DOUBLE BILL #16: Rebecca (1940) and The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

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I like ghost stories. I like how they can be anything, how they can fit into an array of genres without ever losing themselves. I like the possibilities in them and how much you can get out of them. Rebecca (1940) and The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) are certainly perfect examples of this.

In Rebecca (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), a naive young woman (Joan Fontaine) meets and falls in love with Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) while working as a companion to Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates) in Monte Carlo. They marry soon afterwards, and she becomes the second Mrs De Winter, moving into the beautiful, gothic Manderley mansion, where the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs De Winter, who died years before, is still very present…

Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca is, of course, a ghost story without the ghost. Rebecca’s ghost is a psychological, metaphorical one. She lives through the residents of Manderley, who refuse to let her go. And the second Mrs de Winter walks into Rebecca’s world without knowing what awaits her. Without knowing she’s the wannabe. The intruder. The one who should have never dared be Mrs de Winter. Because there’s only one Mrs de Winter and the utterly creepy Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) will never let her forget that. She, in particular, is obsessed and, some say, in love with Rebecca even after all these years and she taunts and tortures our lovely and scared nameless heroine at every chance she gets – the famous scene in Rebecca’s bedroom is probably their greatest moment together. Rebecca’s presence never felt more real, more horrifying, more penetrating than when Mrs Danvers goes through all her possessions in that majestic bedroom, in which the second Mrs de Winter is now trapped…

Contrastingly, in The Ghost and Mrs Muir (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz), Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) decides to move out of her controlling in-laws’ place in London and go to the British seaside with her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood). She rents a rather lovely house in Whitecliff, despite the objections of the rental agent. Turns out, Gull Cottage is haunted by its former owner, sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who makes an appearance almost immediately. Lucy, suprisingly, doesn’t seem to mind it (‘Haunted! How perfectly fascinating!’). They develop a friendship, which then turns into a personal relationship, as well as a professional one: he wants her to write his life story. They start working on a novel together, and when Lucy goes to see a publisher to hand in her manuscript, she meets and falls in love with Miles Fairley (George Sanders), a children’s author. You can see where this is going…

What I love about this film is that it treats its subject seriously. One would probably be tempted to infantilize a story like this, but Mankiewicz doesn’t. All throughout the film, we respect it and we take it seriously. And we root for them to be together. Of course we do. The Ghost and Mrs Muir is a beautiful love story about redemption, lost love and regret without ever being contrived. It’s a magical ghost tale that is as real and genuine as its counterparts.

Rebecca is undoubtedly the darker film of the two and one of the things that makes it so dark is the fact that Rebecca doesn’t appear at all in the film. Not physically anyway. Daniel Gregg, however, makes himself known right away, unashamedly so. A psychological ghost that’s been kept alive by everybody else is a lot more haunting than a real one. In the same way, Manderley is a scary place, where everybody who lives there is still clinging to the memory of a dead woman. A big mansion which nonetheless feels stifling and oppressive. Gull Cottage, on the other hand, hasn’t been lived in for years and it’s a lovely place, and much more pleasant to be in, despite being completely empty – sort of. In fact, Gull Cottage is almost idyllic, not to mention incredibly romantic. Manderley’s dreamlikeness (nightmarish?) gives Rebecca a sort of gothic feel, almost horror-like. Rebecca doesn’t belong in any one genre. It’s a kind of mix between at least four or five genres, and they all blend exceptionally well. The Ghost and Mrs Muir could also be defined like this, although it is more on the romantic drama camp. A ghost love story, certainly. Mostly because Gull Cottage isn’t overpowering, allowing its characters to breathe, unlike Manderley, which overpowers everyone and everything, particularly the second Mrs de Winter. The detail of the lack of a first name is, of course, genius. She is a nameless, helpless, hopeless naive woman who gets overshadowed and downright dominated by everyone else. And it’s not even her fault, which only adds to the horribleness of it all. Lucy Muir, on the other hand, is an independent person, who will not be intimidated by anyone. She’s a self-assured woman, who knows what she wants and how to get it. They say a great story is all about great characters and, as far as ghost tales go, they don’t come much greater than these two.

Both Rebecca and The Ghost and Mrs Muir could very well be near the top of any list of great gothic films (one suspects Rebecca might actually be number one), and rightly so. Their stories are exquisite, the direction is masterful, they look and feel extraordinary (George Barnes won Best Cinematography for Rebecca, while Charles Lang was nominated for The Ghost and Mrs Muir), and, on top of that, they boast two of the greatest scores of all time. Franz Waxman’s haunting score for Rebecca is instantly recognizable, and Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful melody in The Ghost and Mrs Muir is one of the best he’s ever done. And they will both get stuck in your head. Go on, have a listen if you don’t believe me.

9 thoughts on “DOUBLE BILL #16: Rebecca (1940) and The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)

  1. Great focus on gothic films with great scores and ghostly themes. Both focus on the impact of the dead on the living, too.

    (Don’t know why, but I just adore Ghost and Mrs Muir. It’s rather quaint and I don’t tend to love quaint, but I do love it. For Rebecca, though, I find Fontaine too naive and small. I prefer Mrs Danvers. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike

    Beautifully written Carol and very insightful as usual. Both are wonderful films that deserve another viewing, they’re the type of films that you can keep finding new things seeing it a second time. “ the ghost and Mrs. Muir “ is my sister’s favorite movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey, Carol: Thanks for a fascinating blog. I’ve always loved the haunting Rebecca but I’ve never seen The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, but I want to see it now that I’ve read your blog. You can check out my Queen of the Lot blog at: maxmcmanus.com

    Liked by 1 person

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