Since the beginning of time, humanity has been equally fascinated and frightened by the question of what happens after we die. While there are countless theories and religious dictates on the subject, by far the most cinematic answer is that those of us with ‘unfinished business’ will become ghosts until we are worthy of moving on to the ‘other side’. Numerous films detail the horrors that occur when the worlds of the living and dead converge, but many other, more complex, films chronicle supernatural encounters of a very different nature. The 1940’s hits The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Portrait of Jennie offer viewers artistic and romantic takes on the traditional ghost story that have continued to influence the perception of spiritual contact for decades. While both films are immensely enjoyable, the question remains which ghost truly is the better house haunter, mystical muse, and phantom friend?
|Is there any sight sweeter than a boy and his ghost?|
1. BEGINNINGS OF BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIPS: Both films begin with their protagonists facing difficult transitions in their lives. In Jennie Eben Adams (Joseph Cotton) is an impoverished painter who is contemplating giving up his dream of becoming an artist, while in Ghost newly widowed Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) is attempting to achieve some independence in male dominated Victorian society. Eben takes his work to a local art gallery where the curator, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore), informs him that while his work is technically accomplished ,it lacks the emotional impact necessary for him to become a true artistic success. Just as he is about to give up painting for good, he meets the ethereal Jennie (Jennifer Jones), a little girl who appears far more mature than her years and distinctly out of touch with modern life. Over the course of several sporadic encounters with the mysterious Jennie, Eben learns that her life eerily parallels that of a young woman who had died years earlier. Although he begins to suspect that there is something far more unusual about the girl than her personality quirks, he continues to look forward to and depend upon the companionship that their meetings provide him. Unlike Eben and Jennie, Lucy and her ghost, Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) begin their acquaintance with full knowledge of their unusual situation. The pair also differs from Eben and Jennie in that their relationship begins as an instant antagonism rather than friendship when Lucy purchases the curmudgeonly spirit’s house without his consent. Equally stubborn, the two are forced into a reluctant truce when it becomes apparent that neither is willing to give up the house or able to drive the other from its premises. While Eben and Jennie’s initial meetings are more unique than the battle of the sexes between Lucy and Daniel, the initial age difference between them places audiences into the awkward position of rooting for a romance to occur between a grown man and an adolescent girl. As a result, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir takes the title for the more relatable and appealing relationship.
2. MUSINGS OF THE HEART: In both films the protagonists are provided with an intriguing combination of artistic inspiration and romantic tension courtesy of their ghostly companions. After their initial sparring, Lucy and Daniel eventually reach a begrudging mutual respect for one another. Their tentative peace is threatened, however, when Lucy’s vicious in-law’s arrive and demand that she give up her new home to return to the restrictive life she left behind in London. It is then that Daniel begins to show signs of his true feelings for Lucy by scaring away her in-laws and pretending that he simply doesn’t want to cope with the bother of adjusting to another, less respectful, tenant. Although grateful for his help, Lucy explains that she still might be forced to leave the house after all, as the investments that made up her husband’s estate have fallen through, leaving her unable to pay her rent. Rather than rejoicing at the possibility that he could be rid of this latest intruder, Daniel instead proves himself to be a true friend to Lucy by providing her with an artistic outlet that is an equally excellent source of income. He recounts his memories of his racy and adventurous life to Lucy and together the pair collaborate to turn the salty tales into a novel. The novel goes on to not only be published but also a bestseller that provides Lucy with more than enough income to both buy the house and continue to raise her daughter (Natalie Wood) alone. Through their collaboration, Lucy and Daniel begin to see one another as equals and start forgetting that they are on opposite sides of the spiritual divide. As a result, when Lucy is courted by a womanizing children’s writer (George Sanders) she meets at her publisher’s office, Daniel instantly becomes jealous and does all that is in his power to thwart the romance. Upon seeing the distress that his actions cause Lucy, however, he realizes that he cannot go on expecting a living woman to tie herself to a truly dead-end relationship with a deceased man.
|Gene Tierney ain't afraid of no ghost!|
Eben faces a similarly difficult yet fulfilling relationship with his source of inspiration, Jennie. With each passing meeting, Jennie continues to appear several years older than she was during the visit that came before and insists that she is ‘growing up in a hurry” for Eben’s sake. As Jennie continues to appear to him with greater maturity, he begins to view her as a person rather than an abstract source of inspiration. As a result, Eben slowly realizes that he does not feel the same friendship for Jennie that he had when she appeared as a child and that he now regards her as a love interest and possible soul mate. His feelings for Jennie bring a newfound passion and purpose into his life which manifest as greater depth and emotional impact in his work. As their romance progresses, the quality of Eben’s work continues to improve until there is no longer any question that he is in fact a talented and driven artist. Before he can complete his greatest work, Jennie’s portrait, Eben is faced with the disturbing fact that Jennie’s appearances are drawing dangerously close to the age at which the living Jennie Appleton reportedly drowned in a hurricane. He is then forced to face the possibility of not only losing the woman he loves, but also his ability to produce the work that she has inspired.
The entire premise of Portrait of Jennie is Jennie’s ability to inspire Eben and motivate him to become the artist he was meant to be. While the success of Lucy’s book proves to be a crucial plot point, her literary pursuits appear to be little more than a footnote in her story when she reflects upon her life at the end of the film. Similarly, Jennie emphasizes Jennie’s artistic value in Eben’s life while leaving it up to viewers to decide whether their romance was real or merely a mirage created out of his own artistic block. In Mrs. Muir, Lucy and her now grown daughter, Anna (Vanessa Brown), reminiscence about their supposed imaginings of the ghostly captain and the comfort that his presence brought to their lives. This conversation reveals the lasting effect that Daniel’s interactions with both women had upon their lives, while also proving that Lucy continued to think about and be influenced by her phantom friend long after his departure. Jennie’s influence proves to be the catalyst to Eben’s illustrious career, while Daniel’s relationship with Lucy is revealed to be a real and lasting love that reaches beyond death. Neither film can compete with the artistic or romantic influence of the other’s ghost, making this one a draw.
|An uncanny likeness|
3. FINAL FAREWELLS? In an effort to ensure that Lucy truly lives her life to its fullest, Daniel deceives her into believing that their friendship was all part of an elaborate fantasy that she created and disappears from her life. Similarly, following Jennie’s disappearance at the site of her drowning Eben is forced to question whether Jennie really existed beyond the confines of his imagination. At the end of Mrs. Muir, however, it is revealed that Daniel’s visits were real when Lucy dies of old age only to wake up and find Daniel’s spirit waiting to usher her soul to the other side. This ending allows the film to answer any questions that viewers might have and provides a comforting conclusion that encourages audiences to retain their faith in romance and life after death. Rather than settle for a conventional Hollywood ending, Jennie instead leaves the question of whether or not Jennie really existed for viewers to decide for themselves. While this open ending may prove frustrating for some audiences, it also credits viewers with the intelligence to interpret the story for themselves, providing the film with a more mature tone. For its unconventional ending that defies Hollywood expectations, Portrait of Jennie wins the final round for most intriguing ending, leaving the overall score at an even tie. Please give your opinions of each film and which you prefer in the comments!
|A pair that even death can't part|