Most notably in film noir, but also detectable in drama and fantasy, Hollywood films immediately after World War II often circled around moods of despair and loss. The war had been won, the nation’s economy turned around, but the cost had been high. Some films dealt directly with the sacrifices of young men in Europe and the Pacific, while others took an allegorical approach to the problem of loving someone who’s no longer there. Two supernatural romances adapted from novels published earlier in the decade, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Portrait of Jennie, are in the latter vein, both of them set in periods before the war even began. At the same time that medical science was beginning to learn about what we now call PTSD, these movies use the idea of a ghost as a symbol for reliving past traumas and working through them. Through the dark tunnel, they find their way to peace.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is the story of a young widow seeking independence and a new home on the southern coast of England. Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) successfully escapes her in-laws and selects the lovely Gull Cottage, over the hemming and hawing of a realtor. Possessed of a strong personality, Lucy has a most unusual response to the news that the cottage is haunted. After the initial shivers, she quickly grows fascinated with the idea. In the charming world of this movie, a ghost is just a person — a particularly tragic, angry type of person, to be sure, but a person nonetheless — and can be politely approached and questioned. Indeed, the spirit of sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison) doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He is merely frustrated at his thwarted dreams and the fact that his death is falsely remembered as a suicide. The relationship develops like any normal relationship involving someone with a gruff exterior, only this man tends to vanish into thin air whenever Lucy turns her back.
While The Ghost and Mrs. Muir develops its tenderness in a naturalistic fashion, Portrait of Jennie goes for the bold romantic flourishes from the very beginning, opening with not one but two epigraphs (by Euripides and Keats). The film tells of a struggling painter named Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten). Advised by an art dealer (Ethel Barrymore) that his problem isn’t a lack of talent but of inspiration, Eben finds that inspiration in the form of a mysterious girl playing in Central Park. Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones) looks and sounds like someone from an earlier, lost era. She also has a tendency to appear and disappear from Eben’s life, each time seeming to have aged a few years until finally reaching roughly the same age as Eben. (Roughly, that is, by the calculus of the typical leading man-leading woman pairing.) Through the stray details about her life he is able to learn in these meetings, Eben finally discovers that Jennie had died during a storm at sea many years before.
What links these stories is their use of art as a way of memorializing the departed. Daniel Gregg seeks to posthumously complete his memoirs, and he uses Lucy as a conduit to put them out into the world. (The pun should be apparent.) Likewise, Eben is the only person who ever sees “Jennie” in the film, and his efforts to paint her portrait are another way of keeping her memory alive. Though directed by William Dieterle, Portrait of Jennie can also be regarded from the perspective of its producer, David O. Selznick, who was in a relationship with the sixteen-years-younger Jones at the time, and would divorce his first wife to marry her the following year. The film takes what might be considered a producer’s perspective on art, namely that the great works will always manage to be both personal and successful. Lucy’s manuscript, by contrast, exerts fascination because it (rightly) seems so outside her personal experience, exceeding the bounds of the dainty language expected of women. Both films joke about the ubiquity of wannabe artists, with both Lucy and Eben requiring supernatural aid to get noticed.
These movies boast a particularly subtle use of visual effects to convey the uncanny. Joseph L. Mankiewicz and his cinematographer Charles Lang use a key light on a portrait in a dark room to create a memorable ghostly frisson. Later, some remotely operated gaslight switches and a dissolving Harrison (when Daniel makes his grand melodramatic sacrifice) are basically the extent of the tricks employed. For the most part, the ghost is just a man appearing out of the dark, sometimes showing up in the background of shallow focus shots. Dieterle and his cinematographer Joseph August use filters and backlighting during the Jennie sequences to make them both otherworldly and almost like moving paintings. Much of the credit for Jennie’s transformation from schoolgirl to woman belongs to Jones’s striking performance, but the costuming by Lucinda Ballard and the use of forced perspective to vary the height difference between the actors (in real life, Cotten stood five inches taller than her) also go a long way. Complementing these flourishes is the stinging romanticism of the music scores by Bernard Herrmann (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) and Dimitri Tiomkin with assists by Claude Debussy (Portrait of Jennie).
These lighthouse love stories contain a refreshing earnestness. Lucy and Eben reach points of personal crisis, her being betrayed by a living suitor (George Sanders) and him returning to the site of Jennie’s death during another storm. Both films link their ghosts to the world of dreams during their climaxes. In a powerfully intimate scene, Daniel coaxes a sleeping Lucy to forget about him. Portrait of Jennie saves its boldest stylistic flourish for last, as the storm sequence is shot under a green filter, after which Eben awakens in a strange bed in sepia tone a la The Wizard of Oz. He has seen Jennie for the last time but still believes that what he saw was real. Their loves perpetually just out of reach, these characters exude a palpable ache, but they arrive at a place of wistful contentment. It would seem that, when you love a ghost, you have nothing but time.