After coming to the United States as an established film and stage star in his native England, Rex "Sexy Rexy" Harrison signed a contract with Fox, and in 1946, appeared in "Anna and the King of Siam." Following that film's success, Harrison was cast as the ghost of the salty-but-admirable sea captain, in "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," adapted from a novel that became quite popular due in large part to gradual word of mouth. Gene Tierney, then at the height of her popularity as one of the studio's major leading ladies, co-starred as widower Mrs. Muir, along with everybody's favourite film cad, George Sanders, as Harrison's potential rival.
According to Joseph Mankiewicz biographer Kenneth Geist (who appears with film head Jeanine Basinger on the DVD's second commentary track), the director had little fondness for the film, but accepted the project to prove he could handle various film genres - in this case a romantic ghost story - as a means to further his newfound career as director in residence at Fox. Geist's comments are fairly brief, and occasionally grouped into a few extended narratives regarding Mankiewicz' resignation from MGM as one of that studio's most reliable producers, and "Muir" as a stable stepping stone to direct his own screenplays. Geist also posits the film's initial popularity with war widows - since widow Mrs. Muir maintains a romance with a man she can never connect with - although Basinger also demonstrates in her lightly academic contributions that the film depicts a woman who seeks and ultimately achieves self-empowerment in a male-dominated society, but at a cost of sublime isolation and loneliness.
Basinger's comments have a more formal sheen - her words are carefully enunciated, and her tone and pacing very slow at times - but her strengths lie in examining the relationships of each character, and she fills in several gaps left by the DVD's other commentary track by giving some background on the film's set designer, costumes, smaller cast members, the film's unsung editor, and "Muir" as one of several successful 1940s ghost films which emphasized character over visual trickery.
The disc's other commentary track is a lot more relaxed, with visual effects supervisor/film historian Gregg Kimble basically giving us an amiable series of historic and technical observations of his favourite movie, ever. Kimble's a natural raconteur, and his personable delivery gives listeners room to laugh at some delightful anecdotes, particularly when he reads actual notes and letters from the once-powerful Breen Office - the censorial body that examined scripts and highlighted naughty bits before granting approval to a film acceptable for General audiences. Kimble also reads out deleted dialogue, scene descriptions, and the remarkable prudery that characterized the Breen Office's fear of things sexual, physical, or unhygienic. (Remember: it took another 13 years before Alfred Hitchcock could show water draining from a toilet bowl.)
In addition to assessing the film's exceptional sets, Kimble offers a nice overview of the Studio System, using "Muir" as an example of sets, décor, locations and filming techniques that were standard during the days of 'assembly line' production. Also given equally generous time on the track is Christopher Husted, manager of composer Bernard Herrmann's estate. Both commentary tracks make repeated nods to Herrmann's intimate orchestral score as being a major asset to the film's enduring popularity, but Husted gives us nice personality sketches of the quixotic composer, including a gem anecdote concerning How To Make Benny Mad (as told by a former studio musician). Many film themes and Herrmann's style are examined with accessible language, plus a brisk career overview from his days scoring radio plays with small orchestras, to "Muir" as a thematic notepad that helped the composer organize ideas for his epic opera "Wuthering Heights." (Both the film score and Herrmann's three hour opera are available on CD.)
Like other entries in Fox's Studio Classics line, there's a documentary - this time from A&E - on Rex Harrison, which includes interviews with sons Carey and Noel Harrison (the latter lad being the singer who crooned the original "Windmills of Your Mind" from "The Thomas Crown Affair"), author Roy Moseley, and biographer Alexander Walker. In line with A&E's slick production values, the doc spans the actor's childhood, success on the stage and screen, and the many women that peppered his life. There's some interesting archival footage of Harrison playing Henry VIII in the stage version of "Anne of a Thousand Days" in 1949, plus a few clips from a few little-seen, British films. Billy Mumy's narrative tone is extremely polite and measured, avoiding any octaves that offend might fans of Harrison, and though quite suitable for this Biography installment, Mumy's delivery is heavily marred by an insipid musical score that's better confined to a treacly episode of "Oprah."
Finishing off this heavily packed disc are the film's original theatrical trailer - which presents "Muir" as lighthearted romp with witty double-entrendres - and extensive archives: 2 lobby cards, 2 film posters, 18 publicity stills, 90 stills of the film's rich sets, and 44 behind-the-scenes stills, including Tierney grimacing at the camera, and an extremely young Natalie Wood (as Tierney's daughter) holding a director's megaphone.
In 1968, after the film enjoyed a rediscovery by film fans, a television show loosely adapted from the film ran until 1970 (on NBC, and later ABC), starring Hope Lang as Mrs. Muir, Edward Mulhare as the Ghost, with the cottage populated by two children, and a pooch named Scruffy.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan