THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR – Bernard Herrmann
Original Review by Craig Lysy
20th Century Fox studio executive Darryl F. Zanuck was taken in by R. A. Dick’s 1945 romance novel A Ghost and Mrs. Muir, bought the screen rights, and commissioned Philip Dunne to adapt it for the big screen. Fred Kohlmar was assigned to produce the film and Joseph Mankiewitcz was tasked with directing. An exceptional cast was assembled, which included Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir, Rex Harrison as Captain Daniel Gregg, George Sanders as Miles Fairley, Edna Best as Martha Higgins and Venessa Brown as Anna Muir. The film offers a classic romance with powerful themes, which explore the yearning, pain and devastation of unrequited love, the sad sanctuary of solitude, and the romantic promise of spiritual liberation and transcendence through death. Mankiewicz’s biographer Bernard Dick relates that “Essentially Lucy was in love with Death; it was a love that could only be satisfied in myth, or in a dreamlike relationship with a visitor from Death’s kingdom. But mythic roles are difficult to sustain; dreams are evanescent; and art without an artist is impossible. To regain what she had with the captain, she must die.”
The story is set in England circa 1900. Lucy Muir, a young widow has moved to the seaside village of Whitecliff against the wishes of her dominating in-laws. She rents a small home called Gull Cottage, joined by her daughter Anna and maid Martha. Captain Gregg visits her during the first night and he takes a liking to her. He agrees to allow her to remain in his home for the time being. Soon the in-laws arrive with that bad news that her gold mine stipend has been exhausted, and so pressure her to move back to London. Captain Greg devises a plan to save the day; he will dictate his memoirs and Lucy will sell them, earning royalties for income. As he dictates to her the story of his life, they begin to fall in love. He realizes the futility of such love and counsels her to find a new husband. When she takes the manuscript to a publisher she by chance meets Miles Fairley a renowned writer of children’s books. She succeeds with the novel earning royalties that will support her for years. Over time Fairley cultivates her affections and Lucy again falls in love. However when by chance she arrives at his home for a surprise visit, she finds that he is married. She flees to Gull cottage devastated and resolves to spend the rest of her life in solitude. Many years later Anna returns to Gull cottage and she relates how she too had seen the Captain, and that he was her companion. This rekindles Lucy’s affection as she lives out her remaining days alone. The film ends poignantly on a foggy night, as Lucy dozes in her bedroom and passes. Yet Captain Gregg appears again to her at the moment of death, reaches for her hand and lifts her young spirit free of her aged body. They two walk arm in arm down the stairs as lovers, out through the front door, and disappear into a brightly lit mist. The film was a marginal success commercially, and received a single Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography.
It was well known that The Ghost And Mrs. Muir was Herrmann’s favorite score. He was tasked with supporting a complex narrative, which operated on many levels. The story offered a passionate and I would say poetic commentary on the nature of life, death, love and loneliness. He loved England, the heroine, the romanticism and the spiritual purification gained once the spirit if freed of its corporeal existence. Indeed I believe this score to be Herrmann’s most romantic, one in which we are bathed in dreamlike auras of the restless sea and the haunting mystery of Gull Cottage. Remarkable about this score is that Herrmann employed leitmotifs, which he usually eschewed. He would often comment in subsequent years that this was his “Max Steiner” score.
Herrmann provided a multiplicity of themes, which include; the Sea Theme, which rises and falls like the waves of the sea itself, an endless cycle of turbulence and calm. Its rushing sixteen notes for woodwinds beautifully evoke its restlessness. The Gull Cottage Theme provides insight into Herrmann’s compositional gift. He offers a wondrous cantilena line in the upper register, which is accompanied by a stirring arpeggio of harp and woodwinds. Lucy’s Theme serves as her identity. Herrmann captures her emotional core, which is beautifully articulated with strings doloroso. The Captain’s Theme offers three notes, crowned with an ascending seventh. It initially has a mysterious, otherworldly sound, which perfectly captures his spectral nature. Most interesting however is that Lucy humanizes him and captivates his affections. Herrmann reflects this transformation from the Captain to Daniel with a new warm and romantic molto expressivo rendering of his theme. Miles Theme serves as the identity of her duplicitous suitor. The theme is gentile and beautifully carried by shifting phrases by woodwinds and then strings, which belie his true nature. This juxtaposition was well conceived and serves to make Lucy’s discovery, of his secret married life more shattering. The Love Theme provides a stirring confluence of woodwinds strings and harp, which for me offers one of the most romantic themes Herrmann ever wrote. Note worthy is that it is kindred in expression to Lucy’s Theme, for which it flows to and fro seamlessly. Lastly we have the Sea Shanty Theme, a nautical sounding tune, which supports both the Captain as a seaman, as well as his tales.
