Writers and their Ghosts
Feb. 4, 2014: A few weeks ago, or perhaps a month ago, I watched, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I click on the YouTube link to the very first episode which aired in September of 1968. I haven’t heard that opening song since I was a boy – the French horns and woodwinds. It was Mom’s favorite show. There she is walking along the beach. I’m sure it reminded her of East Hampton.
No, not the blasted TV show! Discuss the movie, you dunderhead!
Oh, yes… I meant to refer to the original film starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Confound it! That’s in black and white. No one gives a blessed farthing about some old movie from 1947, especially one in black and white! Mark me words, you are merely wasting your breath!
But still, this is one of the most endearing films ever made about the struggles of a writer, even if it is in black and white. Gene Tierney plays the part of Lucy Muir, a widow with a young child (Natalie Wood) struggling to make it on her own, with no direction home. She rents a seaside cottage. There on the wall is the portrait of Daniel Gregg, the captain, the former owner who haunts Gull Cottage.
Enough plot summary! You bore me like the doldrums. Make your point! You’re veering off course!
You see, Lucy is in Dire Straits – she has precious little money what with being a single mother and no means of income. She is told her gold mine has “petered out.” Concerned relatives think she has “bats in the belfry.”
“You’re obviously insane,” huffs her sister-in-law.
The Ghost, played by Rex Harrison, comes to her rescue telling her, “I’ve solved all your problems — you’re going to write a book… we’ll call it Blood and Swash.”
“Since we are going to be collaborators, you can call me Daniel.”
He changes her name from plain old Lucy to Lucia.
Sitting there, she plaintively captures the worry of writers working alone with their ghosts.
Lucia: I feel frightened and confused and wondering what the future brings.
Daniel: Don’t you trust me?
Lucia: It’s asking a great deal to trust your whole future to a… [long pause] someone who isn’t real…
Daniel: But I am real. I’m here because you believed I’m here… and keep on believing and I’ll always be real to you.
Lucia: Yes, Daniel.
There is this beautiful scene: the captain’s quarters, the brass telescope, the eye is drawn out the window to a moonlit ocean beneath thick clouds. By the light of the lamp, she sits at her table, shawl about her shoulders, the glow of the fireplace behind her. The Ghost walks about the room thinking aloud in dictation.
What follows is perhaps one of the most understated scenes ever put on film by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Typing away… she stops.
Daniel: What’s the matter? You haven’t finished the sentence.
Lucia: It’s that word. I’ve never written such a word.
Daniel: A perfectly good word.
Lucia: I think it’s a horrid word.
Daniel: It means what it says, doesn’t it?
Lucia: All too clearly.
Daniel: What word do you use if you want to convey that meaning?
Lucia: I don’t use any.
Daniel: Well hang it all, Lucia, if you’re going to be prudish, we’ll never get the book written. Put it down, the way I give it to you.
Lucia: [In silence, she reluctantly types four defiant keystrokes, loud as thunder, click, click, click, and then a final clack.]
I marvel at how this scene made it past the censors of 1947. Is this the first use of a four-letter word in popular film? Uttered by a typewriter.
There are humorous exchanges too as Lucia corrects Daniel’s usage of the word “to” like a grammar school teacher.
Daniel: To or From, who cares? This isn’t a blasted literary epic. It is the unvarnished story of a seaman’s life. Change the grammar all you please, but leave the guts in it.
Receiving the mail, she has the all-to-familiar troubles – demand letters – “sending the bailiffs to put us out.” Lucia laments, “I can’t see straight or think straight.”
What a sad, tragic life Gene Tierney led, much like Frances Farmer. She suffered from depression, received electric shock therapy treatments – stood out on the ledge of her mother’s Manhattan apartment.
The Ghost tries to reassure her, the ocean waves breaking in the distance, “We have only one more chapter to go, Lucia.”
“I’m ready, Daniel.”
“The End,” he dictates.
“The End,” she repeats.
D. A. Sheridan is a writer living with his ghost, Tim.