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” became an hour-long radio play for Lux Radio Theatre starring Charles Boyer (yes, with his heavy French accent) and Madeleine Carroll.

A 1951 production from Screen Directors Playhouse also starred Boyer, this time playing opposite Jane Wyatt. The opening statement credits Joseph L. Mankiewicz as the director.

Television: For the 1968 family comedy series, the story was moved to Maine and Lucy’s name was changed to Carolyn Muir. Carolyn was played by Hope Lang who won two Emmy Awards for Lead Actress in a Comedy. Edward Mulhare starred as Captain Daniel Gregg.

For an idea of how light a touch they were going for in the series, it also starred Reta Shaw as the housekeeper and comedian Charles Nelson Reilly as the captain’s great-nephew.

NBC ran the first season before canceling the series which was then picked up by ABC for its second and final season.

More about the Classic Literature on Film Blogathon

The second annual Classic Literature on Film Blogathon is hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics. About 20 classic film writers from around the world are taking part and posting their stories from April 2-4. Please take the time to read these stories on a wonderfully diverse selection of books and movies. Here is the link.

‘Enchanted Cottage’ casts an enduring spell for 100 years, 3 films

Many film fans wrestle with the topic of movie remakes. I fought the idea until I realized that some of my favorite films are remakes. (Another version of “Jane Eyre”? Yes, please.) Sometimes they work – and work very well. Other times, they aren’t successful. It seems to only be fair to give them a chance then – even if it takes you a while.

From the first time I watched the 1945 film “The Enchanted Cottage,” I fell so deeply under its spell that I remember thinking it could never be remade. It’s not for everyone – especially in today’s cynical world. It’s so unabashedly sentimental and fantastical that it’s understandable if it’s too much for some, but on an emotional level, it was perfect for me.

Why that one of all movies? Why not “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca” or another film so extraordinary or beloved that talk of a remake would be universally bashed? Why would I pick this lovely, but little film that isn’t well known except in classic movie circles?

It’s as simple as its sweet title. This enchanting story works through the lens of a fairy tale that is very much of a time gone by. It’s about a disfigured war veteran and “homely” young woman who heal together through the magic of a cottage. The black and white film is colored by shadows and candlelight, lending it a dreamy look that casts the viewer under a spell. It is the embodiment of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” not a phrase the modern world fully embraces judging by our preoccupation with youth serums, injections and anti-aging treatments.

About three years ago, a film called “The Enchanted Cottage” popped up on Amazon Prime. Hoping it was just a film with the same name, I watched the trailer and realized it was definitely a remake. I didn’t have the heart to watch.

Then I learned my beloved 1945 movie was a remake of a 1924 film that was based off a play. It was time, then, to watch two other versions of “The Enchanted Cottage” that were made more than 90 years apart.

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Katharine Cornell pictured in a scene from the 1923 stage production of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

The story of ‘The Enchanted Cottage’

“The Enchanted Cottage: A Fable in Three Acts” was written in 1921 by British playwright Arthur Wing Pinero. It was a timely post-World War I play that sublimely looked at the horrors of war through Oliver, an injured veteran, and Laura, a painfully shy and unattractive young woman who meet at the cottage of the title. Their lives intersect with Mrs. Minnett, the cottage owner/caretaker, and a blind veteran who are both eager to help them.

Their intense inner pain leads Oliver and Laura to find some solace in each other and enter into a marriage of convenience that only brings more suffering. As they fall under the cottage’s spell, their emotional healing manifests in physical changes, too. In the play, that magic is credited to the love of past honeymooners that permeates the cottage and Mrs. Minnett, who may be a descendant of a “beneficent witch.”

The movies drop the witchcraft reference for the more romantic idea of a love enchantment from past inhabitants. Otherwise, they carry the play’s basic outline and important plot points.

In 1922, the play opened in London; a year later it was on Broadway starring Herbert Bunston and Katharine Cornell; and the following year it was adapted for film for the first time.