“Prelude” is a beautiful score highlight, which opens the film and features presentations of Herrmann’s primary themes. The restless long lined Sea Theme ascends from deep orchestral depths to carry the 20th Century Fox logo and initial roll of the opening credits. We transition at 0:22 with the film’s title to Lucy’s Theme, which in turn transitions at 0:37 to the wondrous cantilena of the Gull Cottage Theme as the credits continue to roll against the backdrop of the English coast. Her theme returns as we have a panorama of London at the turn of the century. As we descend to the streets at 1:23, portentous tolling bells and strings mysterioso carry us slowly to the house of Lucy’s in-laws. This opening sequence was perfectly conceived and beautifully sets the tone of our story. At 1:54 we segue into “Local Train”. Lucy who has been widowed a year, has decided to move to Whitecliff-by-the-Sea against the wishes of her in-laws. An oboe animato and a churning string ostinato, which mimics train sounds, carry her progress. We conclude at 2:16 with “The Sea” where we see the Mr. Coombe driving Lucy to the cottage along a seaside road. Herrmann supports their journey and arrival at Gull Cottage with the Sea Theme mysterioso. Interplay with Lucy’s Theme is well conceived as it reflects a shared destiny. We close with ominous bassoons, which allude to the cottage being haunted.
“The Ghost” is a masterful cue abounding in woodwind auras. It reveals Captain Gregg observing Lucy as she naps. Herrmann introduces his theme to support the encounter. Repeating phrases of his theme are transferred among the woodwinds, imbuing a mysterious, otherworldly sound, which perfectly supports his spectral nature. Echoes of the Sea Theme on harp also join, alluding to his past. At 1:40 a plaintive oboe serves as a prelude for “The Storm”, which offers superb tension writing. The Captain uses the storm as a backdrop for employing his powers to frighten Lucy into leaving. Yet she is resolved to stay and calls his bluff, demanding that he appear. Herrmann supports the confrontation by sowing fear, which unsettles us with powerful, dark statements of the Captain’s Theme. The Sea Theme joins and we culminate with a powerful and dramatic crescendo as a storm buffets the cottage. At 3:47 in “The Apparition“ the Captain yields and at last appears. Given the dialogue of the scene, Herrmann choose to provide a pure ambiance cue supported by upper and lower register woodwind auras. Their unresolved phrases unsettle us and offer a perfect backdrop to the scene.
In “The Lights” we see the Captain relent, enamored by Lucy’s beauty and resolve. There is one caveat – she must relocate his portrait to the master bedroom. The Sea Theme sounds as he vanishes and restores the kitchen lights. At 0:30 dark clarinets usher in “Bedtime”, as we see Lucy preparing to retire to bed. Herrmann animates his portrait with the playful English Sea Shanty Theme carried by woodwinds, which elicits her to drape it so she does not see his image as she undresses. We close on a stinger as he counsels her not to be ashamed of her figure! “Poetry” reveals Lucy reminiscing about her late husband with Captain Gregg. We see that he is warming to her, as he impresses her with his knowledge of Keats. Herrmann supports the scene with thematic interplay of an oboe carried variant of the Captain’s Theme, which softens his edges, Lucy’s Theme, which alludes to their nascent romance, and the Sea Shanty Theme, which supports his tales of the sea. The marriage of film narrative and music here is superb!
The next quaternary cue is complex and multi-scenic. In “Lucia” the in-laws arrive bearing bad news – that her gold mine stipend is exhausted and that she is penniless. Tender strings rendering a warmer and more expressive variant of the Captain’s Theme supports her decision to stay. The transformation of his theme informs us of his affections for her. At 1:02 we segue into “Dictation” atop a solo flute carried Sea Shanty Theme as Lucy types his memoirs. At 1:37 we flow into “Boyhood’s End” where Lucy has coaxed Captain Greg to tell he r of his childhood. Daniel is humanized and Herrmann supports his transformation with a simply gorgeous cue, which offers a molto expressivo rendering of the Captain’s Theme, joined with interplay of exquisite flute solos. This is Herrmann at his romantic best! We conclude at 3:00 with “Pastoral” where we see Lucy riding a bicycle back to the cottage from town after receiving threats for eviction if she does not pay her back rent. Herrmann supports her travels with an eloquent rendering of the Sea Shanty Theme by solo violin. In “Nocturne” powerful emotions are in play, and we bear witness to a stirring confluence of music and film imagery. The Captain’s memoirs have been completed, and we see Lucy and Daniel on the balcony discussing their uncertain future. We open with the Sea Theme, which joins with the Gull Cottage Motif in heartfelt interplay as Lucy asks, what will happen to them. Daniel recognizes the futility of any romance and counsels her to reengage life, and to find a man.
In the following tertiary cue Lucy travels to London to sell Daniel’s memoirs. “London” opens with vibrancy, excitement and vital energy as Lucy walks the busy streets. At 0:23 Herrmann introduces Miles Theme as Lucy passes him as she ascends the stairs to his office. He follows her up, clearly captivated by her beauty. At 0:55 we segue into “The Reading” which supports the publisher’s exploration of the manuscript. Given that it is a seaman’s tale, Herrmann supports the reading with his nautical Sea Shanty Theme. After her manuscript is accepted she leaves and reacquaints with Miles who saves her from the rain by calling a taxi. When he admits to her that his nom-de-plume is Uncle Neddy, the famous writer of Children’s books, she begins to warm to him. Herrmann supports his flirtations and amorous designs with his theme. We conclude at 2:05 with “Local Train”, where Herrmann reprises his train travel music first heard in the cue “Local Train” as Lucy returns to Whitecliff.