May McAvoy and Richard Barthelmess learn beauty is in the eye of the beholder in the silent version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

A silent film speaks volumes

The 1924 silent film starred Richard Barthelmess as Oliver and May McAvoy as Laura. As the film opens, a wounded Oliver is home from the war. He walks hunched over with the help of a cane and has little use of one hand. Already bitter and filled with self-loathing, he learns the woman he was expected to marry is in love with someone else. Wanting to hide away, Oliver leaves his wealthy home and wanders for months before holing up at a cottage. After his overbearing sister arrives with promises of moving in to care for him, Oliver takes advantage of an offer of friendship from Laura and proposes a marriage of convenience and companionship.

The spirits of honeymooners who once stayed at the cottage look over Laura (May McAvoy) and Oliver (Richard Barthelmess) in the silent version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

From there, this film truly becomes enchanted with visions of joyous past honeymooners in the house. Their ethereal images are a stark contrast to the darkness surrounding Oliver and Laura who are trapped within themselves in profound sadness. “I’m so ugly, I mock the memories that linger here,” a despondent Laura says in an intertitle. Laura’s pain is so powerful it melts Oliver’s heart and he finally sees her unselfishness, love and beauty.

The film is in the public domain so it’s easy to find online. It does show its age as so many silents do, yet I was still deeply touched by the emotions clearly conveyed by Barthelmess and McAvoy.

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A handsome Oliver (Robert Young) talks with the painfully shy Laura (Dorothy McGuire) before he goes off to war in the 1945 film.

A magical 1945 remake

The 1945 film presents more of the back story of the characters. Dorothy McGuire is Laura, hired by the kind widow Mrs. Minnett (Mildred Natwick who lends the role great gravitas) to help her in the cottage. A clock shows how time stopped in 1916 when Mrs. Minnett’s husband was killed in World War I.

[Also read: My appreciation of character actress Mildred Natwick]

Robert Young plays the handsome Oliver who plans to rent the cottage for his honeymoon, but instead goes to war and returns to the cottage disfigured, bitter and suicidal.

The cottage and a new friend, John (Herbert Marshall), a pianist who lost his sight in the war, work their magic. Laura comes out of her shell and Robert’s bitterness ebbs away. Their serenity is shattered by an impending visit from Oliver’s family that causes him to abruptly and awkwardly propose.

Oliver (Robert Young), now scarred from the war, and Laura (Dorothy McGuire) are
both overwhelmed by pain and loneliness.

It’s a horrible proposal filled with pain, loneliness and a powerful raw honesty that they can’t shake even after they marry. But love helps scars fade as beauty emerges and a deep happiness grows.

While the three films all deal with despair, this version is particularly powerful. A scene of Laura left alone, rebuffed by soldiers at a canteen dance once they see her face, is achingly sad. Oliver’s difficulty in facing his wounds is partly because of how his family reacts to him, and his anger at having his life changed by the war is palpable and heartbreaking.

Other films from director John Cromwell (father of actor James Cromwell) include such highly regarded romances as “Made for Each Other,” “Night Song” and “In Name Only.” “The Enchanted Cottage” was a favorite of Cromwell and actor Young, who named his home The Enchanted Cottage. The beautiful piano concerto by Roy Webb, which forms the tone poem used to frame the story, was Oscar-nominated.

A modern look in 2016

Laura (Sarah Navratil) is a nurse who helps care for Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) in the 2016 version of “The Enchanted Cottage.”

This version of “The Enchanted Cottage” is poignant with its use of 9/11 and the ensuing war as the reason Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) puts his engagement on hold and goes to Iraq against his father’s wishes. When Oliver returns injured and with horrible facial scaring, he cuts off contact with his family and hides away at the cottage.

In this case, Laura is a neighbor and nurse who cares for Oliver’s wounds and his heart. She’s played by Sarah Navratil as an awkward and nervously chatty woman who hides behind stringy long hair, a hat and glasses. The late Richard Hatch is a welcomed sight as Oliver’s father.

Laura (Sarah Navratil) and Oliver (Paul D. Masterson) try to explain their physical transformation to the blind Major Hillgrove (John McCool Bowers).