“The Spring Sea” is a splendid score highlight, a masterpiece cue which offers exquisite Herrmannesque romanticism. Miles is now a frequent visitor to Gull Cottage and this cue supports his on-going courtship. We are graced by a sterling extended rendering of Lucy’s theme, which just sparkles. At 0:49 Herrmann introduces his Love Theme, which joins in a sublime communion with her theme. Lucy is falling in love, and the tête-à-tête, which unfolds offers for me perhaps the finest passage in Herrmann’s canon. We come to now a tertiary cue of exquisite and uncommon beauty where Herrmann achieves a sublime romanticism. In “Romance” Lucy has finally found her heart’s content, falling deeply in love with Miles as they embrace under a starlit sky. At 1:24 we segue into “Love” continuing with the Love Theme, which culminates with an impassioned climax as they kiss. Herrmann sows disquiet in ending the cue, reflecting the disdain of Daniel who has been watching them. We conclude at 1:49 with “Farewell”, one of the film’s most poignant scenes, filled with heartache and pathos. Herrmann supports this scene of parting with a stirring confluence of his themes and one of the finest cues of the score. Daniel is reconciled to losing Lucy and while she is sleeping he imparts a memory that he was but a dream, and that she alone authored the book. Powerful emotions are in play and we bear witness to a plaintive oboe full of regret painfully emoting his theme. Against this is rendered on plaintive strings her theme full of heartache with interplay from phrases of the Sea Theme born now by strings and harp, and lastly the Gull Cottage Theme carried sadly by violas and horns.
In “The Home” Lucy is in London and decides on a whim to make an unexpected visit to Miles’ home. Miles Theme carries her progress as she travels to his house. As she explores his home her theme supports her exploration. Soon she discovers to her horror that Miles has a wife and children. His wife recognizes Lucy’s shock and tells her that she has seen this before; for this is not the first time her husband has done this. At 1:32 we segue into “Sorrow”, atop strings affanato, which shatter us and support Lucy’s devastation as she flees back to Gull Cottage. An impassioned Love Theme full of inconsolable heartache closes the cue as Martha comforts her. “The Passing Years” reveals the passing of time carried by scenes of waves relentlessly crashing on the shores. Anna, now a grown woman, has come to visit Lucy with her beau. Herrmann supports the imagery with a thunderous pounding Sea Theme with interplay of the Gull Cottage Theme. At 1:07 we segue into “The Late Sea”, which reveals a further passage of time with Anna now returning years later with her children. A resplendent rendering of Lucy’s Theme joins with a powerful rendering of the Sea Theme, to support the passage of time. We see Lucy now aged and grey with the cue concluding on her theme.
In “Forever” Lucy’s time has come and she passes. In a poetic ending for the ages, Daniel comes to her takes her spirit by the hand and lifts her from out her body. Her spiritual form is that of a young Lucy, and they walk together, finally united in love. They leave the cottage and walk hand in hand into the mist. Herrmann supports the poignant moment with a refulgent rendering of her theme, which brings a quiver, and a tear. As they leave the cottage, the Sea Theme carries their progress and we culminate grandly with a flourish to end the film.
I wish to thank Varese Sarabande for this splendid re-recording of one of Bernard Herrmann’s greatest scores. Elmer Bernstein’s conducting is superb and the sound quality, excellent. This was Herrmann’s favorite score of his own, a unique effort in that he abandoned his usual scoring sensibilities. He called “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” his Max Steiner score, one in which he embraced long lined leitmotifs and a florid romanticism not before heard from him. Seven themes are offered, which perfectly capture the film’s emotional core, imagery and character arcs. The thematic interplay is of the highest order and for me offers testimony to Herrmann’s peerless talent and mastery of his craft. This is a score for the ages, a Golden age gem and perhaps the finest in Herrmann’s canon. I highly recommend this score as an essential purchase for your collection.
For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a fine suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqG4i3zuX48
Buy the Ghost and Mrs. Muir soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Prelude/Local Train/The Sea (3:59)
- The Ghost/The Storm/The Apparition (4:43)
- The Lights/Bedtime (2:51)
- Poetry (2:19)
- Lucia/Dictation/Boyhood’s End/Pastoral (3:53)
- Nocturne (2:25)
- London/The Reading/Local Train (2:34)
- The Spring Sea (4:51)
- Romance/Love/Farewell (5:14)
- The Home/Sorrow (3:17)
- The Passing Years/The Late Sea (2:53)
- Forever (2:40)
Running Time: 41 minutes 31 seconds
Varese Sarabande VSD-47254 (1947/1985)
Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Original orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Recorded and mixed by Dick Lewzey. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by Richard Kraft and Tom Null.