Perhaps it’s the fact that the film is so new and is in color that makes it feel less magical than the previous versions. (Black and white film has a magic all its own.) Oliver and Laura talk to each other much more and you can sense that at least their internal changes are evolving naturally. Physically, Oliver’s wounds are fresh in this film (they appear healed in the other two) and we watch him grow stronger through medical help and physical therapy.

It’s been hard to find background information on this version. It is associated with the Arts Institute of California, which was part of a series of arts institutes across the country, but has since closed down; and the Theatrical Arts International Foundation, a supporter of the arts through the California Theatre of the Performing Arts in San Bernardino. Those groups and much of the cast and drew also worked on other movies like “The Invisible Man” (2017) and the “Picture of Dorian Gray” (2018), giving insight that this was an indie project and produced on a lower budget. Joseph Henson is credited as the lead director among seven directors.

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So now we have three film versions from an unlikely source – a 19th century English playwright without enduring name recognition at least in the film world. What has endured, however, is his story of “The Enchanted Cottage” which remains relevant a century later because it is grounded in the understanding of deep pain, loneliness and the sacrifices of war that all generations can sadly understand. It also holds the timeless message of the healing power of love – and that is its true enchantment.

Main photo: From “The Enchanted Cottage” 2016.

Celebrating Ray Harryhausen and lifelong journeys to ‘Mysterious Island’

It was that giant crab that started it.

The fact that it was followed by a prehistoric chicken-bird, a human-sized bee with a honeycomb so large it could trap two people in one of its cells, and a deadly giant cephalopod all in the same film was almost too good to be true.

Of course, none of what happened in the 1961 film “Mysterious Island” was true, but it was riveting to watch nonetheless. Those fantastic beasts didn’t even come from the Jules Verne novel that was the source material for the film.

Michael Callan and Beth Rogan are trapped in a honeycomb by a giant bee in “Mysterious Island.”

Instead, they were from the fertile imagination of Ray Harryhausen who magically brought them to life as a way to improve on the novel’s basic idea of “how to survive on an island” by “incorporating strange creatures” in the movie, as he explained in an interview on the movie’s DVD.

I can’t imagine the film without them.

In celebration of the centennial of his birth (June 29, 1920), it’s fitting to honor Ray Harryhausen, a filmmaker and artist who has inspired me, entertained me and given me giant reasons to return to “Mysterious Island.”

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Although I didn’t know it at the time, “Mysterious Island” was my introduction to Harryhausen. Later, when I understood that Harryhausen was the connection between those creatures and others in films like “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and “Mighty Joe Young” (1949), I sought out more of his films. (Didn’t we all?)

The giant octopus from “It Came From Beneath the Sea” was awesome.

“It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955) and the very cool giant octopus; “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958) and its Cyclops; “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) with such wonders as the Hydra and the living skeletons; “20 Million Miles to Earth” (1957) and the Ymir; “Clash of the Titans” (1981) with the triple hit of Pegasus, Medusa and the Kraken; and the dinosaur films like “One Million Years B.C.” (1966) and “Valley of Gwangi” (1969).

Honestly, I love them all. But if there is only one Harryhausen film I can choose, it is and always will be “Mysterious Island” for a personal reason – it’s our family film.

Dad introduced me to “Mysterious Island” as a kid. We watched it over and over and enjoyed it with the same enthusiasm on each viewing. We always did that thing where one of us would look at the other before every key “entrance” (i.e., creature) in the film.

The castaways are attacked by a beast that looks like a giant chicken in “Mysterious Island.” Ray Harryhausen modeled it after the prehistoric flightless bird Phorusrhacos.

Later, when my twin nephews were about the same age as I was when I was introduced to the film (about 8 or so), we all watched it together. Repeatedly. (Clearly, “Mysterious Island” is a film that works best on repeat.)

Multiple generations of our family were swept away to the mysterious island of Harryhausen’s imagination. Dad loved it and so did I. I might have been young, but was still thrilled at turning kids on to a film that I loved, just as dad did for me. Time passed. Great nephews Tyler and Matthew came along. Guess what we watched together? Continue reading “Celebrating Ray Harryhausen and lifelong journeys to ‘Mysterious Island’”